Flag of the Romani people
|Name||O styago le romengo|
World Romani Congress|
Weer Rajendra Rishi
Variant flag of Flag of the Romani people
The Romani flag or flag of the Roma (Romani: O styago le romengo) is the international flag of the Romani people. It was approved by the representatives of various Romani communities at the first World Romani Congress (WRC), held in Orpington in 1971. The flag consists of a background of blue and green, representing the heavens and earth, respectively; it also contains a 16-spoke red chakra, or cartwheel, in the center. The latter element stands for the itinerant tradition of the Romani people and is also an homage to the flag of India, added to the flag by scholar Weer Rajendra Rishi. This design was especially popular in Socialist Yugoslavia, which awarded it official recognition upon adoption.
The first of several ancestors for the WRC flag is a bicolor reportedly flown by the Romanian Romanies during the 1930s, and revived internationally during the 1960s. A tricolor version, flown by survivors of the Romani genocide, fell out of use due to allegations that it stood for communism. The definitive variant designed in 1971 gained in popularity over the subsequent decades, being especially associated with groups promoting transnational unity of the people and combating its designation as "Gypsies". The flag was promoted by actor Yul Brynner and violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and also adopted by Florin Cioabă, self-proclaimed "King of the Roma".
Several countries and communities have recognized it officially during the 2010s, but its display has also sparked controversy in various parts of the European Union. Derivatives also became widely used in Romani political symbolism during the same period. However, inside the scholarly community, the Romani flag has been criticized as Eurocentric, and its display as a perfunctory solution to issues facing the ethnic group it represents.
Early Romani symbols include a red banner carried by Turkish Romanies, organized as an esnaf of the Ottoman Empire. From 1955, a "flag of the Gypsies" represents Romani pilgrims to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. It is described as a sixteen-ray comet on a field of starry blue with the effigies of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The item is explained in more detail as a "grand flag of the night, carrying the Star of the Magi."
According to historian Ian Hancock, the current flag originates with the world Romani flag proposed in late 1933 by Romania's General Union of the Romanies (UGRR), upon the initiative of Gheorghe A. Lăzăreanu-Lăzurică; the chakra was absent from that version, which was a plain bicolor. Scholar Ilona Klímová-Alexander notes that such a detail is "not confirmed by the statutes or any other source." Sociologist Jean-Pierre Liégeois also describes the UGRR's Romani flag as a theorized concept, rather than an actual design.
Lăzurică's organization had another, better attested, flag, used to represent Romania's Romani community. It combined the coat of arms of Romania with symbols of Romani tribes: "a violin, an anvil, a compass and a trowel crossed with a hammer." The UGRR also used at least 36 regional flags, which were usually blessed in public ceremonies by representatives of the Romanian Orthodox Church, to which Lăzurică belonged. By the mid 1930s, the initiative to use and recognize an international flag was taken up by the UGRR's new president, Gheorghe Nicolescu. According to one report, the 1935 Romani congress in Bucharest, presided upon by Nicolescu, had the "Romany flag" displayed alongside portraits of Adolf Hitler and Michael I of Romania.
Many European tribes were decimated in the Romani genocide, part of the Holocaust. This period also saw many Romanies going into hiding or denying their identity to escape the Einsatzgruppen or deportation. In one incident reported at Simferopol in 1941, Crimean Romanies flew the green flag of Islam, hoping to persuade the Nazis that they were Tatars or Turks. Shortly after World War II, ethnic symbolism experienced a resurgence. There was reported usage of a green-red-blue horizontal triband, which stripes respectively representing the grass, fire, and the skies. By 1962, it had become highly popular among Romani communities. During that interval, references to this symbolism were promoted by Francoist Spain as "less contentious" than left-wing symbolism favored by local Romanies. A reference to the "Republican flag", in La Niña de los Peines' Triana, was changed by censorship to read "Gypsy flags" (banderitas gitanas). Suspicions that the tricolor's prominently displayed red stood for communism led some activists to promote a green-blue bicolor with a red flame or wheel instead of the stripe.
