Romani Customs and Traditions:
These attitudes have an impact on how the Roma
approach conflicts with the gajikano legal system. Romaniya
has no equivalent to the concept of conflict of laws. Roma law is self-contained
and cannot incorporate rules of a foreign legal system. The gajikano
legal system is equally insular so far as Romaniya is concerned.
But unlike the gadje who know nothing about Romaniya, Roma
are necessarily aware of gajikano law.
The Roma believe they should approach and respond to the gadje
with caution, especially if the gadje profess good intentions, or
claim to serve the best interest of the Roma. Roma are also cautious with
notions of due process, civil rights, and neutrality of law. Furthermore,
not only do the Roma consider non-Roma marimé, they also
believe that Roma names and rituals lose their magical effectiveness if
uttered to gadje. To the Roma, the purity of their law plays a crucial
role in maintaining cultural identity and integrity.
Although the Romani people do not formally gather to pursue an objective,
their need to survive as a distinct and isolated group provides them with
a common purpose. Roma law ensures that the host country's legal systems
and cultures minimally influence Roma life. Although Romaniya has
sacred aspects that direct Roma to lead their lives properly by attaining
a state of purity and preventing contamination, it does not advocate imposing
its values on non-Roma. Its main purpose is to achieve a state of balance,
or kintala, that pleases the spirits of the ancestors, or mulé.
Conversion of the gadje would not make much sense because they and
their ancestors are outside the Roma world.
Each Roma group can determine its own form of mediation.
Although there are many words for "group" in the Romanes language, four
primary associations can be identified: (1) natsia, meaning nation;
(2) kumpania, plural kumpaniyi, an alliance of households
not necessarily of the same natsia but of the same geographic area bound
together for socioeconomic reasons; (3) vitsa, or clan; and (4)
which consists of the individual extended family. Each associated unit
is involved in the administration of justice, beginning with the smallest,
the familiya, which informally settles minor disputes, and extending
to the larger units with increasing formality.
Each community is ruled by a chief, a man who is chosen for his age,
experience, and wisdom. Some Roma tribes call this chief Rom baro,
meaning "Big Man." The chief of a Roma community is a man who inspires
respect by his strength and intelligence, a man who by his own life sets
an example for the other Roma. Often, the chief may be able to read and
write to some extent. He settles minor disputes on the basis of his mature
judgment, and his decisions are followed by other members of the community.
However, if the matter to be settled is a serious one, such as theft, adultery,
acts of physical violence, or complicated disputes between two parties,
a court is convened. This court is called the kris.
When the Roma cannot settle a controversy amicably in a divano,
a kris Romani may become necessary. In former times, the kris
usually mediated three kinds of cases: property losses, matters of honor,
and moral or religious issues, including disregard of marimé
taboos. If the matter to be settled is a serious one, such as theft, defaults
in payments of debts, adultery, acts of physical violence, serious marimé
violations, or complicated disputes between two parties, a court is convened.
This court is the most important moral force in Roma life.
While the judges have been chosen because of their personal authority,
they are expected to allow behavior that might be considered prejudicial
or disruptive in gajikano trials. Participation by the audience
is expected and encouraged by custom. Members of the audience, although
not formally called as witnesses, may feel justified in expressing views.
Whether their contribution to the proceedings is based on personal observation
or opinion does not matter. Ultimately the judge weighs the value of the
cumulative evidence to make rulings. Parties or witnesses will be perceived
as credible if their statements have "the ring of truth." A person who
can demonstrate in court that he or she has conformed to accepted communal
standards may also be considered credible by the court.
The tribal chiefs are not necessarily aware of all the laws. These laws
have never been written down or codified. They have been passed along for
generations by word of mouth, but this fact makes the decisions nonetheless
binding. The Roma interpret laws according to contemporary custom. Former
interpretations of laws may be gradually revised as the needs of the community
evolve. The exclusive reliance on oral transmission has led to a high degree
of flexibility. Nevertheless, there is a shared feeling that the law is
clearly defined. Few ever challenge this notion. This strict adherence
to the law in part accounts for the continued cohesion of the Roma in spite
of their persecution and forced migration.
The audience of a kris was once largely male. Women and unmarried
or childless men were allowed to attend only if they were needed as witnesses.
It is now acceptable to have the entire family present for support. Witnesses
may speak freely about the case. The Roma believe there can be no justice
without hearing the matter out to its fullest. Exaggerated claims and ornate
stories referring to folk tales and mythology are common. When members
of the audience think the witness is not being truthful or responsive,
they may hiss or make jokes. In some delicate matters, such as adultery,
the public and witnesses can be excluded.
