From the first page to the
last, Winspear sympathetically
portrays Maisie Dobb's
acceptance of and respect for
Roma people, and celebrates
their spirit. Sometimes referred
to pejoratively as "gypsies" in
English speaking countries (a
corruption of "Egyptian"), this
ancient, family-centered culture
is believed to have emerged from
warrior classes in what is now
Pakistan over a millennium ago.
Migrating north and west into
Europe by the 16th century,
today's Roma are divided by
their Indo-Iranian dialect into
three general populations: the
Dom of the Middle East and
Eastern Europe, the Lom of
Central Europe, and the Rom of
Roma, which simply means "people" in the Romani language, now constitute the European Community's largest ethnic minority, at an estimated 8 to 12 million people (the same population as Sweden or Belgium). Nevertheless, they remain the least integrated and most persecuted ethnic group in Europe. As in Winspear's novel of 1931, Roma still experience frequent hostility throughout Europe. The BBC News calls them "one of the world's most marginalized racial groups," and the Chairman of Britain's Commission for Racial Equality describes the discrimination against Gypsies as the "last 'respectable' form of racism in Britain."
History reveals centuries of exclusion, discrimination, and intolerance against the Roma across Europe actions which were often large-scale and state-sponsored in origin (for example, an estimated 0.5 - 1.5 million were killed by the Nazis). The roots of prejudice and oppression are tied to stereotypes about hygiene, begging, vagabondage, and other illegal activity. But there are also practical challenges that, centuries ago, made it difficult for a settled agrarian society to accommodate traveling communities; challenges that are even greater in a highly industrialized and overcrowded country such as Britain today.
Today, the population of Britain is over 60 million, compared with about 35 million in Maisie Dobb's day and 10 million in 1800. Many local authorities provide land for traveling communities, but stiff changes in land use laws and vast reductions in traditional common areas, compared with centuries past, leads to illegal squatting, which in turn increases evictions and fuels continued resentment towards traveling communities of any type - many of whom are not part of a recognized ethnic group such as the Roma but simply loosely knit groups of people who prefer not to settle.
Having said that, although the perception/prejudice of the Roma has been of traveling communities, Roma historians today argue that in fact the Roma were never typical nomads and that it was banishment, flight or trade that kept them moving on (much in the same way as the Jewish communities in Europe moved over the centuries). Today, it is estimated that perhaps 5% of Roma still travel. However, the Roma's traditional social organization, which includes a distrust for education by non-Roma, fosters their separation from the societies they live in, which tends to lead to low literacy rates, low employment rates and low levels of integration and acceptance.
In their struggles to achieve and maintain dignity and freedom, today's Roma are increasingly vocal and active about the need to offset these problems. They seek political protection to live their lives and protect their unique culture, and refuse to accept complacency in the face of anti-Roma propaganda and violence around the world.
Beliefs and practices of the Roma
This article was originally published in March 2008, and has been updated for the
November 2008 paperback release.
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