A baby girl named ‘Kurdistan’

A baby girl named ‘Kurdistan’

In the early 2000s, there was a popular joke in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq: A baby girl is given the name “Kurdistan” by her parents who are excited about the new national homeland they have founded after decades of struggle. She grows up, gets a passport, and wants to make her first international trip to Turkey, which unfortunately is a county that detests the term “Kurdistan.” So, the girl approaches the Turkish police at the border gate, gets nervous about her name, and when she is asked about it, she says: “My name is Northern Iraq!”

That joke was really up to something then, for Turkey was indeed obsessed with the word “Kurdistan.” The Turkish state, and much of society, believed that the acknowledgment of the term would lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state from Turkey’s southeast, tearing the country apart. Hence they lashed out against even the very name of the KRG in Iraq, and insisted on calling it “northern Iraq.” (Those who are even more obsessed preferred the term, “north of Iraq,” because they didn’t even want to acknowledge “northern Iraq” as a politically significant area.)

However, Turkey has changed a lot in the past decade, with regards to various issues, including the “Kurdish question.” Ankara not only made peace and built an alliance with the KRG, but also took some significant steps at home toward respecting Kurdish identity.

The latest signal of this change came from the Hilvan district of Şanlıurfa, a Turkish province on the Syrian border. The Toprak family who lives there had a baby girl which they, like in the joke, wanted to name “Kurdistan.” In return, the Turkish authorities, like again in the joke, resisted this “offensive” name. But, ultimately, the family won the legal battle and Turkey had its very citizen carrying the much-feared “K” word.

Here is how it went: When the Toprak family first named their baby “Kurdistan” in 2011, a local civil registry had filed a complaint against them, saying the name could “offend society.” Then a local court ruled in favor of the complainant, changing the baby girl’s name to “Helin.” However, the family did not back down and took the case to a higher court, the Supreme Court of Appeals (SCA). And just last weekend, the SCA gave a surprising verdict, defying the earlier decision and supporting the family’s choice. Referring to “a fundamental individual right, guaranteed by the Constitution,” the verdict read:

“The right of naming their children belongs to the parents. The fact that the name has a foreign origin does not justify that it has to change. Furthermore, a court cannot legally change the name ex officio to Helin, removing the use of an individual right.”

On the family’s side, the wisdom of naming a child after a controversial country can be questioned, perhaps. Yet still, for its part, the SCA’s decision was not only a step forward for the rights of Kurds, but also a good sign for the new legal culture in Turkey’s high judiciary. For decades, the same judiciary used to be the defender of nationalist bigotry and an obstacle to democratic reforms. Things are changing, though, and we are seeing a growing liberal approach in the higher judiciary. In a country dominated by a very obsessed politics – and very obsessed, angry and rude politicians – this new direction of the judiciary might even become a beacon of hope.