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November 19, 2019
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Commentary: Romipen is democratic, enriching not just Romani people but Czech society, Europe and the world

4.4.2016 21:27
Petr Uhl
Petr Uhl

Friday 8 April will be International Romani Day. In the Czech Republic the largest number of events on this day will be held in Brno this year.

The IQ Roma servis organization is beginning a rich cultural program there this afternoon in the Lužánky quarter, followed by events in days to come at the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Museum of Romani Culture. The celebrations will culminate on Friday afternoon on Svoboda Square in Brno.

News server Romea.cz has already announced the Brno cultural programs and lectures. A gala evening is also planned in Prague at 19:30 on International Romani Day at La Fabrika (Komunardů 30, Holešovice).

That evening is associated with the online social media campaign #PrayForPrej. "Don't believe everything they say - that's not how we live" is the message of the campaign's video clip distributed online.

"Come convince yourselves!" urge the organizers from the Romani theater company ARA ART, which is dedicated to the issue of two minorities - not just Romani people, but also gays and lesbians. The theme of their evening will be honoring young "invisible" Romani people who have to face down many allegations made about them by Czech society.

All discriminated and persecuted groups of people everywhere in the world (not just Jewish people, for example) have had to and still have to face down such rumors. Incitement to hatred of such people always happens with the aid of distortions, fabrications, and lies.

Roma Pride is a demonstration of dignity

I don't have much tolerance for every such public ceremony - for example, I consider the "Miss Czech Republic" or "Miss World" events to be sexist and therefore disgusting. Of the public marches that take place, the ones I like most are Roma Pride and Prague Pride - demonstrations of pride in being Romani or gay are a brave position to take in a society where anti-Gypsyism is still widespread, as is homophobia, to a lesser degree.

The people who are marching in public on these occasions are helping to raise the profile of our cultural diversity and variety. In other words, they are contributing to the multiculturalism of society, a phenomenon that is still being questioned, to say nothing of being frequently ridiculed, but one that helps society overcome the uniformity that was the basic framework for the undemocratic authoritarianism that applied in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic for many long decades.

International Romani Day falls on 8 April. That date was decided on during the fourth World Romani Congress of the International Romani Union in Poland in 1990, when the day was first celebrated, and in the Czech Republic it has been celebrated since 2001.

This 8 April also marks the 45th anniversary of the first World Romani Congress near London, the first major international meeting of Romani people from Czechoslovakia, France, Great Britain, Yugoslavia and dozens of other countries. The declaration of International Romani Day in 1990 was yet another step toward the cultivation and sowing of romipen (or "Roma-hood").

Romipen is the cultural basis for Romani emancipation, and it is all the more necessary because Romani people do not have a state of their own. The cultural emancipation of this group (i.e., of those Romani people who strive to become more incorporated into mainstream society) must always follow the path of Romani integration, a path that the state creates because it is obliged to and has pledged to, and the state must protect this path for those Romani people who do not want to assimilate, i.e., who do not want to absolutely adapt and coalesce with the majority society and its culture, customs and language.

"Everybody has the right freely to choose his nationality. It is prohibited to influence this choice in any way, just as is any form of pressure aimed at suppressing a person’s national identity." (Article 3, paragraph 2, Charter of Fundamental Rights and Basic Freedoms of the Czech Republic).

Let's recall these two clauses of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Basic Freedoms, first developed and adopted as the highest law of the land by Czechoslovakia in January 1991. Let's show some regard for these Constitutional principles, and let's insist they be upheld.

In other countries such principles frequently do not apply - for example, in France the official policy is one of ethnic assimilation, and French law and practice do not even acknowledge either nationality (ethnicity) or national minorities, for the most part. When it comes to romipen, however, it enriches our majority society both culturally and politically, and, through its example, also enriches all ethnic and other minorities.

Romipen is a set of values that people should have regard for - not just in the Czech Republic, but throughout all of Europe and anywhere else in the world. Romani pride is nothing less than a demonstration of human dignity.

Today romipen involves education about Romani culture, if possible in the Romani language, and international contact between Romani people, especially young people, to exchange of experiences. Who knows better than Romani people that the world is one?

