Khamoro hosts discussion on Romani traditions and their place in an ever-changing world

Roma children

The question of tradition and its role in ever-changing society is a fascinating one that is addressed by each new generation: Prague's Municipal Library provided a forum for just such debate at the Khamoro Roma Festival this week. On Wednesday young Roma activists, students of culture studies, community workers, as well as a general public interested in Romani traditions stretching as far as Spain and Macedonia, met to hear about and define the role of tradition across common borders. Discussed were positive images, the role of Roma women and family, as well as some negative aspects.

Family, tradition, respect. Three words that got a lot of space in discussion on Wednesday at the Khamoro World Festival: on the podium in Prague's Municipal Library were youthful representatives of Roma communities from all across Europe, and one thing they all had in common was a love of Romani traditions and values combined with a desire to keep with the times of a globalised world. Including a respect for integration - as opposed to assimilation - in which Roma values were not superseded by a majority view.

Ivan Mako works with the Young Roma Association in the not-for-profit sector in Slovakia. He explains some of the values Roma communities have found important in the past, which are still paramount today.

"Our parents were brought up in Roma tradition. By tradition I mean things like respect for your elders, respect for your peers, and respect for your family. That's the alpha and omega. This was also the case for us. Still, we've adopted the importance of education, for example. We accept the values of the non-Roma majority, but we also want to retain our own."

That view is shared by Karolina Stankiewicz, a Roma student and TV director who produces a programme on Roma issues in Poland. She says Polish Romanies are more traditional than their counterparts elsewhere, like the Czech Republic or Spain. She says for her Roma tradition is extremely important, even if it requires her to wear her hair long, to wear a skirt rather than pants, and to never smoke in front of her elders - a sign of disrespect and shame.

"You know it's inside for me, tradition is inside for me! I feel this really. This is about Gypsy culture, about young Gypsy people and tradition, language, everything!"

How do you feel about this: one of the speakers from Slovakia brought up the point you could say "I am Slovak" outside the home but at home "I am Gypsy". Two faces of identity?

"I don't know what are these two faces! Because I must be always Gypsy because I am human. Really, I don't see the problem!"

Still, some issues surrounding women in particular bordered on the infringement of basic rights, and all the Roma representatives on the panel saw the necessity for leaving certain traditions behind: namely the virginity cult, as well as taboos regarding the discussion of sex and family planning for young women in their parents' home. One speaker from Macedonia, Enisa Eminova, said that, in effect, each Roma had to choose which elements to adopt and which to reject, in the struggle for individual identity and individual freedom. Never an easy task.

In the end the discussion carried a final appeal: to let the Roma community be open, to accept all who claimed Roma ethnicity within its fold and not to discriminate against its own, as in the case of one visitor in the audience who recalled his father had called him a "Gadjo" because he had never learned the Romany language, by no means unusual among Roma Europe-wide. And, while it is clear that the search to define Roma tradition and its role today will continue, the new generation it seems - at least the panel in Prague on Wednesday - represents the most broad-minded of views.