The many reasons I believe your first name should be more important

Women. Men. And their names.

It was a couple of years ago. I was reading an article in English about an Egyptian journalist who was awarded a prestigious prize for her exceptional and courageous coverage of Egyptian stories. Her face was at the top of the article praising her for the deserved honour she received.

As I was reading on, the article started referring to her with her surname, Atallah is, Atallah did…etc, which is customary in the English journalistic tradition after the first mention of her full name. Atallah, though, is a man name. Without the picture of her face on the very top, one forgets that the subject of this review is a female. I remember how it struck me as strange then.

It reminded me of a similar situation years earlier when I was finishing my master studies in Switzerland. My supervisor for my thesis, and a close friend of mine, is a woman academic. In the grade report I received, at the top was written, “Dr. Sabry”. I remember finding it very odd when I first read it. It felt like it wasn’t Sarah. I knew Sarah too well as a woman and I couldn’t fit that with the mentions of Dr. Sabry. I kept repeating the name ‘Sabry’ aloud to myself. ‘Sabry. Sabry. Sabry?’ Sabry is a man.

I realised that my problem was that this word – that name- invoked an image of a man, which is not surprising since Sabry is a masculine name. Perhaps, had it been Dr. Sarah instead, as we alway do in Egypt, I wouldn’t have found it odd. Or doctora Sarah as it is said in Egyptian (the a added at the end makes it sound feminine). It also doesn’t help that in English, verbs are gender neutral while in Arabic, the verb takes different spelling and sound for female and male forms.

You see…in Egypt, as in Spain, if you want to be formal or respectful you use a register like Mme., Ms. or Mr. before the first name. It would have been Dr. Sarah Sabry or Dr. Sarah. We seldom use the last name only – except when emulating the West in some journalistic contexts or among friends with similar first names in groups that have conventionalised this to distinguish between identical-first-name persons. My mind wandered back to Egypt and how often I heard my first name even in formal settings. Ms. Amira which later became Mme. Amira and my mother’s name which was Mme. Wafeya and never Ms. or Mme. Rizkallah. A nostalgic feeling took me by surprise and I yearned for the sweetness and warmth of hearing our first names.

I find it really quite paradoxical. In a collectivistic culture like ours, where we are still quite defined by our family and roots, and by a strong patriarchal tradition, our first names are used to define us in more ways than in the western individualist culture, where individual autonomy reigns supreme. This has always struck me as odd. I did not quite adjust to it when I moved to Switzerland. I found it rather alienating here every time I was in a social or formal event and my husband introduced himself with his last name and I was expected to do the same. I tried for some time to adopt the norm but I could never do it with ease. I eventually stopped trying, went against the norm and would extend my hand to shake someone’s hand and simply say, “Amira”.

There are two crucial issues here. First, the gender part. I used to explain that my husband’s name is not mine every time I corrected my name tag or said Berzi instead of his. And then I found myself feeling that my last name is not the most natural way to refer to myself either – well not without my first name. I am Amira. Yes, my full name is Amira Berzi because I believe my roots and background are an inseparable part of who I am, but if I use one name, it will always be Amira.

Everyone who knows me knows I’ve taken the whole women-taking-husband’s-name-upon-marriage very much to heart – even too much to heart according to some people, and it was one of the first things I wrote about on my blog, “Why would I ever change my name?” I have taken it upon myself to raise this issue and expose it for the subjugating patriarchal norm it is. It turns out, I was on to something. Names are a major protagonist in the system of patriarchy in more ways than one.

I decided to navigate the press and go over news stories and articles to check how people are referred to and found them all very similar…saturated with surnames. Everywhere I looked, it was Atallah did this, Osman won that, Merkel is, Clinton, Ashrawi, Mostapha, Shaarawi, Zaghloul, Shafique…and many others when referring to remarkable women or remarkable achievements of women.

So that is the gender part. But that is not all. I still find it odd when men refer to themselves with their last names in a culture where I’m constantly reminded that, here, we are not defined by our parents or families but by our own individuality. Half of the time I find myself underlining the importance of acknowledging the inseparable part of the community we belong to, to our identity – how our roots and past experiences are integral to who we are; the other half, I am advocating the importance of having the liberty to carve our own identity without the constraints of the group we belong to. And most importantly that the key hangs on the balance, and how it should be an individual choice how much we want to bring into our identities; how and where we draw the lines and set boundaries. It is always a challenge when I meet people here for them to understand when I explain that I needed (and wanted) my parents’ blessing for my marriage, but fought for my choice of marriage against their desires and also did not take my husband’s name. Those positions need not be contradictory. I am a communitarian and so I believe there is something admirable about feeling morally obligated by loyalty to the different groups to which we belong – Family, friends, citizens with whom we share a lot. Giving them priority, provided we do not neglect our other important obligations towards a broader group, human kind, is truthful to our nature and goodness. I am also a feminist and a liberal. I believe we are entitled to be all three and we can be.

As a feminist, I find sidelining first names in favour of last names quite detrimental. Of-course I am making too much of it. Everyone tells me that. It all adds up though. All these little things I make too much of…they add up. At the end of the day, they aggregate and what you get is an unconscious existence in a sea of maleness. I found it to be an issue for scientists and academics too. A whole set of articles highlights the invisibility of women scientists and scholars because they are published under their last names, which are also very often their husbands’ names – not even their own. (Generally, papers are cited by last name of the author followed by only the initial of the first name).

I am certainly a zealous feminist (I know that) and have been repeatedly accused of being especially and excessively sensitive to these ‘trivial’ signs of male supremacy. But I was not always like this; I grew sensitive with time and experience, as I realised they are not harmless or inconsequential. They reinforce a universal default maleness. They don’t give girls the role models and visible representation in the world that girls need and deserve. They also affect our own collective self-esteem. These tiny ways by which women are made invisible add up and have consequences. They make us secondary at best; unacknowledged, undervalued, underpaid, and overlooked most of the time; and at worst, unapologetically exploited and indefinitely invisible.

They consistently make our absence from acknowledgements, recognition and from status very familiar. And it is easy for familiar things to be mistaken for normal – or worse natural!

Nothing about all this is natural or should be normal. It is just sadly all too familiar.