International Romani Day

The first World Romani Congress adopted a design for the international Romani flag, and people in the Czech Republic know what that flag looks like today. That congress also 

chose the Romani international anthem, "Dželem, dželem lungone dromenca" ("I went, I went on long roads").

Another significant contribution was also made to Romani solidarity and the creation of the Romani nation by the fact that the International Romani Union agreed to use the name "Roma" to refer to members of their nation. That decision also rejected the terms "Gipsy/Gitano/Manouche/Tsigane/Cikán".

The denomination "Roma" or "Rom" was originally just the most-prevalent autonym, i.e., the Romani label for Romani people in different variations of the Romani language and sometimes in other languages adopted by Roma. Even this does not apply everywhere, as in some countries Romani people refer to themselves differently in the Romani language - for example, in German-speaking countries the Romani name for Roma is "Sinti", while in many countries such as Great Britain, Spain, and Hungary (with the exception 

of the Vlach Roma), Romani people stopped speaking the Romani language altogether.

However, even in German it is customary today to say "Roma und Sinti", not "Zigeuner", and this usage even predominates among the majority society. "Zigeuner" in Germany had and still has the same disrespectful flavor as the Czech term "Cikán".

Everyone should reflect on this. The word "Rom", thanks to the decision made at the World Romani Congress, has become an exonym over time, i.e., a label for Romani people in languages other than the Romani language.

By doing this, the option of referring to Romani people in a derogotary way has been placed out of bounds, in accordance with the general tendency today by which we no longer refer to "Eskimos", but Inuits, we no longer refer to "Bushmen", but now use their own autonym, San, and in America the term used is no longer "Blacks" or "Negroes", but African-Americans. Of course, much depends on the context in which a term like "Gypsy" (in Czech, "Cikán") is used.

Even Romani people who speak Czech frequently refer themselves as "Cigány", and in that context the meaning is neutral. However when Czech speakers refuse to use the word "Rom" and allege that "Cikán" (or even small-c "cikán") is not pejorative, but a regular Czech word, and assert that they will continue to use that word despite the decision made by the International Romani Union and the linguistic usage of the Council of Europe, European Union and the United Nations, then they are either deceiving themselves or want to demonstrate their anti-Gypsyism, to disseminate an ethnic defiance or resistance bordering on resentment and the incitement of ethnic resentment.

Migrants instead of Roma

It would certainly be foolish if we were to be glad about the fact that the aversion usually expressed toward Romani people in Czech society has declined in recent months because it is being redirected at migrants and refugees instead. Those involved in criticizing such incitement to hatred are encountering the fact that entire groups or individuals making such political, public displays have just changed the targets of their verbal and sometimes physical assaults from Romani people to refugees.

Such ethnic (cultural, linguistic, racial, religious) rancor is primarily a display of aggression, of the individual frustrations that frequently increase due to one's own dismal social conditions or personal social difficulties. The target of hatred that is motivated by an individual's ethnic affiliation - actual, alleged, or perceived - can be changed at any time, so Romani people could once again become the targets of campaigns en masse here, as they have been before.

The cure for these illegal, inequitable attitudes can only be systematic resistance, and not just resistance to incitement to hatred, but to the dissemination of misconceptions, prejudice and unfounded rumors. This should happen in all cases and situations, whether the persons being rejected are refugees or Roma.   

Petr Uhl (born 1941) is a Czech journalist, politician, signatory of Charter 77 and co-founder of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (Výbor na obranu nespravedlivě stíhaných). He was imprisoned more than once during the previous regime (for a total of nine years). In 1990 he was elected a deputy to the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly for Civic Forum (Občanské fórum). From 1991-2001 he was an expert on the UN Human Rights Commission. From 1998-2001 he was the Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner, chairing the Government Council for Nationalities, the Human Rights Council, and the Inter-ministerial Commission for Romani Community Affairs. He was also a deputy to the Vice-Premier for Human Rights. He is currently a staff commentator for the Czech daily Právo.

Petr Uhl, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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ARA ART, International Roma Day, IRU, Roma Pride, Roma



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