#WhereIsMyName: Asserting women’s agency by undoing erasure
By Kirthi Jayakumar
The erasure of women in public life has taken many forms: written out of history texts despite lifechanging making contributions, kept out of the negotiation table in peace processes, ignored in development programs, law-making, and policymaking, prevented from access to their basic rights, and so on. In Afghanistan, the erasure takes a different route: where the names of women are not to be mentioned.
The use of a woman’s name in public – even the revealing of it – is deemed an insult. Tradition dictates that saying a woman’s name in public “brings shame on her family.” Women are rarely identified by name, but are instead identified as the mother, daughter, sister, or wife of the eldest male member of their families. In the process of preserving family honour, a woman is defined by the men she are related to – as her father’s daughter, her husband’s wife, her brother’s sister, her son’s mother.
Birth certificates can bear only the names of the father of the child, per Afghan law. Customarily, the name of a woman is loaded with several traditional connotations. Once born, a girl’s naming takes rather long. When betrothed or married, no invitation bears her name. When ill, no prescription issuing medication or directing procedures for her bear her name. At death, no headstone or death certificate bears her name. However, none of these discriminatory practices have a basis in religion – the campaign’s founder, Laleh Osmany, a Shariah Law Graduate, found that the Koran supports identity of women and actively names several women, too.
Where is my name?
Activist Laleh Osmany set out to change this narrative through a campaign called “Where is My Name?” Aiming to set right the socio-political narrative that deprived women of her basic rights, the activist called on the Afghan government to shift the law in favour of including a woman’s name on the birth certificate of her children. After the three years of running this campaign, there has been some success. The President’s Office of Administrative Affairs has received an amended version of the Population Registration Act, which now permits the inclusion of women’s names on their children’s ID cards and birth certificates.
In the words of former Afghan MP and women’s rights activist, Fawzia Koofi to the BBC, the move “should have happened many years back,” and “The matter of including a woman’s name on the national ID card in Afghanistan is not a matter of women’s rights – it’s a legal right, a human right. Any individual who exists in this world has to have an identity.”
The backlash is tangible. In the words of Hoda Raha, in an interview with ABC News, “But over and over again, when I said my name in public, I have seen and experienced the angry looks of men who see me as a woman who does not respect her family and behaves badly.”
Fighting for change
Even as the measure found response in the form of an amendment in the law, the real fight is only just beginning. The erasure of women’s names in public spaces is informed by patriarchy – where women are known exclusively by their nexus to men, in the process being relegated to second grade citizens with no respect for their personal agency. The sanctions women face for revealing their names, say, to a doctor for a medical prescription, manifest behind closed doors within the household in the form of
Shabnam Manati, a young woman in Afghanistan told GSP, “I am sure it will bring a big change in Afghanistan. Many social activists are continuing to work on this. Our name is our identity and no one has the right to decide on our identity except us. Every man must know this and help their sisters and mother to defend their identity. I am sure that it will change the ideology of many people.”
The presence of a legal provision may not immediately change that reality given that the law doesn’t always have a deterrent effect. As in most cases, the passage of the law does not affect or change mindsets on ground – which is largely informed, maintained, and fomented through cultural and social influences that predate the law by several years, or even generations.
Laila (name changed), a student, shares Shabnam’s optimism, but sees that change as part of a longer process. She said, in a conversation with GSP: “Things are not going to change overnight. It is a bit difficult to expect that. There will be resistance and backlash because women are asking to share power and visibility in public spaces where they never had this. This means, men have to share what they may not want to share, at all. This is a question of asking men to give up their power as the lone guardians of their children and to make women prominent in terms of their identities. It will take some time. But it will happen.”