Names can be seen as a basic representation of identity, yet this was a privilege that many Afghan women were unable to reclaim until now. Afghan women’s names are not mentioned on birth certificates, prescriptions, headstones, by children when talking about their parents, or on wedding invitations.
They are to be kept a secret to anyone who is not family. Afghanistan’s deeply patriarchal society dictates this – it is seen as dishonourable, inappropriate and even insulting to publicly use a woman’s name.
In a small – but symbolic – step towards the recognition of women’s identities in Afghanistan, the names of mothers will now be printed on national identification cards. After years of campaigning by activists and slowly creeping change, the Afghan government announced the change in early September. Parliament still has to approve the bill, but this is considered more a formality.
The #WhereIsMyName campaign has played a substantial role in this change. The hashtag first emerged three years ago on social media in the various local languages spoken in Afghanistan. A group of young women started sharing it, addressing the central point of the issue that denies them their basic identity – that referring to women by their names in public is a taboo.
As celebrities and government officials were challenged to share the names of their mothers, grandmothers and wives, the campaign picked up speed. Media attention grew, and with that, so did pressure on the government. The campaign does not have specific policy goals; instead it asks Afghan society to question its deeply rooted patriarchal ways and why women should be denied this facet of their identity.
What’s in a name?
One could wonder why a name is so important. After all, from a Western perspective, it hardly matters what exactly one’s name is, or whether one is called a wrong name in public. But in Afghanistan, the concealment of women’s names has more nefarious implications.
Mothers cannot confirm they are their child’s legal guardian, women cannot open a bank account or complete a business transaction, and they cannot fill a prescription alone. There is a complete dependence on men – socially, financially, emotionally. This gives them control over all major parts of a woman’s life – from education, healthcare, and family. It is also a question of male strength and respect – liberal women are considered out of control and besmirching of their male family members.
Women are defined as someone’s husband, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother. Apart from this, they are almost invisible. However, many young Afghan women want to be seen and heard, arguing that their names being publicly recognised is their “most basic right”. They want to take back control, be individuals, and be valued as such. With the #WhereIsMyName campaign, they are challenging the views and values at the very centre of Afghan culture.
The Taliban’s pervasive fundamentalism
It would be easy to attribute the deep patriarchal views to religion, but Islam is not at fault here. Instead, these distorted values developed through Afghanistan’s history, from tribal culture to the rule of the Taliban.
In many tribal cultures, a woman and her body belong to a man. In no way should other men be able to use her – this means hiding her face, body and name. Tribal culture plays an incredibly important role in Afghanistan, especially in rural areas and is a long-standing tradition. 14 different ethnic groups are recognised in the Afghan constitution, andAfghan society has always been a patchwork creation rather than a unified front.
Since its creation by the British, the country has seen much internal conflict between the groups. Historically, Afghans have not understood themselves as one nation. Efforts to change this and unify society have been difficult due to constant conflict, but also geographical and development difficulties. For example, roads and other infrastructure are poor, especially in the rural mountain regions. Therefore, some towns and villages are hard to reach, making information dissemination difficult.
Whilst a 2009 poll showed that over 70% of citizens now considered themselves primarily Afghan, the values passed onto children from a young age have not changed. After generations have followed tribal values, they have fused with Afghan culture. Untangling the two now and leaving tribal views behind will take time.
Women’s rights were also significantly compromised during the rule of the Taliban from 1996-2001. This has, in ways, continued until today. The constant power struggle in the country has allowed the Taliban to still control some regions, thereby controlling women’s rights and punishing those who defend them. This is especially prevalent in rural areas, which already face a stonier path towards women’s rights.
The ultra-conservative and fundamentalist Taliban regime was known for discrimination against women and girls, being highly misogynistic and deeply opposed to gender equality. Rights to education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement were not given to women. Public and private violence against them was, however, encouraged. While the Taliban now have a waning influence, their perversion of religious and cultural values has led to a heightened enforcement of patriarchal repression.
Attacks against girls’ schools and public punishment or execution of women who do not adhere to the laws are still commonplace under Taliban commanders. Few have given in to community pressure and allowed girls to attend primary school. And the Afghan government does not seem to have made a significant effort to combat the issues.
Afghanistan is changing
Officially, women’s rights have been expanded and women play a greater role in public life. There are some female politicians, more women attend university, and they are being recognised as individuals. President Ghani even mentioned his wife’s name in his inaugural speech after being elected.
But campaigns like #WhereIsMyName still have a long way to go. The recent announcement that mother’s names would be included on ID cards has seen a significant amount of backlash. Some believe society is not ready for change, and that it will invite “unwanted chaos”. Others argue that this undermines cultural and religious values.
However, that the calls of representatives were heard and accepted despite the opposition is promising. It may be a small step, but it is an important, symbolic one. Campaigns are working and the patriarchal system is being rethought.It is an indication of the direction politicians want their country to go in. The pace of progress is, for now, peripheral.
The official recognition of the names of mothers gives them some of the control back. It gives them proof that they are in fact the mother, which allows them to claim custody if they are widows; to handle administrative issues for their children; to travel with them. The taboo of their names is being broken down, giving them back some individuality, independence and validation. The seemingly small step will evidently be very significant for some.
What we are seeing now are the very early stages in a shift in values that have been ingrained in families for centuries. The importance of tribal culture and families in Afghanistan derives from these units providing stability and safety through political turmoil and war. It explains why some have tried to preserve these patriarchal values under the guise of social and cultural security.
That this approach to society will not unravel overnight is clear. But continued efforts by activists and community pressure are showing first successes. This is giving women confidence and encouraging them to question why they are being discriminated against. Finding their voice and their strength is vital for women to empower themselves and see results.
For society to broadly rethink their attitudes towards women however, more will need to be done. Campaigns like #WhereIsMyName have to continue fighting, further amendments to laws will have to be made, and international solidarity has to be expressed.