Their Identities Denied, Afghan Women Ask, ‘Where Is My Name?’

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KABUL, Afghanistan — These are some of the terms Afghan men use to refer to their wives in public instead of their names, the sharing of which they see as a grave dishonor worthy of violence: Mother of Children, My Household, My Weak One or sometimes, in far corners, My Goat or My Chicken.

Women also may be called Milk-sharer or Black-headed. The go-to word for Afghans to call a woman in public, no matter her status, is Aunt.

But a social media campaign to change this custom has been percolating in recent weeks, initiated by young women. The campaign comes with a hashtag in local languages that addresses the core of the issue and translates as #WhereIsMyName.

The activists’ aim is both to challenge women to reclaim their most basic identity, and to break the deep-rooted taboo that prevents men from mentioning their female relatives’ names in public.

“This is just a spark — the posing of a question mostly to the Afghan women about why their identity is denied,” said Bahar Sohaili, one of the supporters of the campaign.

“The reality is that women also remain silent — they don’t protest this,” Ms. Sohaili said, adding that she and other activists were discussing offline steps to bolster the social media discussion.

Like many social media efforts, this one began small, with several posts out of Herat Province in the west. Since then, more activists have tried to turn it into a topic of conversation by challenging celebrities and government officials to share the names of their wives and mothers.

The discussion has now made it to the regular media, with articles in newspapers and conversations on television and radio talk shows.

Members of the Parliament, senior government officials and artists have come forward in support, publicly declaring the identities of the female members of their families.

Farhad Darya, one of Afghanistan’s most renowned singers, put out a heartfelt message about his struggle to make sure he always mentioned his mother and wife by name in concerts and interviews over his decades as a performer.

“On many occasions in front of a crowd that doesn’t have family relations to me, I have noticed how the foreheads of men sour by what they see as my cowardice in mentioning the name of my mother or my wife,” Mr. Darya wrote on Facebook. “They stare at me in such a way as if I am the leader of all of the world’s cowards and I know nothing of ‘Afghan honor and traditions.’”

The campaign also has its detractors. Some on social media have said it is against “Afghan values,” while others have deemed it too small to make a difference.

Modaser Islami, head of a youth organization, wrote on his Facebook page: “The name of my mother, sister and wife are sacred like their head scarf, and it’s a sign of their honor.”

He then addressed the activists: “The name of my mother, sister and wife will be mentioned where they see necessary. You should get yourselves head scarves and pants.”

Ms. Sohaili, the activist, said she hoped men would look inward and consider why it was taboo to write a woman’s name, even in a doctor’s prescription. “Is it cultural, is it religious?” she asked. “Are there any logical roots to this at all?”

The denial of women’s basic identity in public is emblematic of how deep misogyny runs in this society, when even male schoolchildren often get into fights to defend their honor, which they are taught is besmirched if someone mentions their mother’s or sister’s name.

Hassan Rizayee, an Afghan sociologist, said the custom was rooted in tribal ways of life.

“According to tribal logic, the important thing is the ownership of a woman’s body,” Mr. Rizayee said. “The body of a woman belongs to a man, and other people should not even use her body indirectly, such as looking at her. Based on this logic, the body, face and name of the woman belong to the man.”

Reversing such deeply ingrained traditions will take a long time, he said, including changing what children are taught.

“This is a traditional and cultural issue; it needs a long-term cultural struggle and fight,” he said. “By weakening tribal cultures, and awareness through the media, this type of thinking about woman could be changed.”

Somaia Ramish, a member of the Herat provincial council, recently wrote that women had been “erased systematically” throughout history and reduced to their relations with men.

“The child comes out of the mother’s womb, but in no document relating to the child — from infancy to old age — does the mother’s name get registered,” she said in an online article. “The interesting thing, however, is that the mother then, out of habit and tradition, becomes identified by the child. The woman whose name has no place in laws all of a sudden becomes ‘the mother of Ahmad’ or ‘the mother of Mahmoud.’”

Ms. Ramish wrote that she had noticed the gravity of the problem when the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, in his inaugural speech three years ago, mentioned his wife by name. There was so much surprise, she wrote, “as if no one had heard a woman’s name before.”

In that speech, as strongmen and former warlords whispered to one another in the back of the hall, Mr. Ghani thanked his wife, Rula — a Lebanese-born former journalist and humanitarian worker, whom he called by her adopted Afghan name, Bibi Gul — for her “continued support for me and Afghanistan.”

Ms. Ghani has taken up a much more public role as first lady than Zeenat Karzai, the wife of the previous president, Hamid Karzai. A medical doctor by training, Dr. Karzai had very little public presence during the first years of Mr. Karzai’s presidency, and she took a back seat completely for much of the remaining years.

Ms. Ghani often accompanies her husband to meetings and on provincial trips.

Mr. Islami, the opponent of the campaign, said in an interview that he agreed with the idea of normalizing women’s identities in public but that he saw the social media push as the work of a “privileged few,” pitting women against men.

Others pointed to how deceiving social media could be in gauging change in offline habits. Online, users want to be part of a viral wave without really taking the message to heart. That was illustrated best in one user’s snide Facebook post.

“I joined the #WhereIsMyName campaign,” the user wrote. “My name is Akram. The name of Mother of My Children? I will not say it even if I am ripped into pieces.”