In Afghanistan, there is a tradition which dictates that women and girls must be referred to by the name of the eldest male in their nuclear family. This practice has nothing to do with Islam, the dominant religion practiced in Afghanistan, and is instead a tradition unique to the country. It is considered shameful to speak a woman’s own name in public. On wedding invitations, women are referred to as only “Miss” and nothing else. On a woman’s gravestone, she is remembered as “Mother of X,” or “Wife of X.” Sometimes, children do not even know their own mother’s name because of the shame that surrounds it—and if they do know their mother’s name, they will not disclose it to others lest they be teased and called “Son of [mother]” instead of “Son of [father].”
On Mother’s Day in 2015, UN Women began a campaign on Twitter calling for women’s identities to be respected and acknowledged in Afghanistan and launched the effort with a video of men on the street being asked what their mothers’ names were. Every person questioned is shocked when asked for their mother’s name, and some even laugh at the question. An elder gentleman goes onto explain that when he was younger, if someone knew someone else’s mother’s name, they would sob.
The fight goes on, two years later. Earlier this month, the Facebook page Afghanistan’s Women of Prominence launched the #WhereIsMyName campaign in an attempt to “restore women’s identity.” Human rights activist Noorjahan Akbar spoke to Ms. about #WhereIsMyName and similar grassroots campaigns taking place in Afghanistan.
Why are women and girls referred to by a male family member’s name in public in Afghanistan? Where does this tradition come from?
In Afghanistan, often in wedding invitations, funeral announcement or even in day-to-day conversations women are not referred to by their own names. Rather, they are called “so and so’s mother” or “so and so’s daughter.” At the heart of this practice is the mentality that women are still seen, not as individual people, but as the property and the honor of men. Therefore it is often considered a disrespect to the honor of the male members of the family if women are known or called by their own names.
In addition, often women’s names are used to insult men during confrontations and conflicts. Many men make inappropriate comments about raping or having sexual relations with the women in the family of the man they are fighting with, even in public spaces. This makes many men reluctant to use or make known the names of the women in their family, because they don’t want other men to use them to insult them. This also points to a deeply rooted problem that to insult men, other men use the bodies and identities of the women in their families as the battleground and to shame men into submission, they threaten women in their families with sexual violence.
Women’s bodies continue to be a battlefield for men’s sense of honor.
How are people responding to the campaign?
On our platform, Daughters of Rabia, a social media online blog with nearly 60 thousands readers, the response has been overwhelming positive. Within a week, dozens of women have written about the campaign for us and thousands have commented on and shared our content supporting the campaign.
In the general discourse in Afghanistan as well, the response has been largely positive. Of course as it is with any movement, some have spoken against it and criticized it, but that was definitely expected. One of the widely used critiques of the campaign has been that Afghan women have far more important problems that their name being erased from invitation letters, but this critique is not well-thought out.
Without an independent sense of identity, Afghan women will not be able to fight for our other rights in fundamental ways. In order for women to combat violence and marginalization, we have to be able to recognize ourselves and be recognized as individuals with rights, not as property belonging to male family members. This, a sense of identity as women and people, is central to our liberation.
How did the #whereismyname campaign come to be? What is your involvement?
#WhereIsYourName was created by a group of young women in Afghanistan. It is an organic, grassroots effort led by women activists on the ground and Free Women Writers was proud to support it through our online platforms in Afghanistan. We supported the campaign through our online blog Daughters of Rabia by writing about it and sharing content that was sent to us by the organizers of the campaign. We will continue to do this as we believe in this grassroots campaign and its mission.
Not everyone has social media or access to the internet. Is the campaign being held offline as well? How are people without social media or internet being reached?
The organizers used social media as a starting point for the conversation, but the hashtag has gone beyond the online world especially because local media took an interest in the story and produced many news reports around it. For more than a week, local radio and television stations [in Afghanistan] talked about this movement, interviewed the organizers, and held debates about it.
You founded your own organization that aims to promote women, Free Women Writers. Could you briefly explain what you do at Free Women Writers and why you founded it?
I founded Free Women Writers in 2013. It started with an anthology of more than thirty pieces of writing by Afghan women published in Kabul in Persian language. We called the anthology Daughters of Rabia, for the first recorded poetess in Afghanistan, who was killed for writing poetry and falling in love with a slave. To us, she signified the intersection of women’s rights and social justice and the important threat that women’s voice and writing presents to patriarchy.
The book organically grew into one of the biggest blogs about women’s rights in the country until in 2015, we started translating our work and publishing it on freewomenwriters.org, which now hosts more than one hundred pieces and is a growing platform for Afghan women inside and outside the country. In addition to our online platforms, we work with local radios and newspapers to republish our work and uplift Afghan women’s authentic voices and literature.
I started Free Women Writers because I know that Afghan women have a lot to say and it is tragic that we are often talked about but rarely listened to. I know our voices have the power to change Afghanistan, and the world, and I refuse to wait for someone else to elevate it. I take pride in the fact that we write about issues few others will touch, including access to contraceptives, the concept of virginity, early marriage and many other issues considered taboo. I am also proud that we are a collective of Afghan women and 100 percent member-funded.
How can feminists residing elsewhere support this effort and the grassroots activism happening every day in Afghanistan?
This campaign and the work that Free Women Writers has been doing quietly and without the attention of foreign media and donors for the past three years are proof that Afghan women are not only capable of fighting for their rights and organizing, but that we have many valuable lessons to share with our sisters and other organizations fighting for equality around the world.
Often Afghan women are seen as “receivers” of aid and victims, and while gender-based violence and poverty are a big part of our story, resistance and resilience is also a big part of our identity and story. We can give back to the world what we take. Our voices, stories, and struggle is transformative.