Taboo and shame (Ladž) in traditional Roma communities


The word "taboo", originally "tapu", comes from Polynesian Tonga and is one of the rare terms which have been passed from the language of so-called "primitive people" onto the languages of Western industrialized nations. Taboos form part of a community’s social codex, laying down which acts and forms of conduct must not be carried out. They also serve to define what is not to be talked about. Taboos are thus negative conventions that draw borders and help secure authority. Taboos are thus highly effective means of social control.

As opposed to prohibitions, taboos cannot be questioned as to their rational background. They are not the topic of any discussion, as that which is taboo generally prohibits itself. Taboos are, per definition, non-existing topics. In the educational process, taboos are largely internalized ("You must not do this!") with the result that any form of critical questioning is realized only through massive outside influence. When taboos are broken, there is no need for acts of justifying or sanctioning. Everyone is aware of what is taboo, feelings of guilt and shame set in automatically. The taboo is however based on a strong, unconscious wish to break it. If this desire subsides, the taboo disappears along with it.

The Romani term for shame is ladž. A so-called word of Indian origin, it appears in nearly all Romani dialects, showing very little variation. In the case of a taboo break, the Roma feel ashamed in front of their family and group. There are no such feelings with respect to other groups or non-Roma, however. The shame caused by the breaking of the taboo can diminish or endanger the family’s status within the group. Some common phrases are:

Mulom katar ki ladž!
"I died from shame!"
Xalem ladžavo!
"I ate shame!"
Ladž ti xal to muj, na ladžasa hic!
"May shame eat your face, don’t you feel ashamed?"


Generally, taboos form a central part of the social structure of discriminated minorities such as the Roma and Sinti. Not only do they serve to retain the internal structure of a group, they also take on an "external" function of protection by regulating contact with the majority population and thus limiting influence from outside. Different religious and cultural factors do however play a role in the originating process of the taboo. In the course of time, a number of systems of taboo have developed, documenting the heterogeneous structure of traditional Roma communities.

The taboos also show how little "Tsiganologues" ("Gypsy researchers") were willing (and in some cases still are) to actually investigate existing social and cultural conditions. Even the relatively progressive ethnologist Tihomir Gjorgjevic doubted the existence of taboos in his dissertation of 1903 on "Die Zigeuner in Serbien" ("The Gypsies in Serbia" ), concluding that among the Roma "shame was (basically) almost completely unknown". This statement reflects one of the most common prejudices the Roma have been confronted with, which is used to justify the image of the gypsies’ careless lifestyle as well as their supposed "criminal tendencies".


As already mentioned, taboos can be understood as negative conventions regulating central areas of human life such as personal relationships, sexuality, illness, death, language, etc. Still it is remarkable how differently and even contrarily taboos are employed. While for many northern groups (Sinti, Manouche, Kale etc. [classification]) it is taboo to talk about anything related to birth, the Turkish and Greek Sepečides are not familiar with this taboo at all. There are further differences between the groups as to clothing: in the presence of their fathers, the Swedish Rezande are not allowed to wear anything but dark clothes. Neither must they wear short sleeved shirts. Among the Kalderaš, it is taboo to show one’s naked feet. Even ankles must not be exposed. [Roma groups]

In complete opposition to the conventions of non-Roma, many groups of Vlach-Roma did not consider the exposure of female breasts to be taboo. Romnja (Roma women) breastfed their babies wherever they were, even in the presence of men and non-Roma. In turn, this caused many non-Roma who were completely unaware of the actual moral codex to condemn the Roma’s immorality. On the one hand, this judgment is based on a cultural misunderstanding. On the other hand it reflects the taboo on sexuality among non-Roma, who project their own unconscious fantasies onto the Roma in order to be able to fight them not in themselves, but in others.

In the case of the Vlach-Roma it is striking that the strict moral codex clashes with a notable linguistic openness. This contrast between linguistic freedom and tabooed reality can best be seen with sexuality: common phrases such as "Kures mura da!" ("May you sleep with my mother!" / Lovara-Romani) are used by the Roma exclusively as reinforcement formulas and do not have any immoral connotations. Non-Roma in the industrialized societies of the west, however, consider these statements to be extremely vulgar and thus taboo. It is striking that linguistic openness disappears along with the loosening of the moral codex. Also, for northern groups it is generally taboo to use "vulgar" expressions at all.

Due to the patriarchal structure of society, women -- especially young women and girls--have always been most likely to bring shame upon themselves. For them, the socializing process is much more restrictive than for men. Women’s lives are characterized by a range of rules and taboos in all phases of their lives: starting in early childhood with the duties of the sister (phen) and older sister (bari phen), to the choice of a mate, the role of daughter in law (bori) all the way to the duties of the mother and wife. Again and again, situations arise in which a woman’s wrong conduct can have severe consequences. To name only one example: in traditional Lovara communities, it is taboo for a woman to draw attention to herself – e.g. at family gatherings. She is only allowed to sing or tell stories after her husband has been asked to tell her to do so by the guests. If a woman breaks one of the many rules, her entire larger family is affected by the shame she has caused.

For all traditional Roma groups, one of the basic elements of their system of taboo is the concept of impurity (mahrime). It shows most clearly how taboos affect the power structures within the groups as well as contact with the respective majority population.


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