Overlapping Seraglios

Ilina Schileru, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, 2022. Digital photography. Courtesy of the artist.

As a young girl, I knew what not to speak. I knew not to talk about my legs in front of my elders. I knew not to talk about desire. I was told that if I were to use a tampon, it might get lost “up there”, and that sex was only with my (future) husband, and something never to be enjoyed. I understood that to be a Romni [i] meant to marry young, to safeguard my virginity, to treat my body like “a temple, not a playground”, and of course that desire and all that goes with it was mokadi. Chik. What some Roma would call marime. My understanding of romanipe was such that my body or pleasure was not on the table, not in dialogue, and certainly not on display.

Out in the non-Roma world, I was bombarded with images of the young, hypersexualised Romani women, on the one hand, or by the proverbial wizened, tricky old crone telling fortunes and dispensing potions. In “Gypsy Woman”, Curtis Mayfield sang, “All through the caravan/She was dancing with all the men”, while Cher sang of “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”, and about herself as a Romani girl whose mother “danced for the money they’d throw”; later, my daughter, tears in her eyes, showed me the video to the song “Gypsy/Gitana”, in which Shakira sings, “I’m a Gypsy/I’ll steal your clothes if they fit me”. At the other end of the pop culture race/gender/sex life course, I saw “Gypsy Witch” fortune telling cards for sale in joke shops and films such as Stephen King’s Thinner, that featured old, malevolent Romani women. Pop culture tropes were reinforced by those of science, with “Gypsy Moths” wreaking havoc on the flora in the countryside around me and police forces specialising in “Gypsy” criminality. Throughout it all, we, Romani women, Romnia, went unrecognised, confined to the overlapping seraglios of Orientalist, sexist-racist patriarchal sovereignty.

We, Romnia, have been caught in overlapping seraglios across generations, across centuries, at the intersection of racism, sexism, genocide and coloniality. These overlapping seraglios work to contain us as sexualised, domesticated subjects of the nation-state, pop culture, nationalism, the sex/gender/race system, patriarchy, capitalism, and Orientalism. As Ann Stoler reminds us, “…the history of Western sexuality must be located in the production of historical Others, in the broader forcefield of empire where technologies of sex, self, and power were defined as ‘European’ and ‘Western’ as they were refracted and remade”.[ii] Romani women, and our sexuality, have been continually produced as Europe’s and whiteness’s historical Others –objects of desire, central to the production of the West and in its racialised Romani subject.

At the same time, Romnia are bound by an internalised patriarchal (Orientalist) formation that is at the crux of certain forms of Romani nationalism: that, in order to continue the line, the family, the nation, true Romnia have to be pure, young, and, once married, childbearing. Once we are beyond childbearing years, we are asked to reproduce the nation by teaching our girls the same lessons. If we are caught in the seraglio of the nation-state, we are also subject to abduction – not as liberation, but as marriage, as providing proof of virginity, of reproducing the Romani nation in the face of the violence, racism, discrimination, and genocide to which we have been subject across centuries. We are educated into a gadjekane system of desire where, again from Stoler, “Domesticated sexuality and managed sensibilities were endowments of those who stood above, and labelled, those categories…[iii] of race, sex, gender, class, and rule.

To be clear, Roma do not have a patriarchy problem that needs to be solved by gadjekane enlightenment. Our seraglio has been constructed, created precisely by gadjekane enlightenment. The colonialist, racist, sexist and patriarchal European project has constructed Romani Others as abject, inhabiting the seraglio, the camp, the mahala, the shantytown and the ghetto; at the same time, we Roma have reproduced that Othering, and have reproduced the gadjekane nation-state, through the maintenance of sex/gender binaries, of child marriages, showing the sheets, and the heteronormative, patriarchal telos of womanhood that works to limit our vision of who we can be and who our girls might be.

Furthermore, we, Romnia, do not need to be saved. We do not need, in Gayatri Spivak’s words, to flatten “the race-class-gender overdeterminations of the situation”; we are not calling for the colonial formulation of “white men are saving brown women from brown men”;[iv] neither are we, in Abu-Lughod’s reformulation of Spivak, advocating for white (feminists) to save brown women from brown men.[v] Rather, we can save ourselves – and we are saving ourselves, every day – from the seraglio of nation-state/colonialism/racism/patriarchy; from the saray of the multiple nation-building projects that have claimed us: nation-state system, the nation-building project, our own nationalism.  We have been kept in a seraglio framed by gypsylorists, by Romologists, by gadje experts, by those who would explain our situation – those who, taking their cue from imperial knowledge production, would establish, in Spivak’s words, “the good society […] marked by the espousal of the woman as object of protection from her own kind”. Spivak goes on to ask the key question: “How should one examine the dissimulation of patriarchal strategy, which apparently grants the woman free choice as subject?”[vi] The overlapping seraglios of objectivity and subjectivity as coloniality.