The wheel variant was the basis for the design recognized by the WRC in 1971. The ultimate design is attributed to an Indian Romologist, Weer Rajendra Rishi. Specifications were also adopted at that meeting, basing the wheel itself on the Ashoka Chakra, as used in the flag of India. The decision to include "something Indian" on the flag was generally popular, reflecting in part Rishi's theories, according to which Romanies were a "medieval warrior caste" akin to Rajputs. Reportedly, this variant defeated proposals by other attendees, who supported "earlier flags which had depicted an icon of a horse". Several activists were upset by Rishi's intervention, feeling that the chakra was an outside symbol, and as such one "thrust upon them".
According to sociologist Lídia Balogh, the Romani flag retained Indian symbolism, but was still readable without it: "The wheel can also refer to the eternal cycle of the world, or it can be interpreted as a carriage wheel". One complex explanation of the resulting composition is favored by the Romanies of Brazil. According to these sources, the upper blue half represents heavens, as well as "liberty and peace", as "fundamental Gypsy values"; the green is a reference to "nature and routes explored by the caravans". The red wheel is "life, continuity and tradition, the road traveled and still ahead", with the spokes evoking "fire, transformation, and constant movement." According to ethnologist Ion Duminică, it stands for the "Road of Life", with red as an allusion to the "vitality of blood." Duminică also explains the blue as a reference to "Heavens-Father-God" and to the ideals of "liberty and cleanliness, the unbound space"; whereas green is a stand-in for "Mother Earth". Balogh also notes that the two stripes can be deciphered "without any particular cultural background knowledge" as being the sky, implicitly a symbol of "freedom and transcendence", and the earth; she views the red as a reference to blood, with its dual meaning: "blood is the symbol of life, on the one hand, and the blood spilled on wars and destruction."
As sociologist Oana Marcu argues, the reference to "perpetual movement" signified that the Romanies were proudly accepting their nomadic traditions, previously seen as "socially dangerous". According to Balogh, the wheel recalls ancient nomadism, but also the Romanies' participation in the 21st-century economic migration across Europe. Similarly, Duminică writes about symbols of nomadic life as evoking prosperity, since "with no opportunity to perambulate, Romanies will fall prey to poverty." Activist Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia explained it as a "cartwheel standing in for freedom, which is characteristic of our culture." However, in order to honor the "continuous and varied" support it had received from Socialist Yugoslavia, the WRC also accepted an unofficial variant, which used the red star of the Yugoslav flag instead of the wheel.
Yugoslavia also pioneered the official Romani flag, which was given recognition in the constituent Socialist Republic of Macedonia as early as 1971. This was the culmination of efforts by Faik Abdi, a Macedonian Rom. The symbol was especially important for the Gurbeti around Skopje, who integrated it within wedding ceremonies, and was also popularized on album covers by the musician Žarko Jovanović. By then, the WRC variant was also used for remembering the 1940s genocide, beginning with a ceremony held at Natzweiler-Struthof in June 1973. In this commemorative context, however, it could be replaced by other symbols: in April 1975, Romani Holocaust survivors were represented at Fort Mont-Valérien by a never-before-seen banner, displaying a plum or violet triangle on white. This was a visual clue to Nazi concentration camp badges, and, according to journalist Jean-Pierre Quélin, was picked and designed by a Manush politician, Dany Peto-Manso, and carried on the field despite deprecatory remarks from members of the National Gendarmerie. Peto-Manso himself referred to flag as "hastily made", without specifying its author.
The WRC flag was given more exposure in 1979, when a Romani delegation comprising Hancock and Yul Brynner presented it to the United Nations. A "small organized group of Gypsies, with a flag and armbands", took part in the August 1980 pilgrimage to the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, in what was then the Polish People's Republic. Within the post-WRC setting, it remained especially important as a distinguishing symbol of NGOs who prefer the terms "Roma" and "Romani" over exonyms such as "Gypsies"; an example of this is the Roma Community Center in Toronto.
Spread and controversy
The Romani flag acquired an enhanced political status during the late stages of the Cold War. This was especially the case among Hungarian Romanies, who embraced cultural separatism. In the years leading up to the creation of a Gypsy Minority Self-Government, activists made a show of removing Hungarian flags from public meetings, which were held under all-Romani flags. The WRC flag was flown during the Velvet Revolution in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, in particular at a rally of Romani anti-communists, held outside Letná Park. From about 1989, Croatian Romanies, represented by the "Democratic Party of the Croatian Roma", have used a variant of the chakra flag superimposed with the šahovnica. In July 1992, a casket containing the body of Camarón de la Isla, Spain's influential Rom singer, was draped with a purported "Gypsy flag". This showed a cartwheel and a map of Catalonia, both on a field of plain green. A chakra-like derivative, or "round-wheeled Gypsy flag", also appears, along with the menorah, in the arms granted to Jewish violinist Yehudi Menuhin upon his creation as a British lord 1993; according to music critic Mark Swed, they are defiant symbols of Menuhin's nonconformity.
