Shame as a distinct form of marginality – Københavns Universitet

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23. september 2015

Shame as a distinct form of marginality

Marginality is related to a wide range of affects and emotions such as cynicism, optimism, fear, sympathy and shame, suggests new Ph.D.-dissertation by Tamta Khalvashi who has done extensive ethnographic research in the Ajara Region in the former Soviet republic of Georgia

A lot of marginality studies have focused on how being marginalized is related to being socially, economically or politically different. A new Ph.D.-dissertation from The Department of Anthropology by Tamta Khalvashi shows that marginality is also related to a wide range of affects and emotions such as cynicism, optimism, fear, sympathy and shame. Especially the latter, the feeling of shame, is central to understanding the drivers of transformation for marginalized people, according to Tamta Khalvashi.

As a case for her study Tamta Khalvashi has been doing extensive ethnographic research in the region Ajara which is today an autonomous republic of Georgia in the south west part of the country next to the border of Turkey. The region has a population of around 400.000 people. 

- Various regimes in Georgia, from the Soviet to the post-Soviet Georgian state, have had various national discourses which have all differentiated Ajarans from Georgians due to their Muslim background.  Shame is an effect of these discourses and it has led many Ajarans to reject their own identity, says Tamta Khalvashi.

“A dormant threat”
Historically the region of Ajara has been the subject of many attempts of both nationalization and “normalization”. With its Muslim heritage (it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1614) and its geographical placement close to Turkey the region has always been seen as a dormant (Muslim) threat to the rest of Georgia.
Already in the 1930´s Ajara was seen as a “backwards” region under Stalin’s nationality policy and was consequentially placed under The Georgian Soviet Republics rule with the intention to subject Ajara to a more “up-to-date” nationality. In spite of the Soviet Union´s officially secular society the Ajarans were still classified along religious lines and this further intensified the feeling of shame rather than promoting the space of internationalist solidarity and sympathy, which was otherwise officially promoted within the Soviet Union.

The Ajara region in Georgia is located in the southwest part of the country bordering Turkey and the black sea

As a result of this Ajarans hid their religious practices and beliefs from public space. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia tried to redefine its nationality as an independent country and as part of this the Orthodox Christian church came to play a major role. Islam was further marginalized, installing more shame in the Ajarans of which many converted to Christianity as a result.

Shame as a geographical phenomenon
- What is interesting to observe is how strong the shame still is today. Ajarans in general struggle to define their identity. Many converted to Christianity after the collapse of the Soviet but these people are still ashamed of their Muslim heritage. At the same time the Christian majority is fearful of the Muslim minority which further installs shame in all Ajarans, Christian or Muslim. My findings show that certain feelings, such as shame, can be attached to certain places and here they can become affective grounds for current political and public contestations, says Tamta Khalvashi.

- An example is that Muslim Ajarans hide their religious identities in Ajara´s civil service since the 1990´s. Christianized Ajaran civil servants see Muslim Ajarans as negative mirror images of themselves, which gives legitimacy to the widespread rejection and invisibility of Muslim Ajarans in the administration. This also affects Christianized Ajaran civil servants because the rejection of their Muslim counterparts indirectly underlines Christianized Ajaran´s marginality to the wider national Georgian identity, says Tamta Khalvasi as an example of the ambivalence related to the Ajaran identity.

Identity crisis and Islamic State
Today the Ajarans are split when it comes to their political and religious situation in Georgia. Many from the old generation have become nostalgic for Soviet times. They feel that their secret practice of religion was better tolerated in the officially secular Soviet state than in the new Georgia where the Orthodox Church is very prevalent. The young generation (for whom the unemployment as well as difficulties in social and religious integration became too widespread) is split between those hoping for a better future and those for whom the shame and identity crisis become almost overwhelming. Some young Ajarans, as other Muslim religious minorities living across the country, thus search for new prospects through, for instance, joining the visions of Islamic State , further installing fear of the Muslim minority in the rest of Georgia.

- What I wish to do with this work is to put focus on how affects such as shame plays a crucial part in relation to minority/majority conflicts and the actions of people affected by this feeling. The mechanism I have described in my dissertation will surely take place most places where there is a very strong definition of “the good citizen”. Those who do not fit in will certainly be confined to experiencing shame. It is important that we look out for gaps created by too rigid a nationalist narrative, says Tamta Khalvashi.

Tamta Khalvashi defended her ph.d. dissertation on the 11th of September 2015