Where Is My Name?

By Anna Hanuska

For decades, women in Afghanistan have not been referred to by their actual names. It’s seen as disrespectful to men to have others know the names of their female relatives. Objectifying women, men treat them as trophies that must be protected in the name of family honor. Boys even get in schoolyard fights in defense of their mother’s names. Instead of having their own identity, women are referred to by one of many general titles, the most common translating to “aunt”, or by their relation to a man. For example, a woman would be called “mother of ___”, “daughter of ___”, and so on. In fact, their names aren’t even written on their own tombstones.

The lack of public identity not only emotionally oppresses and disrespects women, but also prevents them from taking advantage of the few legal independent rights they have. Women cannot have ID cards, for that would reveal their true names, limiting their ability to access many services. For example, enrolling children in school, obtaining passports, and traveling with children all requires the father, since the mother can never prove her identity. This is especially dangerous for women in domestic violence or abusive situations, who cannot escape due to the fact that they are literally legally nonexistent. 

However, after a 3 year activist campaign beginning under the hashtag #WhereIsMyName, the Afghan president finally signed an amendment allowing women’s names on their children’s birth certificates. Previously only naming the father, birth certificates are yet another way women are ignored. This change will take a while to implement, especially after social pushback from the more conservative population. Additionally, many worry that the changes could be reversed in the current peace talks with the Taliban.

Women’s rights have been an important piece of the peace talks so far, and the miniscule amount of representation in the negotiations frightens activists. Afghan women fear that the very few rights they’ve gained since the loss of Taliban power in 2001, when they weren’t even allowed to leave the house without a male relative, may be bartered away for the sake of peace. The Taliban knows how desperately Afghanistan yearns for peace, and will likely use women’s rights as a bargaining chip. Says a former Taliban figure, who does not deserve the respect of being named, “Mother’s names on the birth certificates for Afghans is shameful and dishonourable.” Clearly, the Taliban aims to frame the naming of women as anti-Islam. However, the Qur’an never suggests any kind of dishonor from using women’s names, and even specifically names Mary, Jesus’ mother. Many other women who appear in the Qur’an are named in hadith. (Hadith refers to records of Muhammad’s words, actions, and approvals, and in moral law are considered second only to the Qur’an.) Though Islamic texts do have some undeniably sexist rules, this particular custom doesn’t actually have any scriptural backing. In fact, most other Islamic governments don’t practice this kind of name stigma.

Overall, Afghan women have had an amazing breakthrough in their uphill battle for rights. They just have to pray the Taliban doesn’t take it away.