Naming Rights

I have been thinking a lot about names lately. I've been thinking about them because of the Oscars and because of Jimmy Kimmel. Here's a link describing his treatment of names slightly outside of his norm. He managed to make the name of the first Muslim to win an Oscar (the wonderful Mahershala Ali) into a running gag for the entire show. Not only was making fun of someone's name the very basest of humour, it was insulting, bigoted, and juvenile. Making fun of someone's name is something an elementary school bully might do. In fact, I have been the direct recipient of such name-calling and it can be damaging.

People with unusual names (like Mehnaz!) know all too well the daily tribulations of having these names. "Is that how I pronounce that?" is something that I hear far too often. I work in an office of hundreds of people and I show up at meetings with my colleagues ready to spell out my name. I am overjoyed when someone pronounces it exactly correctly I usually give the barista my nickname (Meena) when I'm waiting for an order because it's far too difficult to explain my real name.

My mother chose my name. She wanted a Muslim name that was unusual in our community of Ismailis, but nothing too outlandish sounding. She asked my father which he'd preferred between two names and he chose Mehnaz. I suspect he might have chosen it because there is a very famous singer by the same name and we are a musically-minded family. It is not a common name in the west, but it is incredibly common in Iran (it is after all, a Persian name), and other parts of the world with large Muslim populations.

Had we continued to live in our enclave of Ismailis in East Africa, my name wouldn't have caused many to bat an eye. Sure, it's not Aliya or Alisha, but it rolls off the tongue after a little while.

But we didn't stay in East Africa. We moved to a country full of Jessicas and Benjamins and my name wafted through the air like curry in an office lunchroom. I never hated my name, but I tried to find ways to ease the discomfort of others who couldn't pronounce it. When they would ask whether they had pronounced it correctly, I would make a flippant remark that I didn't really mind as long as the first and last letters were in the right place. In essence, I was letting them define me.

We see that in a society where different cultural values aren't always respected, choosing a name can be an indication of how malleable and easy parents are trying to make their children's lives. In the Muslim community, where identity politics is a critical juncture, names that are easy, hybridized, and pronounceable are used more and more. Strongly ethnic or cultural leaning names are no longer the order of the day. We are choosing to sanitize names because a Khadija might be stopped at airport security, but a Jenna might slip by (both Muslim names, both beautiful). We choose these names because Adam might have a better chance at getting the job than Shiraz. I can't say that I'm not just a little bit relieved that my last name isn't strongly Muslim-sounding. It's nebulous enough to confuse people before they give their heads a shake and the moment has passed.

Names afford us social license, whether we think about it or not. And that social license can easily be placed in the hands of others. But to accept the terms of others is to deny our own history. My mother chose my name. My name meant something to her, whether it was just how it sounded, the arrangement of the letters, the meaning. All those make up my history. And that history is important. To apologize for that history is to diminish it and yourself.

To accept a name without judgment, to think of it as beautiful, regardless of its rarity is to, in turn. accept another human being as legitimate; it means that we are saying, you have a story and a history, you mean something to the world, and I will endeavour to say your name as it was meant to be said because it is something of an honour to know you.

Whether your name is Sarah or Sharifa, your name matters. You deserve to have it pronounced correctly by the barista and you deserve to make space for your own history.

For more on names, you can watch this lovely talk by Duana Taha