What’s in a Name? Afghanistan and the #WhereIsMyName Campaign

It is widely acknowledged that names are important. Identities are built around them, and they are instrumental in creating a sense of dignity and autonomy. They often embody the independence of that person, their status, and encourage them to stand up for their rights. Names may therefore be seen to have a massive psychological impact on a person’s life.

When a name is removed, it can have devastating effects. Fans of the popular TV show “Game of Thrones” will have seen this devastation in action when one of the characters, Theon Greyjoy, has his name replaced with an insult by his captor. This action removes a part of his humanity and firmly asserts him as less than human – an assertion that he then begins to believe to be true. Whilst this example is taken from a fantasy series, Afghan women are facing a similar struggle.

In Afghan culture, it is regarded as an insult to refer to a female by using her name. Instead, women are referred to by their features, such as ‘black haired’, or by the common honorific ‘aunt’. In most cases, they are identified through their familial relations to men. This custom is not simply reserved for everyday interactions, but permeates both the cultural and legal aspects of Afghanistan. A mother’s name is not mentioned on documents such as birth certificates, and a woman’s name will not appear on her own gravestone. Women therefore remain unidentified throughout their life and in death.

Young Afghani girls from the Ghazni province.

In the past few weeks, many have taken to social media in order protest this state of affairs. The social media campaign ‘Where Is My Name’ has garnered support and attention internationally and seeks to combat the systematised erasure of women’s identity that takes place within Afghan society. Moreover, it aims to challenge the societal norms this practice has encouraged.

One such well-documented societal norm is men assuming the role of decision maker. It is not an uncommon occurrence for an Afghan woman’s male relations to dictate her life and this is related to the issue and erasure of women’s names. Due to society’s refusal to use the women’s names, women lose their autonomy and men are asserted as the authority figure on all matters. This has obvious ramifications for society as a whole, and the position of women in that society.

This practice has been made permissible by the cultural norm of referring to females through their relations to men. The use of familial relations to males promotes a subtext of ownership. This subtext has huge psychological and cultural ramifications. If you are constantly referred to as the daughter, sister, or mother of a man, it is easy to begin to be seen as the belonging of this man. You are no longer an independent unit, but rather reliant on him. It goes without saying that this concept of ownership is harmful and reinforces the idea of women as second-class citizens.

Laley Osmany has stated that the campaign is ‘fighting to win back [Afghan women’s] name and […]identity. We want women to be recognised as independent human beings with an identity.’ Furthermore, it is suggested that through regaining such a basic thing, women will feel more capable of asserting themselves in a society which is renowned for not supporting and protecting them. It is believed that if women were to use their names with no fear of repercussions then they would be encouraged to advocate for their rights. This is particularly important as Afghanistan has a troubled history with problems such as violence against women.

By being made nameless, women become both invisible and powerless to protect their own rights. To be referred to as someone else’s relation would indicate that they are not of any importance, and it is their relation rather than them that matters. This highlights the idea that women are powerless second-class citizens.

This emphasises yet another ramification of the refusal to mention women’s names: the erasure of women from Afghan society and a disregard for women’s rights. Women are subconsciously told that they do not have a place in society as an independent being. Their achievements, struggles, and lives are not recorded as their own, and they are rendered invisible. Not even their gravestone will record their name, erasing their very existence.

Opposition to the ‘Where Is My Name?’ campaign has claimed that the campaign is an attack on the Afghan way of life. Many have claimed that the names of women are sacred, and that the campaign is contradicting the values of Afghan culture and society. Here, it is important to consider the westernised view of human rights that is sometimes asserted. In many cases there is a clash between the western view of rights and diverse cultures which do not necessarily have the same values. It has often been suggested that through asserting rights which have been created by Western powers we are supporting a colonial view of human rights. Whilst this may be a valid complaint, and is important to keep in mind, surely there are some rights that are universal? For example, the right to have a name.

Moreover, surely a woman’s dignity, identity, and independence is something that ought to be fiercely defended. It is generally acknowledged that a name, and everything that it symbolises, is a basic and fundamental right. A name may even be seen as a building block upon which all else rests. It is therefore essential in creating a sense of autonomy and the campaign may be seen as the first of many steps to bettering the situation of many women.

Yet another complaint that has been brought against the campaign is that it does not tackle any of the real issues which women face in Afghanistan. The hashtag and online campaign may easily be seen to focus on an arbitrary complaint rather than focusing on a worthier issue. After all, it could easily be confused for a petty and insignificant complaint that is not creating any real change. However, it has been highlighted that the campaign is merely the first step towards a more equal society. Ultimately, this campaign will not solve all the problems that women in Afghanistan face. Despite this it provides a foundation upon which women can begin to assert their rights. It is challenging the attitudes of society in order to try and enact change for the better, and this must be supported. Through bringing this issue to light it is creating the society in which women will be afforded the most basic right – their own identity. It is therefore impossible to dismiss this as not tackling genuine issues.

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