What’s in a name?
Duygu Asena, Turkey’s pioneering feminist writer known for her best-seller “The Woman Has No Name,” would have cringed had she seen a recent wedding invitation from the eastern province of Van. The formal invitation, with bold golden letters against a black backdrop, contained no female names – not that of the bride, nor the parents. It was simply two men, the marriage of their son on a certain date in the Başkale district of Van. Ironically, the name of the best man was on the card. Alas, the bride had no name.
The invitation, which was shared on social media, unsurprisingly gave way to a lot of lewd comments: “So perhaps the groom is marrying the best man,” wrote one practical joker. Others, such as Al-Monitor columnist Pınar Tremblay, saw the invitation as a further step in the efforts in the last 12 years of the eradication of the presence of women from public spaces. Drawing attention to the fact that many pious Turks saw the wedding as an occasion to demonstrate their adherence to strict Islam, Tremblay painted a vivid picture of conservative weddings – where there would be not one but two lavish ceremonies, one for men and one for women; where the bride’s attire would be conservative and there would be no coed pictures. The families who have created the no-bride invite – one family is the head of a major southeastern tribe and the other is the former provincial chair of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – are likely to have a conservative wedding.
But the issue of the name goes beyond the conservative weddings or debates on whether the bride is veiled or not. As Asena saw in the 1980’s, the name of the woman is at the heart of the debate on her rights and her identity.
The brideless invitation in Turkey comes after a global campaign, initiated by Afghan women, with the hashtag #WhereIsMyName. It started in late July with a group of Afghan women who challenged the deeply-rooted custom in their country’s patriarchal society that a woman’s name should not be revealed, neither at her wedding nor on her grave. A woman’s headstone might read x’s mother, daughter or sister. The birth certificate does not include the name of the mother.
The social media campaign, which drew support from all around the world, urges Afghan women to reclaim their most basic identity: Their name. “This is just a spark — the posing of a question mostly to the Afghan women about why their identity is denied,” Bahar Sohaili, one of the supporters of the campaign, told the New York Times. Reuters spoke to a government spokesman on putting the name of the women in documents, but the society – an abstract alibi that is often evoked by government officials – “was not ready.” Abdullhah Atahi, a spokesman for the High Court in Kabul, said putting the name of the mother’s name on the birth certificate or on other relevant documents “may invite unwanted chaos.”
Educated and professional people may shrug off this “absent name” tradition as an archaic practice unique to conservative, tribal societies. Yet, the “absent name in the tombstone” is not so radically different than taking the last name of the husband upon marriage – both seek to define women in relationship to a male.
In Turkey, the laws urge women – but not men – to change their last names after marriage. It is possible to keep your original surname and add your husband’s surname to it. But if you want to use your last name only, without adding your husband’s, you have to pass through court. Several Turkish women have done this in the last decade, setting a strong precedent, so your chances of winning the case are strong. Yet unlike in many European countries, it is not by declaration but through a court decision. Women who want to go to court to maintain their last name need to thank one brave woman who launched a legal battle for 10 years, until she obtained the right.
“I kept my name [after marriage] because it is my name… regardless of whether it came from my father or the moon, it is the name I have had since I was born, the name with which I travelled my life’s milestones, the name I have answered to since the first day I went to kindergarten,” wrote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of the strongest female voices from Nigeria. The writer of “Americanah,” says in her last book, “A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” that in a truly just society, women should not be expected to make marriage-based changes that men do not make – and often, that change starts with the name - changed name, imposed name and at worst, no name.