It is common in Afghanistan for women to be known only as the “wife of” or “daughter of” someone. Often their names are omitted from wedding invites and even gravestones.
A group of Afghan women have launched a social media campaign to protest the country’s custom of erasing women’s names. In Afghanistan’s patriarchal society, a woman’s name should not be revealed, even on her grave.
Publicly using the names of women is regarded as inappropriate and even an insult in the Islamic nation. According to Afghan law, a mother’s name should not be recorded on a birth certificate.
Does this not mean that she was never born, will never live or even die? How is it possible for any human being’s existence to be denied only because of some outdated and wrongly held traditional convention and custom?
“Custom” is a traditional and widely accepted way of doing something specific to a particular society, place, or time. But time is not constant and the only thing that remains constant is “change.”
Even when this custom first came into being, it was not as if women did not have a significant role to play – the primary one being that of creating the next generation of men and women. If men were not born at all, how would these practices ever come into being?
The revoking of a custom that unidimensionally strips the woman of her identity by making her nameless and recognised only by the name of father, husband, brother or son is surprising because the Taliban was overthrown way back in 2001 and this had raised hopes for Afghan women.
Has the position of women remained the same as it was when the Taliban dictated the rules for women? The women regained the right to vote and the right to a basic education such as going back to school.
But basic patriarchal practices are so deeply ingrained by most groups with a feudal and fascist state of mind about women’s position in society that most of the conditions have remained the same.
Women continue to be victimised by violence and stripping the women of their names is just a severe extension of this violence.
According to convention and tradition in Afghanistan, the following precepts were observed as mandatory:
1. A woman’s name should not be revealed, even on her grave;
2. The headstone on the grave should read “Mr. X’s mother/ daughter/ sister” rather than the real name of the dead woman;
3. The mother’s name should not be recorded on the birth certificate of a newborn;
The campaign #WhereIsMyName uses a hash tag that aims to change this custom by challenging women to reclaim their names and calls on others to address them by their given names.
On social media, the movement has gone viral, as thousands of wives, daughters and mothers have risen collectively to reclaim their erased identity. These rebelling women claim their demand to be referred to by their actual name and are also working to ‘break the deep-rooted taboo that prevents men from mentioning their female relatives’ names in public.’
A tragic example of this name-stripping is when one of the campaigners, a woman, wanted to open an account and was asked to fill a form, she could not fill in her mother’s name because she had forgotten her mother’s name! Can this social reality be any more tragic to womanhood in general and the mother in particular?
“Nobody in all these years asked or called her by her name,” says Batul Mohammadi, the campaigner. Niamatullah Ibrahimi, a researcher of social and political movements in Afghanistan at Australian National University, said the country had been experiencing profound social change thanks to greater connectivity to the rest of the world through social media.
Bahar Soheili, an active member of the campaign, says,”Our society is full of injustice for women; basically, everything is taboo for women. With this campaign we aim to change many things for women and social media has opened a new window to Afghanistan’s young generation.”
“I joined because I really want to see change. I’m tired of the fact that in the 21st century we are living in a medieval century,” says 26-year-old Tahmina Arian, an activist. Sabira Madady, a 20-year-old student, once had to repeatedly ask a teacher to call her by her name in class. Even then he would only use her family name so as not to “identify her with boys”, she said.
Afghan sociologist Hassan Rizayee says that this custom is rooted in tribal life. He adds, “This is a traditional and cultural issue; it needs a long-term cultural struggle and fight. By weakening tribal cultures, and awareness through the media, this type of thinking about woman could be changed.”
According to New York Times, this movement began in Herat province before spreading out across Afghanistan through the social media, highlighting the power and spread of social media thanks to the progress in the information highway. Noted Afghan celebrities such as singer and National Goodwill Ambassador Frahard Darya, a man, have championed the cause.
Draupadi of Mahabharat is a classic example of a woman denied a right to her name. Draupadi’s vastra-haran in the court in full view of everyone present is the worst violation of human rights imaginable; the sole voice of doubt is that of Vikarna who asks: “Are we truly conducting ourselves in accordance with Dharma?” But Karna snubs him. “All these men, do you think they know nothing?”
Draupadi stands for no more than a ‘symbol’ of honour of the Pandavas; Her body is a blank page on which scripts of revenge and humiliation, the story of men fighting like a pack of dogs are written; When she raises the question of whether a lady of the royal family deserves this treatment, Duryodhana says that she deserves this treatment precisely because she is a lady from the royal family. She has to be humiliated because she is the ‘woman’ of the enemy.
Thus, she is denied all agency and individuality. Contemporary poet Suman Kesahri imagines what the original author denied Draupadi by stating what Draupadi would have said had the author given her a ‘voice.’ “Draupadi, Panchali, Krishna, Yajnaseni – all of these are adjectives, none of them is a noun. Did it ever strike you that I have no name? I had only raised some questions, I only had some queries. And you have taken away even my name!”
Your name is your identity. It reflects your culture, your persona and your heredity. If someone strips you of your name, you are anonymous, you are no one, you do not exist and for one who does not exist, there is no question of rights and therefore, no duties either.
Yet, this has been happening in one corner of the world among one ethnic group belonging to a particular community. But a group of women are not taking it at all. Thus, the birth of the movement #WhereIsMyName.