A child with no name

Choosing a baby’s name ought to be a matter for the child’s parents, but it’s not always so simple. In Morocco, the parents of Tiziri el-Bechnaoui are struggling to register her name, six months after her birth.

The problem is that Tiziri – which means “moon” in the Berber language, Tamazight – is not on the government’s list of officially-approved names.

Moroccan law says that first names “must be Moroccan in nature and must not be either a family name nor a name composed of more than two forenames, nor the name of a town, village or tribe; similarly it must not be such that it would challenge morality or public order".

Local registrars are provided with lists of approved names (which include some Berber names) but many officials are still reluctant to accept any that are not Arabic/Islamic.

Parents can appeal against a refusal and, over the years, the High Commission of the Civil Registry “has ruled on dozens of Amazigh [Berber], European, and other non-Arabic-Islamic names, accepting some and rejecting others,” Human Rights Watch says.

In August, the Bechnaoui family went to court over Tiziri’s name – and won their case. Despite that, they are still waiting for local officials to register the name.

In many Arab countries there is a fear of acknowledging cultural and ethnic diversity. The roots of this lie in a preoccupation with national unity – often in the wake of struggles for independence – and in many cases this quest for unity involves denying elements of the national heritage that are not Arab or Islamic.

In Syria, for example, “Arabisation” policies have led to attempts to suppress the Kurdish language, as well as bans on Kurdish names for children and even businesses.

Morocco, to its credit, has gone some way towards recognising its 
Berber heritage but its policies seem confused. “The government does not have a clear strategy on sociocultural issues,” Brahim Akhiate, the secretary general of the Moroccan Association for Cultural Research and Exchange, told The National.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 October 2009.