Notions of shame

May 15, 2012 at 5:12 pm

I’ve been reading a really excellent ethnographic account of a Roma community in Transylvania, Romania, called Exploring Gypsiness, and just experienced a minor epiphany related to some of the issues Ramona talked about during our project Elvira and Me. For example these quotes:

“Ramona couldn’t exist in Romania – her place is Manchester. It’s her character, she is too proud. If a man says something about a woman she will challenge him. You’re not allowed to do that as a Roma woman.”


“A Roma woman has rules to follow – she needs to keep her head down. Roma culture is not so open to the new ideas, the modern way. I have to be respectable and not take on the English thinking too much…”

She’s said many such things since I met her and I’ve always taken them largely at face value. But a section in this book made me think about it a bit differently. In it, author Ada Engebrigtsten discusses the concepts of shame and honour as central to ‘Romness’.

“To have shame is expressed as a property of the Rom person, to be ashamed: lasal pe,” she writes. “Shame is embodied knowledge, and its essence is expressed by culturally defined bodily signs, such as downcast eyes and a blushing face and in a system of ritual work practised in everyday relations…

“In everyday situations shame is an expression of proper conduct and the emotional aspect is not questioned as long as the behaviour is seen as correct. Only when people violate ideas of shame by their behaviour may the question be raised; is she (he) a proper Rom person, does she have shame?” 

I don’t know if Ramona or any of the other Roma people I know would recognise this and I’m not sure whether Czech Roma or even others from elsewhere in Romania would see see shame and honour as being of such importance – it is after all a hugely diverse population of 10m or more people.

However it did resonate for me – as an outside observer I’m very sensitive to the tensions which exist for people, especially women, who step outside the normal path for a Roma person. I’m not sure to what extent it is possible to live with one foot inside a more traditional Roma community and one outside – it seems, perhaps inevitably, to engender mistrust from some quarters.

Even among the indigenous British Romani community I’ve heard of jibes that so-and-so has become ‘too educated’ and is therefore somehow less Gypsy. Among the Romanians there are jokes about people becoming ‘English’, or incidents of being spoken to by other community members in Romanian rather than Romanes – fairly insulting, I believe.

I guess it’s much the same for anyone – anywhere – from a traditional community who wants to step out and do something unusual, just framed somewhat differently.