We make home in these overlapping seraglios – for ourselves, for everyone – even as we also are made by them, created by those who occupy, who colonise, by those who pass through, by those who would save us from ourselves and who would grant us freedom. We have been held in their walls, taken from them at whim for marriage, for the sexual pleasure of others; our pleasures bound by patriarchy and our needs framed by coloniality. Through the overlapping seraglios, Romani femme bodies, our sexualities, our desires, our love, have been occupied by gadje and by Roma alike. Romani women have been publicly centred, made hyper-visible, through colonialist gadje fantasies of our sexuality; we have also been kept, held, formed as brides, wives, mothers, daughters, by our communities, by the nation, by the state and by the law.

Abduction itself can only happen from, through and across overlapping seraglios. In Mozart’s opera, Belmonte and Pedrillo plan an abduction (from Turkey) of their loves, Konstanze and Blonde, from the saray of Pasha Selim; in the end, Pasha Selim releases the women, sending them home (to Europe) with the men who had originally come to abduct them. The seraglio of Mozart’s operas is the same seraglio portrayed in Gérôme’s paintings – the stuff of imperial gadjekane masculinist fantasy – and, for we Romnia, it is replicated in the marketplace, the prison, the saray, the palace, the stopping place, the camp. It is the stuff of opera, of paintings, of fantasy; the stuff of statecraft, of patriarchy, of capitalism, of genocide. Both inside and outside the seraglio, abducted into or from, men are recounted as both captors and liberators from, across, and through the overlapping seraglios.

What about we, Romnia, the denizens of those intersecting, overlapping seraglios? What about, in particular, us, the femme subjects who embody the racialised/ gendered/sexualised space of the concentration camp, the prison, the security state; the camp-as-seraglio, the camp-as-bordello, the camp-as-harem, the camp-as-palace? What about Romani women who are the subjects of the seraglio, abducted into and out of the overlapping seraglios through marriage, labour, statecraft, and nation building? We who reproduce the saray for kings, travellers, the nation, the nation-state; for white masculine subjects and white masculinist formations to spend the night and build their lives, build their institutions as protectors of women and as rulers of the world. What about our worlds, our lives, our dreams? How do we heal ourselves? What does healing look like, what does it feel like? What questions do we ask? Where do we begin?

What if we refuse abduction – for ourselves, for our girls, for our mothers and grandmothers? In this refusal, we reclaim the seraglio. We do this through seeing each other, through recognising each other. In 2009, in an article for the inaugural edition of the Romani women’s journal, Nevi Sara Kali [The New Sara Kali], I called for this practice of recognition as a way to understand our place in the world as Romani women, as a mode of seeing, really seeing, each other, Romnia, in the midst and through the mist of fraught legacies of racism, colonialism, and patriarchy, and as a possibility for moving toward a post-Auschwitz sexuality.[vii] Here I offer a politics of recognition as practice, as mode, as now-and-future possibility for Romani women, girls, femmes; for those of us who have been rendered at once invisible and hyper-visible as women, as racialised, as abject, as spirit, as autonomous, as subjects.

Rather than abduction, what if we were to focus on the ways that we recognise each other in the making of home, in and across seraglios, in the world, for women, for Romnia of all ages, for all of us. In all that we do, we Romnia, feminist, queer, young, old, all of us, come together to resist abduction, to make home, and to transform the overlapping seraglios into a space that is for us, together, for all of us. This healing through recognition is what I have called, in other writing, encampment. The making of camp is our magic, our science, our profound system of knowledge. Encampment-as-magic protects, it manifests the future, it forges paths and dreams. Our bodies and our souls, Romnia, build camp, have stayed in place, have practiced encampment for us and for our communities. Through our practices of encampment, we have fed dreams, have sustained lives, have built worlds. This politics and practice of the camp, of camp, is something that we do every day; it is our system of recognition that often goes misrecognised by the state, by patriarchal formations, by the heteronormative sex/gender/race/class system that would capture and encapsulate us all. We have learned to live and to recognise each other through encampment, to make magic and to make our lives, through our knowledge, our survival, our resistance. We are taking back our bodies, our pleasures, our spirits.

