The Roma's Long Road to Equality

From Self-Segregation to Institutionalized Racism, Why Bulgaria's "Gypsies" Have Struggled to Integrate

(Image credit: Flickr user Dominic Rivard)

To the ill-informed, the word "gypsy" evokes images of tarot cards and nomads wandering on horses through grasslands. But the Roma people (as they're properly called) have a complex culture that, even today, struggles to earn respect in Eastern Europe -particularly in Bulgaria. For more than a century, the Roma have sought basic human rights and equalities, but have gained little ground. Fortunately, change is on the horizon. With Bulgaria's recent admission into the European Union, the Roma finally find themselves on a hopeful path.


To understand the Roma, it's best to start with the basics. Long ago, Europeans saw the Roma's dark skin and assumed they'd come from Egypt -hence the name "gypsy". In reality, the word is a misnomer. The Roma actually come from the Indian subcontinent, and they slowly migrated toward Europe early in the second millennia CE. Today's pockets of Roma are scattered all over the world. Not only do they constitute the the largest ethnic minority in Europe, they also rank as the fastest-growing ethnic group in many countries around the world.

Because the Roma have such a wide diaspora, it's difficult to define their culture and traditions in any certain terms. They do have their own language, called Romani (closely related to Punjabi and other Indian languages), though countless dialects exist. Influenced by whatever society surrounds it, each Roma community is different from the next.

One common value, however, is the importance of the extended family. Beyond simply "sticking together," most enclaves practice long-held Romani social behaviors based on purity laws, called marime. For instance, many Roma feel virginity is essential in unmarried girls. Furthermore, parts of the human body (particularly genitalia) are considered impure, so clothing must always be worn to cover the lower half of the body -and these clothes must even be washed separately. As a result, tradition Romani woman are easy to identify, based on the long skirts they wear to cover their lower halves and the head scarfs they use to cover their hair. Notoriously suspect to outsiders, many Roma also fear their children could be made impure by outside influences.

All in all, the Roma provide an interesting cultural case study because, while they're extremely good at settling into a nation, they struggle to assimilate into a society.  The Roma are isolationists -a community with a rich past but without any real sense of a homeland. The result has been a kind of ongoing identity crisis for them. And in Bulgaria, it's made them particularly vulnerable to hardship.


Today, Bulgaria has one of the highest concentrations of Roma in the world. Official government tallies place the Romani population at approximately 370,000, although other researchers say that figure is closer to 750,000.

Whatever the exact number, there is a very defined -and very unpleasant- cultural, social, and economic divide between the Roma and the rest of Bulgarian society. As in most of Eastern Europe, the Roma in Bulgaria tend to live in ghettos and rundown squatter communities, well-separated from the majority population. With unemployment estimates as high as 80 percent, the Roma are blamed for one out of every four crimes. Only 12 percent seek higher education, while 18 percent are fully illiterate. In addition, they have limited access to insurance and other social benefits. And while there is one elected political party devoted to addressing Romani problems and concerns, it wields very little power. Even more distressing, however, is the Bulgarian educational system, which has been tremendously unfair to its Roma students.

(Image credit: Flickr user Ferran Jordà)

The inequality in the Bulgarian school system goes back to the fall of Communism in 1989, when Roma children were given two options- attend a "gypsy school," populated exclusively by Roma, or attend a school for children with mental handicaps. Both were problematic, as the first served to further segregate the Roma from other Bulgarians, while the second herded smart, healthy Romani children into special-needs facilities. The schools were eventually desegregated in 2003, but that hasn't completely remedied the problem. There are still 15-year-old Roma kids attending the first grade, and many who can't speak or write anything that isn't in Romani.


To be fair, not all of the blame for Bulgaria's "Roma problem" should fall on racism or discrimination. The Roma protect their culture fiercely, and that sometimes deters them from learning the Bulgarian language or from getting mainstream jobs. Consequently, many Roma can be found begging on the streets, which leaves most Bulgarians feeling pestered. All of this has led to a national sense of resentment toward the Roma, which can be detected from the language. "You gypped me" is a common pejorative phrase there, just as "gypsy's work" is slang for a job not well done. And no matter what, Bulgarians probably won't stop referring to the unpopped kernels at the bottom of the popcorn bag as "gypsies."

Simeon Blagoev, Roma Affairs expert at Bulgaria's Ministry of Culture (and a Rom himself), explained the situation to the World Press Review in these words: "Historically, the Roma have failed to integrate well into the society, but now they must choose between assimilation and misery."


Fortunately, the European Union (EU) seems to be providing light at the end of this bleak tunnel. For the pas few years, Bulgaria has vied earnestly for membership into the EU -mostly for the economic lift, but also for worldwide inclusion and respect. Before it could gain full membership, however, the country was forced to deal with its human rights "inconsistencies," such as school segregation. So in 1999, the Bulgarian government drafted the "Framework Programme for Full Integration of the Roma in Bulgarian Society," which finally acknowledged the need for the Roma to have the same rights and freedoms as all Bulgarians.

(YouTube link)

On January 1, 2007, Bulgaria became the 26th member of the European Union. And in its brief time of influence, the EU seems to have advanced the cause of Roma equality. It's encouraged Roma representation at all levels of government, and has shown approval for the formation of over 350 Roma associations (both governmental and non-governmental). The hope is that, eventually, all this effort will lead to more jobs and economic opportunities for Bulgaria's most impoverished ethnic community. Any way you look at it, it's a long road ahead. But the good news for all Roma is that the path is being paved.


The article above, written by Eric Furman, appeared in the September - October 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

Don't forget to feed your brain by subscribing to the magazine and visiting mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog today for more!

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An expat American living in Eastern Europe here- We live with Gypsies here as well. They do not contribute to the economy or beauty of any place where I've seen them. They harass, heckle, beg and steal. They are dirty- always. And that's not prejudice- that's what they look like, grimy. In Odessa, I saw Gypsy 'houses' (not sure if that's the right word- palace would be more like it- massive and elaborate).
I agree with a sentiment expressed above- if they want to integrate, they're going to have to do something for their own cause. I saw Gypsies in Paris- they were a serious detraction. They send their tiny children to beg (where I come from, any parent who sent his 3, 4, 5 year old child out to do stuff like that would be investigated by child protective services). My friend's sisters were visiting her and wouldn't give money to a Gypsy woman who wouldn't leave them alone. Finally, the Gypsy got angry and lifted her skirt and tried to pee on them.
An interesting anecdote someone shared about Gypsies- They feel it is their God-given right to beg instead of work (and people are obligated to help them) because a Gypsy stole the nails with which Christ was nailed to the cross, thereby 'easing' his suffering!!
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"There are still 5-year-old Roma kids attending the first grade, and many who can’t speak or write anything that isn’t in Romani."

How is that discriminatory? 5-year-olds are supposed to be in the first grade. And why would you send your kids to a Bulgarian school if you didn't want them to learn to speak Bulgarian? My father couldn't speak English when he started the first grade - that's why my grandparents sent him to school.
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