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Macedonian and Bulgarian Muslim Romani women: power, politics, and creativity in ritual

12 April 2000

Carol Silverman1

When the editors of Roma Rights first approached me about writing a commentary for an issue devoted to women, I wondered how I could possibly relate my experience with Balkan Muslim Romani women in rituals such as weddings, circumcisions, house-warmings and soldier-send-off celebrations to issues such as the political representation and legal treatment of women. After much thought, I now hope to show that women’s political participation in the macro sphere of non-Romani life can only flower with an understanding of the gendered politics of culture within the Romani sphere2. A few caveats are in order: I am not Romani, and do not presume to speak for Roma; rather, I speak as a female observer/participant. I am a Russian Jewish second generation American who has been spending time among Roma for approximately twenty years in various roles such as ethnographic researcher, human rights educator, singer, and friend. I write here only about Macedonian and Bulgarian Muslim Roma whom I have known in the Balkans and in diasporic locations such as New York, Toronto, and Melbourne. I shy away from generalising about all Roma since history has produced marked differences among sub-groups. I welcome comparative and critical comments on this piece and especially encourage Romani women to contribute their thoughts on this question.

Perhaps it is obvious to start by noting that the larger sphere of national/state/city politics and economics, whether socialist or capitalist, totalitarian or democratic, has historically been dominated by non-Romani men and has, in addition, given Roma many negative experiences — slavery, discrimination, and marginality. It is not surprising that it is difficult to mobilise Roma, especially women, in this sphere. The sphere of community and family, on the other hand, is of primary concern to Roma, for it is here that Roma achieve recognition and reputation. Families regularly come together to celebrate various rituals, both life cycle — such as circumcisions, weddings and funerals — and calendrical, such as Bajram and Ederlezi — St. George’s Day3. In a sense, family members symbolically enact their roles and obligations to each other in ritual. Ritual is not an idle realm of entertainment — it is the cement of the community and accomplishes the work of making people into Roma. Moreover, families and individuals establish themselves through ritual performances, and it is here that women achieve a high degree of power and public recognition.

Economics and kinwork

Although many of the overt structures of Balkan Muslim Romani life are male-dominated (both by Romani men and non-Romani men), women are not passive. While they sometimes suffer abuse and routinely defer to and serve Romani men in public, they actively strategize and resist domination, capitalising on their strengths in economic and ritual roles. Many Roma agree that women hold the family together. In the economic sphere, Balkan Muslim Romani women are visible and prominent in wage as well as domestic labour. For at least a century and probably longer in the Balkans, Romani women have worked outside the home among non-Romani men as seasonal agricultural workers, factory workers, and middleman peddlers.

More recent female jobs include cleaning in private homes, offices, hospitals, and schools, and ironing and cooking in institutional settings; in the last ten years, women have become journalists, teachers, and accountants. The visibility of female wage labour is even more striking when one compares Romani Muslim women to other Muslim women of the Balkans; unlike Roma, non-Romani Muslims have historically tended to seclude their women if sufficient income permitted. Socialism forced women into state jobs, but now that state jobs have disappeared, Romani women have not retreated to domestic non-wage labour as many non-Romani women have, but have rather expanded the trade niche.

Women’s incomes are used not only for necessities in the domestic sphere, but also to establish the family’s face for the Romani public. Economic family decisions are influenced by women, and indeed, women often manage family budgets. The reason I am dwelling on economics is that I believe that work is intimately related to ritual. In fact, ritual is a kind of gendered work. I want to emphasise the relationship between women’s work (paid and unpaid), community, and the aesthetic dimensions of ritual, music, dance, costume, and food. I use the term “kinwork4" to describe a characteristic kind of female work other than wage work and domestic work. Unlike domestic work, which occurs within a household, kinwork mobilise women across households. Kinwork also creates obligations and reciprocal work for whole households, including men.

The term kinwork describes the kind of work Romani women do in planning, organising, managing, performing, and evaluating ritual celebrations. To illustrate the concept of kinwork, I highlight the gender coding of performance at a wedding. While it is beyond the purview of this commentary to analyse weddings in detail, it is important to note that Balkan Muslim Romani weddings are often five to six-day events, often with hundreds of guests, involving multiple performances of rituals. Food presentation is one example of visible gendered work and performance, since food and banquets are an important part of any celebration. I term food preparation and presentation “performances" because they are observed behaviours with a marked aesthetic dimension which others evaluate according to shared criteria. Both women and men participate in food preparation, but in a segregated manner. Women, for example are mobilised across households to prepare foods, such as stuffing grape leaves, baking hundreds of bread products, and making salads. Men slaughter animals, prepare meats, and transport ready-made foods from bakeries and warehouses. Serving the food during the banquets is usually done by men, who activate kin networks to recruit the necessary labourers. This male serving is a significant reversal of the daily division of labour and is necessary because women need to be free to dance, as discussed below. Washing the dishes and pots is done exclusively by women.

Costume is an important performance area under women’s direction. Women are expected to wear numerous outfits during the course of the wedding, and the appropriate styles and order of clothing are managed by women. For example, in Macedonia, the Saturday afternoon event opens with women wearing shalvari (wide-legged trousers). Clothing also figures significantly as wedding gifts. For example, at various public rituals during the wedding, the bride is given clothing by female members of the groom’s family, who have tastefully arranged the clothing on decorated round trays. Women shop, sew, and order the outfits they wear and give as gifts. Of course, they financially manage these tasks with no interference from men. The female display of clothing is, then, an aesthetic system with a distinctly female economic base.

