Throughout North and South America, Europe, Oceania, Africa, and Asia there are groups of people—both communities and families—who refer to themselves as Gypsy, Roma, or similar terms (e.g., Sinti in Germany and Travellers in Ireland). Such groups are also known by many different names by non-Gypsies. Across Europe, for example, the terms Gitanos, Zigeuner, and Cigani might be heard on the street or in bars and cafes. Such communities, whether nomadic or sedentary, are held together or connected by a culture, tradition, and language (as well as common experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination) that sets them apart from their non-Roma neighbors. Gypsies are a scattered, diasporic people who number some 12 to 15 million persons worldwide, the great majority
living within the borders of Europe. Accurate demographic data is impossible to gather, largely due to the limitations of census indicators as well as an understandable reluctance on the part of many Gypsies to identify themselves to state officials (for fear of victimization and discrimination).
In addition to heated debates over numbers, there is also much discussion regarding the terms Gypsy and Roma themselves, along with long-running arguments regarding the early history and migratory movements of these peoples. Some communities reject the term Gypsy, finding it both insulting and racist (especially in central and eastern Europe). Other communities, however, attach a historical and political significance to the term and have attempted to, in a sense, reclaim it. The English Romanichal Gypsies in the United Kingdom are in this category. Central to such debates, as the Roma academic Ian Hancock has consistently argued, is a fundamental concern with (ethnic) identity, and with the struggle for Gypsies and Roma themselves to take control of their identity and challenge the largely negative stereotypes that have served to fuel anti-Gypsyism over the years.
The term Gypsy itself (sometimes spelled Gipsy) derives from the word Egyptian. Gypsies were thought to have traveled from Egypt in order to reach Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. However, this assumption of an Egyptian origin is inaccurate, and much scholarly work has been conducted on demystifying the early history of Gypsies, with the majority opinion in the early twenty-first century being that such people started to arrive in Europe from about the thirteenth century onward, largely as a result of the Muslim Ottoman Turks taking over the Christian Byzantine Empire. Although an earlier presence in Europe is likely, it is difficult to be certain about this without written records. Confusion also often resulted from Gypsies and Roma being taken as local peripatetic groups. Further academic enquiries (in the eighteenth century, for example) started to suggest a strong connection between the Roma people and India, with close similarities between Romanes (the Romani language) and Indian languages such as Sanskrit and Hindi (among others) being noted and written about. The linguistic evidence appeared to confirm an Indian origin hypothesis. More recently, genetic work analyzing slow-evolving polymorphisms has been conducted at places such as the Centre for Human Genetics at Edith Cowan University, Australia, and this work appears to confirm a direct lineage link between the Roma and certain areas of India.
At the cultural level, especially on the part of scholars and Roma activists, a focus has been placed on deconstructing the fictional Gypsy of literature, film, and music. Due to these efforts, the term Gypsy has slowly been replaced in many countries with the Roma. The emphasis here has been on trying to humanize a population that throughout history has been subjected to some of the worst examples of state-sanctioned harassment, discrimination, and genocide. It has been estimated, for example, that during World War II up to one and a half million Roma were systematically killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Such treatment is not confined to the vaults of history, however. Even in the early twenty-first century, across central and eastern Europe, as well as other countries, neo-Nazi and fascist activity regularly targets the Roma as a “subhuman” population to be attacked and subjected to racialized forms of violence. In the Siberian town of Iskitim, for example, hundreds of Roma were forced from their homes in 2005, and an arson attack that same year left an eight year-old girl dead.
However, such activities are not just the actions of nationalists and extremists. For example, it has become evident from subsequent enquiries that a general anti-Roma attitude among local people, as well as state officials and the police, led to the pogrom that unfolded in the village of Hadareni, Romania, on the night of September 20, 1993. Three Roma people were killed and eighteen houses were destroyed in this attack.
Organizations such as the European Roma Rights Centre (based in Hungary) and Human Rights Watch (based in the United States) monitor anti-Roma episodes across the world and support Roma communities in their efforts to combat the effects of poverty, discrimination, and racism. Much faith has been placed in the “Decade of Roma Inclusion” (2005–2015) project, an initiative largely driven and financed by the World Bank and the Open Society Institute. The aim of this project is to address the deep structural roots of Roma inequality and exclusion across a number of policy areas including major areas of social policy such as education, employment, health, and housing.
For Gypsy and Roma activists it is not enough to leave it to various international bodies and nongovernmental organizations to talk for them. Gypsy and Roma agency and self-organization has been essential to their cultural, economic, and political survival as diasporic groups over the years. They have always relied on their adaptability and flexibility in all aspects of life. A transnational politics of “unity in diversity” has emerged, as evidenced by the various World Romani Congresses that have been held since 1971, that allow different Roma groups to witness and understand their common experiences and not simply focus on cultural and linguistic differences.
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Hancock, Ian. 2002. We Are the Romani People (Ame sam e Rromane dzene). Hatfield, U.K.: University of Hertfordshire Press.
Kenrick, Donald, and Grattan Puxon. 1972. The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies. London: Heinemann.
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