After 2000, the WRC bicolor also acquired recognition from other national and regional governments. In 2006, as part of an effort to combat racism in Brazil, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva instituted a "National Day of the Gypsy" (May 24), during which the Romani flag was on display in official settings. The Romani community of Spain was similarly honored at various dates in 2018, when the Romani flag was displayed by for instance by the City Council of Madrid and its correspondent in Alicante. In October 2011, a similar initiative in the Welsh town of Aberystwyth resulted in controversy, after a local councilor had argued that the expenses were unjustified.
Since the 1990s, chakras and cartwheels have endured as major preferred symbols of Romani activism in Europe, being adopted by organizations such as Romani CRISS, the Social Political Movement of the Roma, and the Museum of Romani Culture. The traditionally Romani Šuto Orizari Municipality, in the Republic of Macedonia, has a "a colourful flag featuring the Roma wheel – an Indian chakra, which refers to the origin of the Roma people." Eight-spoked wheels are also popular as variations, used for instance by the Ciocănari Romanies of Moldova. In 2002, the Italian Rom artist Luca Vitone designed an anarchist version of the flag, featuring the red chakra on a field of black. By 2009, other derivatives of the Romani flag were becoming widely used by self-identified Manush or "Traveller" users of Facebook, sometimes combined with badges showing hedgehogs and images of caravans. A controversy erupted in Prague during July 2013, when artist Tomáš Rafa displayed hybrid versions of the Romani and Czech flags. This commentary on the marginalization of Czech Romanies was read as a defamation of the national symbols, and resulted in Rafa being fined.
A 2009 study among Hungarian Romanies showed that many were recognizing the flag as standing in for the Romani nation as a whole. In subsequent years, it appeared during Romani Catholic pilgrimages to Pomezia, which commemorate Pope Paul VI's 1965 visit to a "tent city". In 2014, boxer Domenico Spada, an Italian Rom, announced that he would be competing under the ethnic flag in his match against Marco Antonio Rubio. He declared this a protest against Italy's alleged indifference toward his career. The flag also enjoys popularity in its purported native country, Romania, where it was flown privately by Vasile Velcu Năzdrăvan, a leader of the Romanies in Craiova. It was additionally used by Sibiu's "King of the Roma", Florin Cioabă. Cioabă's funeral ceremony in August 2013 reportedly displayed four flags: the WRC bicolor, the flag of Europe and the Romanian tricolor, alongside banners representing the royal house and the Stabor (Romani tribunal).
In addition to raising controversy for its Indian symbolism, the flag has received criticism for being essentialist in relation to a complex identity. As noted by philosopher David Kergel, the WRC flag inherently stands for the "effort to define the Roma as a nation without land and assimilate them into a concept of the national state", a Eurocentric vision which neglects that the Roma are in reality "heterogeneous". Similarly, anthropologist Carol Silverman notes that the bicolor and the Romani anthem are modeled on the "dominant European tropes of defining the heritage of a singular nation." Along with other Romani symbols, the chakra is rejected by the Ashkali and Balkan Egyptians, who used two successive designs for their own ethnic flag. Reports in 2004 noted that the Irish Travellers also considered creating their own flag, but also that they "may model [it] on the Roma standard, which bears an image of a 16-spoke wheel." In June 2018, the Travellers of Cork adopted their own banner, displaying a cartwheel and replicating the city colors of orange and white.
Another line of criticism refers to the perceived irrelevancy of the flag. Already in 1977, ethnographer Zsolt Csalog observed that creating the flag was "more intended to hide away real issues than to solve them." In 2009, Jud Nirenberg of the European Roma Rights Centre reproached on the International Romani Union that it dealt mainly with promoting the flag and other symbols of Romani nationalism, rather than "develop[ing] concrete plans for addressing discrimination or poverty."
Eight-spoked wheel variant used by the Hungarian Romanies
Variant seen in Romania's Călărași County
Old flag of Šuto Orizari Municipality
One of Tomáš Rafa's Romani-themed variations on the Czech flag
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