Gender and Ritual

Ritual acts during the wedding are numerous and follow the general pattern of all Balkan weddings. Women direct rituals much more than men; in fact many men are quite ignorant about what needs to be done and when. It is older women who usually have the knowledge about the rituals. Wedding rituals (for example the henna celebration, the women’s bath, and the greeting of the guests by the bride) involve mostly female actors in part because the bride is the more active ritual participant: she moves from her home to the home of her groom and his parents, whereas the groom remains at home and goes through fewer changes.

In a few wedding rituals, males are the primary actors, for example, the formal “asking for the bride". Even this, however, can only be accomplished with the knowledge of the women about the reputations of various prospective brides. Female information networks and decision-making often propel marriage choices, giving women a base of power in the family. On the other hand, many wedding rituals express traditional patriarchal values, for example the modest and shameful stance of the bride in which her eyes are lowered and she acts demurely, which are at odds with the powerful position of women in ritual management. This paradox calls into question some of the traditional patriarchal principles that the rituals themselves display. For example, let us examine one typical pan-Balkan ritual which symbolically enacts the incorporation of the bride into the household of her groom: the groom leads the bride into his house with her head lowered and a belt around her neck. The most obvious interpretation of this ritual is as a symbol of female subordination to men. However, many Romani women remark that they have to answer to their mothers-in-law much more than to their husbands. This ritual may be more about female/female age hierarchies than about male/female hierarchies. In fact, it is the mother-in-law who often directs this ritual. Moreover, Romani grooms are sometimes reluctant to perform this ritual because it seems so anachronistic; they may perform it only to show respect for the elder women who are directing it. My point is that we cannot assume a single interpretation of rituals. By analysing performances in their wider economic and social contexts we can attempt to reveal their complex layers of significance.

While men have a virtual monopoly on instrumental music, dance is perhaps the most important women’s performance art. Many ritual events are initiated by the most important elder female family member leading the dance line with a decorated object such as a sieve. Kin groups are called up for hours, one by one, in order of closeness to the sponsoring family, and women often lead dance lines. Close kin women are expected, even obliged, to dance for hours every day, sometimes for three or four days in a row, no matter how hot and how tired they are. The only excuse not to dance is illness or mourning. Women who do not dance well or are mentally or physically disabled also dance and even lead dance lines. Because women have so many obligations, such as dancing, during rituals, men end up taking care of children, something that rarely happens outside of rituals. Male dancing, on the other hand, is more optional. Men dance, and some dance a great deal, but they are not obliged to dance; they dance by choice.

The most characteristic Romani dance form, known as chochek or chuchek in Macedonia and kyuchek in Bulgaria, embodies an ambivalent evaluation of female sexuality. As a solo, improvised dance, utilising hand movements, contractions of the abdomen, shoulder shakes, and small footwork patterns, chochek can be coded as sexually provocative. Before the 1970’s it was danced in segregated groups by both men and women, reflecting the modesty expected of women. Women dancing for men was considered shameful, especially if performers were professional. By the 1980’s, sexual segregation in dance was less pronounced and women were dancing chochek in public. Today, dancing chochek is coded as female and distinguishes a woman and enhances her reputation. Mothers “put up" daughters to dance and coach them; sometimes young girls practice at home. Chochek dancers may even receive monetary tips by family members. Dancing chochek is not coded as overtly sexual, but females dancing chochek professionally or even singing professionally are suspected of low morals. This is perhaps because females dancing non-professionally are surrounded by family members in a secure atmosphere, while professional dancers perform for strangers.

Conclusion

Moving back to my original juxtaposition of macro/community, what is immediately striking is that unlike the realm of community ritual politics, which is female, the realm of macro-politics and political organising is male; females are almost totally absent. There are a number of reasons for the lack of participation of women in the sphere of macro-politics. Firstly, women do not feel welcome in the overwhelmingly male context of political meetings in part because they occur in male spaces such as cafes, restaurants, and meeting halls. Perhaps if meetings were held in the kitchens of homes, more women would attend. Secondly, the model Roma are following in political activism is the East European model of politics in which males predominate. If one goal, for example, is to elect Romani representatives into the Narodno Sobranie of Macedonia, we should note that assembly is almost totally male, so to offer female Romani candidates seems absurd to many. Women are taught in subtle ways that national politics is a male domain — there is a lack of female role models. Thanks to the hard work of a number of brave Romani women, this is slowly changing. Thirdly, women find most party platforms (even Romani party platforms) lacking in women’s concerns, which they define as more practical and focused on economic discrimination and family issues such as child care. Fourthly, politicisation is a slow process which involves creating a political consciousness, not merely organising a party. Women often look for tangible results in their lives; they claim politicians have done nothing for them. It is important to note that many males are sceptical of political activism for precisely the same reasons as women, but even sceptical males have more options for involvement than women. Finally, and most importantly, women receive more immediate gratification and gain from the public realm of Romani ritual politics than they do from the public realm of Romani macro-politics. Their reputations and alliances are made in the community, not in the wider context. This, then, needs to be one goal of the politicisation of Romani women: to create meaningful agendas which impact women in ways close to home.

Endnotes:

  1. Carol Silverman is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, Oregon. She teaches, writes about, and works with Balkan Roma and Roma in the United States on issues embracing the politics of culture.
  2. I would like to thank Šani Rifati, Ian Hancock, and Claude Cahn for their comments on this article. Portions of this article were reproduced with permission from "Music and Power: Gender and Performance among Roma (Gypsies) of Skopje, Macedonia," The World of Music 38(1):63-76, 1996.
  3. Ritual has been defined in the anthropological literature as patterned dramatic symbolic behaviour.
  4. The term "kinwork" was coined by Micaela Di Leonardo in her article, "The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12(3):440-453, 1987.

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