Gypsies have been present in Finland since the second half of the sixteenth century. With their unusual dress, unique customs, and specialized trades for earning their livelihood, Gypsies have stood out, and their stay in the country has not been an easy one. They have suffered periodic harassment from the hands of both private citizens and public officials, and the last of the special laws directed against them was repealed only in 1883. Even in the second half of the 1980s, Finland's 5,000 to 6,000 Gypsies remained a distinct group, separated from the general population both by their own choice and by the fears and the prejudices many Finns felt toward them.
Finnish Gypsies, like gypsies elsewhere, chose to live apart from the dominant societal groups. A Gypsy's loyalty was to his or her family and to Gypsies in general. Marriages with nonGypsies were uncommon, and the Gypsies' own language, spoken as a first language only by a few in the 1980s, was used to keep outsiders away. An individual's place within Gypsy society was largely determined by age and by sex, old males having authority. A highly developed system of values and a code of conduct governed a Gypsy's behavior, and when Gypsy sanctions, violent or not, were imposed, for example via "blood feuds," they had far more meaning than any legal or social sanctions of Finnish society.
Unlike the Lapps, who lived concentrated in a single region, the Gypsies lived throughout Finland. While most Lapps wore ordinary clothing in their everyday life, Gypsies could be identified by their dress; the men generally wore high boots and the women almost always dressed in very full, long velvet skirts. Like most Lapps, however, Gypsies also had largely abandoned a nomadic way of life and had permanent residences. Gypsy men had for centuries worked as horse traders, but they had adapted themselves to postwar Finland by being active as horse breeders and as dealers in cars and scrap metal. Women continued their traditional trades of fortune telling and handicrafts.
Since the 1960s, Finnish authorities have undertaken measures to improve the Gypsies' standard of life. Generous state financial arrangements have improved their housing. Their low educational level (an estimated 20 percent of adult Gypsies could not read) was raised, in part, through more vocational training. A permanent Advisory Commission on Gypsy Affairs was set up in 1968, and in 1970 racial discrimination was outlawed through an addition to the penal code. The law punished blatant acts such as barring Gypsies from restaurants or shops or subjecting them to unusual surveillance by shopkeepers or the police.
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