The Roma in Finland

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April 8 is the International Roma Day. The day celebrates Roma culture and raises awareness of issues that face the Roma people. 

The Ministry of Interior of Finland recommends that governmental institutions raise the Finnish flag on this day. They also recommend that if the institution has multiple flag poles, they also raise the Roma flag. 

In this blog post, we go over the significance of this day for the Roma people and give you a short introduction to the Roma in Finland.

In our previous blogs, we’ve discussed the Independence Day of Finland (Dec 6) and the Sámi National Day (Feb 6)

The Roma

Depending on the source, there are about 10 to 12 million Roma in Europe. They are the largest ethnic minority in Europe. There are also Roma in North America. 

The Roma of today are said to be the descendants of people who left northern India in repeated migrations between 400-1100 AD. The first written sources of Roma in Europe date to the 14th century.

This understanding of Roma history, however, is mostly based on studies of the Romani language that is related to the Indo-Aryan languages of Northern India. 

These days the Romani language is divided into varieties each consisting of additional dialects. In addition, some Roma speak mixed languages that are based on the surrounding language but retain Romani-derived vocabulary. In 2015, UNESCO declared November 5th to be the World Day of Romani Language. 

Historically, the status of the Roma in Europe has been very poor. They have constantly been discriminated against. They’ve faced very strict assimilation and forced settling policies. During the Holocaust, the Nazis murdered an estimated 400 000 Roma.

April 8th was declared the International Roma Day by the fourth World Romani Congress of the International Romani Union in 1990. The day honors the first major international meeting of Romani representatives held in 1971.  

The Roma flag has a blue and green background. The blue represents heaven, spirituality, freedom, and eternity. The green represents the earth. It has a red 16-spoke cartwheel in the middle. This cartwheel refers to the itinerant history of the Roma and their origin in India. 

The Roma in Finland

The Roma in Finland are an ethnic, linguistic, and cultural minority group that has long historical roots in the country. The first historical references to Roma in Finland date to the 16th century. 

The Roma in Finland are Finnish citizens and speak Finnish as their native language. About a third also speak the Finnish Kalo Romani dialect although a larger percentage understand it. 

The current estimates are that there are about 10 000 Roma in Finland. A few thousand Finnish Romas also live in Sweden. Their exact number is unknown because Finland doesn’t register the ethnicity of its citizens and residents. This is, however, the number the Roma in Finland themselves use. 

Some aspects of Roma culture

What differentiates the Roma in Finland from the kaaje (the non-Roma Finns in the Finnish Kalo Roman dialect) is their culture.

The Roma culture places a lot of emphasis on proper behavior. And what is proper differs in many respects from the Finnish majority culture. 

It’s proper, for example, to respect one’s elders and those higher in status. This respect is reflected in spoken language, how elders are addressed. They are also, for example, offered food first. This respect also has spatial elements in that younger Roma should not live above older ones in apartment buildings. 

The Roma also consider family to be very important. While in the majority Finnish culture family can be interpreted rather narrowly, for the Roma the interpretation is much wider. 

Another major feature of Roma culture is the emphasis on cleanliness or purity. Cleanliness is important both symbolically and in actuality. And the symbolic aspects of cleanliness are intertwined with actual cleanliness. 

For example, in this interview, Mertsi Lindgren and Metsi Medi Ärling explain how a spoon that has fallen off the kitchen table onto the floor may be thrown out rather than washed. The floor is unclean and therefore the spoon has become unclean as well. The cleanness of the spoon cannot be restored by washing. It has touched the symbolically, but not necessarily actually, unclean floor and therefore it has become symbolically unclean as well. 

Intertwined with respect and cleanliness is modesty. For us non-Roma, that shows for example in the way Roma are most often dressed. With arms and legs and even ankles covered (a bit more about the Roma dress below). 

Modesty and the concept of cleanliness also affect speech in that certain unclean words and topics of conversation are avoided. 

As with any group of people, there are variations in the way Roma families and individuals follow and interpret these sorts of general cultural rules and customs. 

For us non-Roma, however, noting the centrality of cleanliness/purity, both real and symbolic, in Roma culture makes it easier to understand many aspects of their traditions and practices.

History of discrimination

The Roma in Finland have encountered different types of discrimination, oppression, and assimilation policies throughout history. 

In modern-day Finland, the Roma face discrimination in a variety of situations. 

According to, for example, the non-discrimination ombudsman of Finland, discrimination the Roma face often means being denied services altogether, only receiving limited services. or getting the service under worse terms. 

They also face discrimination in the housing market and in the employment market. 

One rather recent very visible information campaign called “Työnimi” highlighted this problem. This campaign enlisted four well-known and well-established Finns from different fields to apply for jobs in their fields. They used their own current CVs but changed their names into Roma-sounding names. 

Altogether they sent 54 job applications. They received 17 rejections and not a single call-back within the time limit of the experiment (one month). Two potential employers approached one of the female applicants, “Tamara”, after the experiment had formally ended. 

International Roma Day celebrations in Finland

The Roma in Finland celebrate the International Roma Day online this year. The main event will be broadcasted online from Savonlinna starting at 5 pm. You can follow the programming on YouTube.

The Roma youth work also organizes an event on Facebook in honor of the day. That event you can find here.  

More about the Roma in Finland

Most of the resources about the Roma in Finland are in Finnish. The easiest ones to access are web pages by different Roma organizations in Finland. Here are some of them:

There are a number of interesting studies available online that examine different aspects of Roma culture and history in Finland and the discrimination they face. There are, for example, a number of interesting MA studies on the Roma in Finland. But should you want a good bibliography to start from, this Finnish language article looks at the history of Roma studies in Finland. 

Here I want to highlight one particular thesis because I mentioned the Roma dress code only in passing above. Arja Laatikainen’s thesis from 2009 looks at how the traditional dress of Roma women in Finland has changed from the 1960s onwards. It contains brief descriptions of the different parts of the dress. 

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