In Afghanistan, some adhere to a custom which dictates that a woman’s name should not be mentioned in public, which leads to a number of deleterious consequences. Women’s names are omitted from their children’s birth certificates. They are not uttered in the streets. Women go their entire lives without having their names recorded in official documents or mentioned in open spaces, only to have their graves marked solely by their relationship to their husband or son rather than their own personal designations; thus having their identity masked for the totality of their time on earth. #whereismyname
Defenders of this practice assert that it is to preserve the dignity and respect of women. During disputes, Afghan men often insult or threaten other men’s female relatives. Some believe that the use of the women’s names amplifies the disrespect. This notion, in tandem with the view that a woman is the property of a man, either her husband, father, or eldest brother, serves to strip women of their personhood and of their unique status as an individual.
This traditional practice in Afghan culture has nothing to do with Islam, and is not one dictated by the laws of Islam (Shari’a). However, it serves to undermine all of the rights granted to women–and thus humans–under domestic and international law.
Women in Afghanistan cannot be free to exercise their fundamental human rights without having a foundational, personal identity. International law provides that all children should be given a name from birth. The bestowing of a name is the first recognition of human dignity; it is the medium through which human agency is animated.
Various international legal instruments enshrine an individual’s rights to a name and identity. For instance, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that all children “shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have a name.” The Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC) guarantees “the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name, and family relations.” Additionally, the CRC provides that if “a child is illegally deprived of some or all of his or her identity, State Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity.”
These conventions, as well as other instruments, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, expound upon the rights that flow from that which comes from having a name.
Afghanistan is a party to all of these conventions, thus making all of the obligations contained therein binding on the government of Afghanistan.
What does this mean? International law, as enshrined in the instruments enumerated above, protects an individual’s right to a name. Without a name, children remain invisible into adulthood, which undermines their voice and selfhood, and leaves them subject to further risk of human rights abuses.
The enforcement of identity is critical to state governments, and legally required by signatories to the aforementioned conventions, as they need to be able to adequately craft laws and policies that address and account for all of its constituents–both men and women. The continuing subversion of Afghan women’s names, and thereby their individual human rights, is in contravention of both international law, as well as the 2004 Afghanistan Constitution, which wholly embraces and enshrines gender equality.
A vital link between one’s name and identity exists, and it is from this connection that all other human rights flow. By taking away a person’s name, and therefore a key component of her/his identity, one deprives an individual ownership over her/his existence. Afghan women–and women around the world–must stake the claim for themselves and their sisters that they deserve respect, and the biggest hallmark of respect begins with the freedom to exercise their human rights. Governments must reject archaic cultural practices and fulfill their legal obligations to ensure that no person is denied the free exercise of their personhood. For too many Afghan women, this freedom starts with a name.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 24. (1976), available here.
Convention on the Rights of the Child, art. 8(1), (1990), available here.
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, art. 9 (1981), available here.
International Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, art. 5 (1969), available here.
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, art. 18 (2008), available here.
The Constitution of Afghanistan, art. 22 (2004), available here.