The Afghan women risking their lives to fight ‘humiliating’ tradition that robs their identity | #students | #parents

Sonia Ahmadi is a 24-year-old journalism graduate from a middle-class Afghan family.

As a little girl she had her own identity. She was able to use her name freely and other people would call her Sonia.

But by the age of 10, she said, her identity and her rights as an individual were stolen by a deeply-rooted cultural belief.

Her name, and her sister and mother’s names, are all forbidden outside of the family home by a tradition that says uttering a woman’s name in public brings shame on her and her family.

Instead, women are defined by the names of men, and are referred to only as the daughter, wife or mother of their nearest male relative.

Through a poster widely circulated on social media, Afghan women urge, ‘Call me by my name’.(Supplied)

Ms Ahmadi became known only as her father’s daughter and, after marriage, she would be referred to as the wife of her husband. According to custom, her name would not even appear on the wedding invitations.

“This is a humiliation for me, which I experienced from my childhood,” she said, relating how her father would always introduce her brother by name, but she was only referred to as “my daughter”.

Ms Ahmadi soon found out that this was not unique to her own family, but “the entire social experience” for all women in Afghanistan was the same, and this tradition is also reflected in Afghani law.

When Ms Ahmadi has children, she will become known as the mother of her eldest son, but her name will never appear on his birth certificate. By Afghan law, only the father’s name is registered.

When she dies, tradition dictates it is not her name that will appear on her own gravestone. It will simply list her as the wife, daughter and mother of her male family members.

No identity means ‘no rights’

Afghan women attend a conference on violence against women in Herat.
Ms Ahmadi says with no identity, women have no financial independence.(Reuters: Morteza Nikoubazl)

Ms Ahmadi is part of a campaign known as #WhereIsMyName.

On the third anniversary of their formation this month, the group took their fight to Afghan’s Parliament, demanding the inclusion of a mother’s name on birth certificates.

Ms Ahmadi’s work advocating for the right of women to participate in Afghan’s peace process also gained a hard-won victory on Thursday when the government announced the formation of a new council to safeguard women’s rights and interests amid talks with the Taliban.

This group of activists concede change will not happen overnight, but through social media campaigns and petitions to the Government, these women are breaking taboos and paving the way for change.

“She has no financial independence, no right to rent a house, or register the birth of her baby.

“This stops her from moving forward and results in the backwardness of women in society.”

Although she is blessed with a supportive family, she said the fight to be called Sonia or Ms Ahmadi had not been easy.

While Ms Ahmadi and others use their own names on social media profiles, at university and in their professional work, this often leads to criticism, internet trolling and threats.

As a journalist, Ms Ahmadi has even appeared in local media under her own name, a rarity in an industry dominated by men.

One of her articles tells the story of a woman who was beaten by her husband after returning home with a doctor’s prescription in her own name.

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Women’s rights activist Hoda Raha is also an active campaigner for #WhereIsMyName.

She said linking “women’s identity … to men’s dignity” had led to the “complete denial of the recognition of women as independent human beings”.

Ms Raha said she helped launch and spread this campaign to reclaim their identities as people and “fight for equal rights that no-one can deny us”.

But it is not only men who are against the campaign, and it is not only women who support it.

While some women believe the tradition must be followed, Ms Ahmadi said out of a group of around 100 involved in the campaign, about 35 per cent were men.

Posts online under variations of the hashtag #WhereIsMyName in English, Dari and Pashto show both men and women holding signs in support of the movement, with some men proudly displaying the names of their mothers or voicing their support of women.

A tradition not supported by religion

A woman wearing a headscarf speaks in front of a poster of men.
Law graduate Laleh Osmany is the founder of the #WhereIsMyName campaign.(ABC News: Fariba Akbari)

Sharia law graduate Laleh Osmany launched the Where is My Name campaign three years ago.

“When I referred to Islamic law, since I was a student of this field, I found out that there is no such limitation by religion.”

Ms Osmany found that Islam instead supported the identity of women, naming many in the Qur’an.

Around this time, Ms Osmany was shocked when she received an invitation to the funeral of the wife of an Afghan author she had greatly admired as a progressive man who supported women’s rights.

Even he had failed to name his own deceased wife on the funeral card.

“The following night I established the group and asked, ‘who is with me?’ and the hashtag became a global movement,” Ms Osmany said, adding that they now have supporters across Afghanistan and beyond.

A poster shows women dressed in burkas with the words, "Where is my name?"
The #WhereIsMyName campaign was launched in Afghanistan three years ago.(Supplied)

But with success came opposition.

“From the first days until now, I had many security threats,” she said, adding that her family urged her to stop for her own safety and told her such a campaign could not succeed in Afghanistan.

“I believe such campaigns can be more productive and successful outside of Afghanistan in terms of individual security. But in Afghanistan, we will move ahead even though we are facing a steel wall.”

Birth certificate campaign reaches the President

After taking their demand for a mother’s name to be included on Afghan birth certificates to Parliament, the group caught the attention of Afghan’s President.

Rohina Shahabi, spokeswoman for the National Statistics and Information Authority, said the proposal for the addition of a mother’s name was “under review” this week.

“We had an order from the presidential office to prepare a proposal for amendments,” she said, adding that the proposal includes a clearly defined notation of both the father and mother’s names.

A women covered by a blue burka stands with three children.
The group has demanded the right for a mother’s name to be included on Afghan birth certificates.(Reuters: Mohammad Ismail)

But Ms Shahabi said, “nothing has been finalised” and any amendments must be approved by Parliament.

She said while the head of the department had met with Ms Osmany and other members of the campaign, the office “does not have the right to change or bring amendments in the law, or even to suggest changes”.

Ms Ahmadi explained that under the current system, only a man’s name is registered after the birth of a child, regardless of circumstances.

“If her husband is dead, she has to refer to her brother or father,” she said.

“If she has no male relative, she must find the master of the village or town.”

One single mother found she could not even register her child in school because authorities would not issue a national ID without the father’s permission.

Afghan women celebrate NYE in Bamyan province
The #WhereIsMyName campaign has brought Afghan women one step closer to reclaiming their identities.(Supplied: Muzafar Ali)

Benafsha Efaf, program manager of Women for Afghan Women, expressed support for the #whatismyname movement, saying: “I hope they bring great changes.”

But she cautioned that the Government had made promises to increase the rights of Afghan women in the past, yet still they were treated as “nameless objects”.

She said while women had the right to vote, basic women’s rights were still missing, including a mother’s right to obtain a passport, ID or vaccine card for her own child without the presence of a male relative.

But #WhereIsMyName has brought women one step closer, and Ms Osmany urged, “people from all over the world to stand with us and support us if they believe in humanity and a world with no boundaries”.


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