This weekend the New York Times published an intriguing article about a women’s social movement in Afghanistan called “Where is my name?” This movement seeks to break the taboo of mentioning Afghan women by name, and reclaim their identities by daring to use their own names in public.
The Afghan poet Somaia Ramish, who is a councillor in the province of Herat, wrote an online essay about this campaign a few weeks ago. She was briefly quoted in the NYT article. I have included a rough translation of the entire essay here as a guest post, because it is a beautifully-written essay, and we rarely hear from Afghan women themselves about what they want. We should feel immensely privileged to read their words when the courageous ones break taboos and speak out.
Call me by my name….
by Somaia Ramish
When President Ghani called on the first lady, Bibi Gul, by name in a ceremony, everyone reacted with huge surprise. It was as if no one had ever heard a woman’s name!
Yes; we have not remembered the names of women in our five thousand year-old history and culture. We become curious, disturbed, amazed, or sad when we hear a woman’s name.
Having a name is a civil right of every human being, in other words, it is the most basic right of every person, given to him from the beginning of his life. Calling a person by name is a part of his identity and his recognition, and no one has the right to deny a person his name. But women in Afghanistan have no right to this; in very few families does a woman get called by her true name, either in the home or outside it.
A child comes out of the mother’s womb, but in no document relating to the child — from infancy to old age — does its mother’s name get registered. There’s no mother’s name in the birth certificate, in the vaccine card, in the educational documents, in the passport or in any other place where the mother-child relationship can be proven!
The interesting thing, however, is that the mother then, out of habit and tradition, becomes identified by the child. The woman whose name has no place in laws all of a sudden becomes ‘the mother of Ahmad’ or ‘the mother of Mahmoud.’”
Throughout history, the names of women have been systematically eliminated, and instead, the name of a male relative and her relationship to it — ‘her daughter Falani’ or ‘mother of the Flower’ —have taken the place of women’s names and identities.
It’s come to a point where some women forget their name and feel fear or shame from saying their name, so they don’t even speak it aloud. In a society where for some women their own names is a taboo, as she’s part of the property of the men’s world, the most enlightened men don’t write their wife’s name on the forms at a doctor’s clinic, or when purchasing women’s goods. Even our president appreciated the first lady of the country using one of those same aliases and her second title!
On invitation cards, the name of the bride is not included with the name of the groom. She is usually mentioned only by her family name. Yet the writing of the name of the bride and groom on the wedding or engagement invitation is a beautiful principle.
In this land, women still live in anonymity. Not even named on their wedding invitations, they are not counted as ancestors or descendents, nor are they named as corpses, no names even on their tombstones. This female identity has been suppressed since the times that the poets hid, using pseudonyms such as Hidden, or Mustard. Even today, in the modern era of modern smartphones and apps, they hide their identity with nicknames and codes such as: House, Number One, Star (*) Or Red Ribbon, Single Girl, Sad Dream.
These medieval practices prevail over the world of women in our homeland, surrounded by all its gates closed to the entire universe, as if this world is never supposed to change.
Today in Afghanistan there’s a First Lady with an official position, there’s a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, there are thousands of institutions and projects involved in women’s affairs. Billions of dollars are spent on these issues, but none of these agencies have been able to make a positive, fundamental and influential change over the years: to solve the root causes of women’s problems. Unfortunately, dealing with women’s issues still comes in the form of a project, or superficial, dramatic and short-term steps that can’t be achieved with ad hoc budgets.
This disappearing of women will continue until the moment the women’s movement becomes the focus of project and the money, and then we may start to remember our names, and those of our mothers and daughters and others as well. Unless we women start naming ourselves, we will not read of, or be heard by our names! Let’s learn that purposeful and self-willed women can insert the first names in history, or else history will continue to call them only as Roodabeh, Star, Goharshad, Malalai, Avesta, Shemire, Bibi Noor and Mahjoubeh!