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Justice, morality and exclusion from the law: the case of the Roma in Finland

‘Culture’ appears to be both an easy way in and out of understanding the complexity of the ‘moral’ and the ‘just’ among minority or excluded groups. From States of Impunity.

Raluca Bianca Roman
19 May 2015
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Dger/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

A law case made headlines in March 2015, concerning the kidnapping, sexual abuse and bodily harming of a young Finnish Roma woman by a Finnish Roma man and his daughter. The case revived the distinction between cultural individual rights, since much of the discussion revolved around the seemingly ‘parallel’ system of moral conduct according to which members of the group lived. The case simultaneously, and unsurprisingly, polarised members of the Finnish Roma community, as many from the majority society found the ruling inappropriate.

The event that sparked such interest began in 2010 when the then 19-year-old victim started an online conversation with the then 17-year-old female captor, and was introduced to the latter’s father. The victim was taken prisoner, kept captive and forced to have sexual intercourse with the male captor without the use of any contraception. As a result, between 2010 and 2014 (when she was released) the woman became pregnant four times and gave birth to three children; all of whom were registered under the female captor’s name. The victim was eventually able to escape when the clinicians tending to her last pregnancy found her situation suspicious, conducted a house visit and reported the matter to the police.

Beyond the gravity of the case and the uproar it stirred within the Finnish media, what seemed most clearly under debate was the short sentence received by the two perpetrators for their crimes. The male captor was sentenced to 3 years and 10 months imprisonment for aggravated trafficking in human beings, while his daughter received a sentence of 2 years and 8 months imprisonment for the same crime. Debates on the reasons behind the short sentences, particularly in the media, pointed out the ethnic origin of the two–Roma–was seen as the basis for legal leniency. ‘Cultural background’ was also an explicit part of the defence. The male captor claimed that, according to the Finnish Roma culture, where ‘official’ marriage is not always customary, the girl had become his wife by living with him, hence sexual intercourse was automatically voluntary and consensual.

Finnish Roma activists responded harshly to the statements of the accused and condemned the use of ‘cultural rights’ to justify crimes of this (or other) nature. Culture was not to be seen as an excuse or a motive for crime, nor should crime be associated with cultural practices. Furthermore, outspoken Finnish Roma raised concerns of the ways in which the media’s portrayal of the event would affect the shape of the Finnish Roma community more broadly, attributing them once again to a marginal, external position in relation to the mainstream system of justice. The full consequences of this case are yet to unfold, as both human rights Romani activists seek to dismiss the ruling and ask for a harsher sentence.

The headlines made by this case is but one in the countless number of cases focusing on human trafficking and ‘Roma background’, where too often the two were seen interlinked, and the focus of academics, politicians and, journalists was too often placed on the ways in which ‘culture’ provides space for criminality. In many ways, when it comes to Roma/Gypsy groups, there seems to be little distinction made between instances of apparent lawlessness, impunity and institutionalised marginality; the interplay of state power and legal justice; diverse ways of conceiving community norms and moral pursuits; and the ways in which the state itself shapes the status of legality/illegality in regards to ethnic minority groups.

For Roma communities across European countries, much like for many other marginalised communities, the case has rather been made for their self-exclusion from majority institutions (including that of the law), dismissing the ways in which different manifestations of the ‘law’ can and should be analysed. And, much like in the case of other cultural, ethnic or religious groups that seem to live on the fringes of the mainstream, Roma have persistently been approached via their lack of, or counter-position to majority understandings of justice and morality, rather than via the dialogical nature of the relationship between the two. Taking heed from the case above, it is necessary to take a look at the shape and structure of the Finnish Roma community, their relation to the law and the often made confusion between instances of marginality and instances of criminality.

The Finnish Roma: outside the law? 

The Finnish Roma, who refer to themselves as the Kaale, are a Roma population of about 10,000 people and have, since the mid-1990s, been officially recognised as a traditional minority in Finland. Most Finnish Roma abide by a strict moral code, placing great emphasis on honouring one’s family, one’s elders and one’s community. Most do not speak a Romani language and those who do speak a dialect that is almost incomprehensible to Roma groups from eastern Europe. Their dress and customs, as well as their overall appearance, make them distinguished members of Finnish society and clearly distinguishable from their majority Finnish counterparts. 

At the same time, while officially subject to Finnish rights and legislation, Finnish Roma have frequently been portrayed as living different lives from those of the majority. In particular, their methods of conflict resolution within the community (often termed ‘blood feuds’ or family ‘vendettas’ within the media), have been regarded as creating a parallel system of justice, within the confines of the Finnish Roma society itself, and separating them from the majority conceptions of the just and lawful. This is what one could call Finnish-Roma law; throughout my fieldwork I have come to see and understand it as the rule and respect devoted to one’s family, rather than the animosity towards non-kin.

