Old and recent trends undermines women s basic right to keep a separate identity
CAIRO: It wasn t long ago when the mere mention of a woman s name was considered an offence to any man related to her. In fact, the belief still prevails within a number of current communities but to varying degrees.
The name of a man s mother is a guarded secret treated at times with the same sanctity that a woman s sexual honor receives in Arab societies. There is no better proof than the common practice of calling a woman the mother of ‘so and so’: Om Mohamed, om Ibrahim, with om meaning mother of.
While this is more common in lower and middle classes, the country s elite have also had their way of safeguarding the names of their female family members, sharing a practice with their counterparts in less-privileged economical situations. If in a public place, many prefer to call their mothers, sisters or wives, by using the family title in fear of some stranger hearing the name. The family title could be exchanged with the father s, brother s or husband s names.
While these practices are in line with general traditional beliefs that downplay a woman s character to a mere object that can only be guarded by a man, they undermine one of the best contributions Arab culture have made in the realm of women s rights. Unlike Western societies, changing a woman s name after marriage to be the same as her husband s isn t even an option in this region. Theoretically, a woman s identity would be kept intact throughout her marriage.
Although abuses of this theoretical notion have seen distortion, the legal and official parts have preserved it. On paper, the woman s identity, in finances for example, is separate from her husband s. Abuses of this right occur, but are mainly related to deficiencies in the legal protection of other rights or cultural misconceptions.
Nonetheless, the act of recognizing a woman by her name, not a man s, helps in establishing her own separate identity whether financially, legally or personally; and theoretically at the very least. This is a prerequisite for any success in achieving women s rights.
But at times when the struggle for women rights is moving from the basics to more sophisticated demands (rather than voting, women are now asking for laws ensuring proportionate representation and fair electoral opportunities) is it wise to rid the world of what women already have?
Unfortunately, reality says yes.
Earlier this year, a local feminist NGO tried to rally for a legal change that gives people the option to have their names documented in matriarchal lineage. For example, instead of being called Ahmed Alaa, a man could switch to being called Ahmed Fatma, honoring his mother name.
While this campaign showed a change in belief, where a woman s name isn’t a shameful secret anymore, it was faced by waves of criticism. It isn t clear, however, whether this wide criticism stemmed from an underlying and subconscious shame in mentioning the mother s name or fear from breaking the age long patriarchal lineage system.
The result was the quick end to the campaign.
Another more recent, but ongoing trend suggests that even women are adopting a shame or some sort of fear of mentioning their own names. Surprisingly, the trend is most visible within the country s elite, among women who are supposedly the best educated in the country.
Scheming through social magazines filled with pictures of the society s topnotch, one observation forces it self: Many women are identified by their husbands names rather than their own. But what I thought at the beginning to be the result of some lazy reporters who didn t find it necessary to ask about the names of the people they are taking the pictures of, mostly turned out to be the wish of these pictured women.
Yes, they didn t want their names to be mentioned; they wanted to be identified as Mrs. Ahmed Mohamed for example, in reference to her husband. Of course this is more frequent when the woman is married to a celebrity, whether on the business, celebrity or political scene.
There is nothing wrong in a woman taking pride in her husband s work and identity. But when the supposedly well-educated and sophisticated women can t realize that recognizing themselves as unique individuals – who can shine and prosper on the their own regardless of their husband s position or profession – then the future of women s rights is in danger. Taking pride in your own name and identity is the most basic of rights.