For us, Romnia, practicing encampment and the practice of camp is to refuse abduction, to reclaim the seraglio. We know camp as a system of home-making, of standing ground, for femme, queer, abject, brown bodies; camp is our code and our practice, it is our system of recognition and our place in the world. In his essay for Camp: Notes on Fashion, Fabio Cleto tells us:

The word camp itself is protean and duplicitous, as much as it is slippery. […] it probably derives from the theatrical/visual meanings of the French se camper, “to posture boldly”, and the Italian campeggiare, “to stand out”. […] Camp’s semiotic existence thus combines the transitive, transformative power of a subversive mode of perception (camping it up) with the intransitive nature of camping as a style of performance. Camp is a tautology, a linguistic act, providing the ultimate instance of (and case for) “queer performativity”. […] For camp is as camp does.[viii]

My Romni self, my feminist self, would keep all of these formations of camp in play, particularly its origins in queer, femme, abject and racialised practices of embodiment, of worldmaking, of staying. Because camp-as-practice, practicing encampment, is also, again drawing from the French transitive verb, the practice of staying in place. Staying in place despite it all. We Romnia have stayed in place – we have withstood racialised, sexual, gendered violence and exclusion, the appropriation of our bodies and the domestication of our desires. We have created beauty and remained beauty throughout.

We see this possibility, of recognition, of beauty, in another year of encampment in Venice, in the Biennale, and in the magic-carpet post-Soviet Romani seraglio that Eugen Raportoru has created in the space of what is, as it always has been, the Roma Pavilion. The horses, the carpets, the marriage bed – signifiers of our Romaniness, codes that we recognise amongst ourselves and that connect us across continents and contexts. This possibility lies, profoundly, in the Performative Strategies of Resistance that Roma Women bring to Venice, just as we bring them to the world in our everyday lives, in our everyday making of home and of camp, and in our everyday resistance against genocide, against patriarchy, against overlapping seraglios. These Strategies of Resistance are open to all, and they consist of the gifts we give to the world: Alina Serban’s Storytelling takes up the legacy of Katarina Taikon, and the gift of the stories that we tell each other, ourselves, our children, as resistance and as intergenerational knowledge transmission, to share with all who wish to listen. Mihaela Dragan and Giuvlipen Theatre give us the gift of Rituals, channelling the spirits, the witchcraft, that we Romnia embody, through our care, our knowledge, our expertise, our magic.

This practice of recognition, of Romnia making camp, making pleasure, making satisfaction, in the sense of Alenka Zupancic’s engagement of the question, “What is Sex?”[ix] Zupancic engages with Lacan to think through sex and sexuality, exploring the ontological and epistemological gap in knowing, explaining, understanding sex; Zupancic suggests that there is a “fundamental ambiguity which is, from the outset, of a metaphysical order. In other words: the more we try to think of the sexual as sexual […] the quicker we find ourselves in the element of pure and profound metaphysics”.[x] We are experts in metaphysics; we bring pleasure to each other; we build camp not just for home, but for pleasure, for satisfaction.

As a young girl, I knew what not to speak. But when I came home and asked my mother, after hearing the word on a playground, what a period was (because I was scared by the explanation I had been given by the other girls), my mother quietly, swiftly, went into action, calling her cousins, neighbours, my aunties, our extended family, and community, asking for advice. She did not want me to be afraid and yet, because she herself knew what not to speak, and, also, had never been told, she turned to other women. My aunties all came together, giving my mother books and ideas. In response to my question, within a day or so, my mother handed me a library – a dozen or so books – teaching me about my body, menstruation, reproduction, and, partly, self-care. I took the stack of books into a corner of our trailer, behind the sofa, and read them. While they did not teach me about pleasure, or satisfaction, they provided a basis for me to understand the workings of my own body – a gift given to me by my mother and by the other Romnia elders of my family. Later, I was able to use the knowledge I learned in those books to map all of the parts of our bodies, which we had known not to speak, for my older family members. It was a map of knowledge and desire, of the possibility of satisfaction. It is something that I wish all of us, all Romnia, knew: how to map our desire, our pleasure, our satisfaction. It was my mother’s gift, not as truth, but as knowledge, as recognition among and between women.