Finnish Roma, in reality, have no distinctive system of justice as such, outside the mainstream legal one; there is no ruler or central organ within the community that would judge the morality or validity of actions or take it upon itself to mediate disputes.  Rather, what seems to characterise the ways of enacting a form of justice among this community is the non-institutionalised legacy of kin devotion, which at times extended outside of kin in the form of honour killings or vendettas. The existence of such a system often galvanised outside perceptions of Finnish Roma as deviants within the modern Finnish state, unable to fit within contemporary ideas of a law-governed society, and as individuals evading (or avoiding) the mainstream system of justice. Yet, what is often left out of the conversation is that the Finnish-Roma system of ensuring justice from ‘within’, and separating it from those ‘outside’ has its birth in the history of Finnish Roma in the country, their relation to the Finnish state, and the personalised story of their relationship with the Kaaje (the name they give to non-Finnish Roma Finns). 

The system of justice that defined Finnish Roma society in the past was built upon an already attributed position within majority Finnish society: that of excluded members of Finnish institutions. While majority Finns always interacted with the Finnish Roma, whose services they needed and desired (such as horse trade, fortune telling, crafts making), Finnish Roma (or gypsies, as they were then known) remained perceived as strangers of the nation’s ruling bodies, including that of the law and the mainstream Lutheran church. At the same time, while marginalised and excluded from many of society’s pathways of national belonging (including the state church until the 1970s), they were not, in fact, willingly marginal and always interacted with local populations. Their distinct system of family rule (and punishment of those who infringed upon the honour of the family) may in fact be linked more to this particular ambiguous position within the nation-state rather than to their self-exclusion from society’s institutions.

Evangelical conversion and the shift of the ‘moral’ law?

Around the same time that the Finnish Roma stopped travelling in the 1970s, a large number within the community started converting to the Pentecostal movement in the country, mainly from the Lutheran state church to which they officially belonged. This process of socio-religious change cross-cut family rivalries, in that individuals from and across feuding kin groups experienced the same process of Evangelical conversion and adopted a similar belief in Christian salvation. Given the emphasis placed by Evangelical movements (Pentecostalism in particular) on ‘breaking with the past’, including breaking with past disputes, the question emerged on how the Finnish Roma ‘law of the family’ was shaped by this process of conversion. More so, what can this change tell us about changing relations with the mainstream system of justice?

In cases when one or all of the parties were now Evangelical, rather than seeking revenge, one family would choose to avoid encountering the other. This tacit agreement is made from the side of both Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals, knowing that those now ‘in faith’ are bound by their religious identity to avoid any act of physical violence. Exceptions inevitably occur, which the media thrive on. But the number of family disputes and public acts of family vendettas has diminished greatly over the years. Whether this is due to Pentecostal belonging, improved social conditions or increased contact with the Finnish legal system (or a mix of all and more), these changes are noticeably shaping the understanding of the ‘moral law’ in relation to kin and non-kin.

The family and close kin remain the central points of attachment and allegiance, and everything else is incorporated within. Nevertheless, living in and being a recognised part of Finnish society, in a more obvious and continuous way (through non-segregated housing, recognition of minority rights, increased contact with state institutions and group mobilization), have proved to be pathways of re-shaping ‘traditional’ kin disputes. Perhaps, after all, the very existence and shape of a perceived parallel system of law that the community upheld lies in the very position they have historically been shaped by: that of a marginal group in Finnish society. Changes in this positioning may shift and shape group understandings and relations to the ‘law’, understood as the institution of the state.

The shifts of culture and the Europeanization of Roma politics

Going back to the kidnapping case, culture’ appears to be both an easy way in and out of understanding the complexity of the ‘moral’ and the ‘just’ among minority or excluded groups. In the case of Finnish Roma, the link of ‘culture’ has more often than not been attributed to marginality and exclusion from majority institutions. However, members of this specific minority are no longer silent witnesses to their own social positioning. They have engaged vastly through diverse forums of discussion such as newspapers, social media and mass media, showing the polarisation of the community in respect to the use of ‘culture’ as motivation. The media, in this case, was both a source of tension and mobilization, highlighting the problematic use of group rights or cultural rights in overriding individual rights.

Furthermore, the changes in European politics and policymaking in relation to Roma groups have changed the way in which (at least some) Roma relate to the mainstream institutions of law and government. The brief case presented above seems little to do with the shape of transnational legislation, and more with the limited access that members of the Finnish Roma community have had to local, mainstream pathways of justice. Yet, with increased numbers of Roma communities migrating to western and Nordic European countries (presumed welfare societies), the issues of group interaction, legislation proposals and specific ways of responding to the institution of the law come to the fore.

In the case of Finnish Roma, as in the case of their ‘alternative system of justice’ and the ways in which ‘culture’ has been linked to ‘lifestyle’, they have always been embedded within the Finnish state. In the context of increased Europeanisation and in the context of increased contact and participation within international institutions, it will be of no surprise if the ways of enacting, and understanding the meaning of the ‘lawful’ and the ‘just’ will be re-shaped, in different and specific ways. Whether this will enable them enhanced access to self-representation, mobilisation and emancipation within an increasingly Europeanized Roma politics, or whether the spread of anti-Gypsy attitudes across Europe will lead to different re-conceptions of the law from within, is another matter altogether.

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