At a kris only Romanes may be spoken. Furthermore,
arguments are often presented in a special oratory that differs grammatically
from ordinary Romanes and resembles a legal jargon. When the accused testify
on their own behalf they are expected to be truthful. The kris can
further insure their honesty by invoking the magic power of the dead, or
with an oath. If the witnesses must swear an oath, an altar of justice
consisting of icons of the clan present is erected. In complex situations,
the judge may ask for expert opinions from tribal chiefs or the elders.
Nonetheless, only the judge decides guilt and punishment.
Socially disruptive behavior may result in legal
sanctions, including a sentence of marimé. In addition to
strong taboos against exploiting or stealing from a fellow member of the
Roma community, Roma consider crimes of violence and noncommercial association
with gadje as crimes against Romani society as a whole and therefore
A marimé label can be removed by the forgiveness of the offended
party, the passage of time, or by another kris Romani. Readmission
to Roma society following a sentence of marimé is cause for
Divorce cases are complex. Even today, many Roma marriages, which may
not be legal marriages according to gajikano law, are still arranged,
and the groom's family pays a bride price. If the marriage ends in divorce,
a kris may be called to determine how much, if any, of the bride
price should be returned to the groom's family.
Economic cases cover such issues as who has the right to engage in fortune
telling in a specific territory. Roma believe that every Roma has the right
to work. Accordingly, groups divide territory into economic units. Controversies
may result when some Roma encroach on others' territory, and then a kris
is called. A first-time offender may receive a warning by the kris.
Repeated violations result in a sentence of marimé.
The judge declares the verdict in public to those
who are present. If the accused is found innocent, there is a celebration
and an oath of peace is sworn. The decision of the kris is final
and binding. Even in countries such as Spain and the United States, where
the Roma are considered by some gajikane scholars to be semi-assimilated,
the verdict of an official state trial is not final. A kris will
still be held. Beyond its judicial function, the kris plays an important
role in maintaining the customs of the Romani people.
If, at the end of a trial, the defendant is found to be innocent, there
is great joy and relief in the community. A banquet may be held, and the
former defendant has the right to propose the first toast. If, on the other
hand, the defendant is found guilty, any number of different penalties
might be invoked. These range from the largely symbolic one of having to
pay all court expenses, including food and drink for the judges, to the
most serious of all, permanent banishment from the community of Roma.
There are no jails or executioners in a Roma community.
Perhaps the most severe punishment for a Roma is marimé,
or banishment, from his own community. This banishment is achieved by declaring
the offender marimé, a term that means socially rejected
in its legal sense. It is considered a sentence of social death. Marimé
stigmatizes all wrongdoers as polluted and justifies their expulsion from
the community. The offender cannot have any social contact with other members
of the tribe. The simple pleasures of Romani life, eating together and
camaraderie, are forbidden, and the guilty party is condemned to live in
the world of the non-Roma. No marriages are arranged for those stigmatized
as marimé, and without marriage in Roma society one's economic
and social life is over. When they die, no one will bury them, and they
will not have a funeral. In many cases, not only the offender, but his
or her own family as well, is declared marimé. This harsh
punishment is a great deterrent to crime within the Roma community. It
can last for days or years. It involves permanent loss of status and respect
even when the guilty party has been reinstated. Permanent marimé
is rare and used only for serious crimes such as murder.
A temporary marimé sentence may be
imposed for less serious crimes. If a Rom steals from another Rom, for
example, the thief is publicly shamed and banished from the community until
he has repaid the victim. The kris may impose a form of "community
service" and require the marimé Rom to work for an indefinite
time without pay in order to compensate Roma society for violating the
taboo of stealing from another Roma. Temporary sentences of marimé
are also imposed for offenses such as familiarity with the gadje
or failure to pay a debt on time.
In all cases of marimé, enforcement depends primarily
on a superstitious fear of the consequences of violating the marimé
rules. The individual who violates a marimé prohibition has
succumbed to powers of evil and destruction that are so frightening that
even his own family shuns him for fear of contamination. Such an individual
becomes tainted and can be redeemed only by making the prescribed amends.
The entire Roma community is responsible for enforcing
sanctions. Roma have no police or prisons. They have no "law enforcement"
in the gajikano sense. Peer pressure fueled by communal knowledge
of a verdict ensures compliance. The Roma community may place a curse on
the guilty party to insure that he or she accepts the chosen punishment,
and it appears that this practice is still effective. Only in rare cases,
when the Roma have difficulty enforcing a judgment by the kris,
do they turn to the gajikano penal system. The kris may ask
the gajikane authorities to arrest the defendant. At this point,
the accused will usually accept the punishment and the charges will be
dropped. Should the wrongdoer persist, however, he or she might be forced
to endure a gajikano court trial. Vindication by a non-Roma civil
court does not erase a previous conviction by the kris in the mind
of the Roma.
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Sutherland, Anne. Gypsies:
The Hidden Americans. Reprinted Prospect Heights: Waveland, 1986.
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