My mother, and all of the Romnia elders upon whom she called, practised recognition through a methodology and an epistemology of love. Her gift of the books – none of them perfect, of course; cobbled together, of course – these books of encampment, started me on my feminist journey and allowed me, in turn, to teach my daughters about their bodies, to share with them a methodology and epistemology of love, of pleasure, of satisfaction that I wish for all of us. It is this sense of satisfaction, of love, of pleasure that I sought in my young life and that I have to rediscover as I move into another phase, another stage, of my life. Again, in this time, in my fifties, I follow my mother’s practice, and, where I once had my mother, sisters, aunts, cousins to guide me, to gift me stories, books, knowledge, I now depend on my sisters, cousins and daughters to guide me through menopause, through new forms of pleasure, through satisfaction. We do this together, Romnia: my daughters, Charlotte and Sara; my nieces, Talley and Ellie. My sisters, Cindy and Charlotte; for all of my aunts, sisters, cousins, across the world. For you, Romnia, who are reading this. We teach our daughters, just as my mother taught me, as strong, independent women, free from abduction, free from the seraglio; we teach them the practices of resistance, survival, magic, and pleasure. We teach them in love, through self-love and love for each other. In the name of my mother, my aunt, my grandmother; our mothers, our aunts, our grandmothers, all those who went before and all of those who come after.

I wish for us the beauty of our bodies, the ability to stay in place (se camper), and the reclaiming of our place, our home, ourselves. This reclaiming is also why we give you Camp, the RomaMoMA Nomadic Library. It is the stack of books that my mother gave me – the entry into my own sense of embodiment, of self, of pleasure of satisfaction – and it is the stories that my aunt told me; it is the knowledge of what it means to be Romni and to seek connection and community with other Romnia, in the world that we have built through recognition, through camp, through love. Our Camp, our library, is that space behind the sofa: it is the space where we can explore, together, ways of knowing, ways of understanding, together. It is an active, contingent, living form of knowledge production.

Romnia, we have survived centuries of genocide, of the occupation of our bodies and continual efforts to contain our souls. We are strong: survivors, resisters; we are beauty and love. We are creators of knowledge, whose knowledge, whose bodies, and whose place in the world can never be fully colonised by whiteness, by patriarchy, by Europe, by the nation. This is the feminist, queer possibilities of Romnia power, our sexuality, our bodies, our pleasures, and the beauty that we create in all that we are. This is the recognition we bring to each other, of pleasure, of satisfaction, of beauty, of possibility, through a taking back of the seraglio, resisting abduction, making feminist, femme, Romani/Romni home through satisfaction, pleasure, knowledge; through camp and encampment; through storytelling and rituals; through magic; through intergenerational transmission of knowledge, intimate and embodied.

And still, it is crucial for our continued survival, and for the continued survival of the planet, that we Romnia maintain our sense of self, our knowledge, our magic. As indigenous activist and scholar Rigoberta Menchú said, at the end of her testimonial book, to Elizabeth Burgos Debray: “I’m still keeping secret what I think no one should know. Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets”.[xi] And so it is, our knowledge production, our intergenerational storytelling, our magic. You are not going to learn our secrets. But I will tell you about our knowledge production, our resistance, our freedom beyond abduction, beyond the seraglio.

[i] In this piece, I am following a politics of translation given to us by Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera (Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco, 1987), in which she does not translate Nahuatl and Spanish words for her readers. I will not be translating the Romani in this text but hope that my non-Romani speaking readers will work to understand/divine the meanings of the Romani. In so doing, I also take seriously Rigoberta Menchú Tum’s position that there are “some secrets that are ours alone, not to be shared”, to which I return below.
[ii] Stoler, Ann Laura: Race and the Education of Desire, Duke University Press, Durham, 1995, p.195.
[iii] Ibid., p.194.
[iv] Chakravorty Spivak, Gayatri: “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in: Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds.: Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Macmillan, London, 1988, p.305.
[v] Abu-Lughod, Lila: “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others”, in: American Anthropologist, 104(3), 2002, pp.783-790.
[vi] Chakravorty Spivak: Op.cit., p.299.
[vii] Brooks, Ethel: “(Mis)Recognitions: Romanies, Sexualities, Sincerities”, in: Nevi Sara Kali: Romani Women’s Journal, Volume 1, Number 1, 2009.
[viii] Cleto, Fabio: “The Spectacles of Camp”, in: Andrew Bolton, Karen Van Godtsenhoven and Amanda Garfinkel: Camp: Notes on Fashion, The Metropolitan Museum, New York, 2019, 1:13.
[ix] Zupancic, Alenka: What is Sex?, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2017, p.2.
[x] Ibid., p.142.
[xi] Menchú Tum, Rigoberta: I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, Verso, New York, 1984, p.247.

Text: Ethel Brooks

Previous Blog Entry

Next Blog Entry

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *