Sunday, November 20, 2011

Name Post: Introduction to Morocco

Morocco is the first country on my list where the pressure to choose specific names is governmentally-based. A lot of my questions surrounding names here mirror a lot of conversations about how various political and cultural identities are represented. In case you were as ignorant as I was a few months, I’ll fill you in that Morocco is officially a constitutional monarchy. The King, Mohammed VI , serves as both a governmental and religious figure. He still has ultimate legal authority and the ability to override other branches of the government. It’s an exciting time in Morocco right now because there are parliamentary elections on the 25th and since last February, there have been a lot of political actions and protests for constitutional reforms.

How this all relates to names is that names in Morocco are strictly monitored by a set of laws (37-99). Expectant parents are told to choose from a list of approved names in order to choose something that represents “Moroccan identity.” One example of this I recently heard at a dinner party is that in Morocco, you can name a baby “Sara” (which is the more traditional Arabic version of the name) but not “Sarah”, (which is the more traditional Hebrew version of the name).

Unlike in Indonesia and India, where it was only recently that births (and names) began to be formally recorded across all different sects of the population, I’m curious to now be in a place that has such a regimented system for names and the choices of names that are available. Specifically, Article 21 of Law 37-99 says that a first name must have a “Moroccan character and must be neither a name of a family nor a name composed of more than two first names, nor the name of a city, village or tribe, and must not constitute an affront to good morals or the public order." (This is in almost direct contrast to my experiences in India where a large majority of the population is named after their father’s village or local deity).

There is, of course, a way around this law which would be just to not register a child’s birth at the civil registrar and then call her whatever you want. The problem with this is that it makes for a lot of difficulty later if, for example, the child wants to apply for a passport or receive health insurance. Furthermore, this law seems to apply to members of the Morrocan diaspora as well. I recently read an article that discussed how a list of approved-names was sent to Holland so that the Dutch government can help the Moroccan government by restricting the names of Dutch-Moroccan children born in the EU.

Of most interest to me, just starting out, is the question of names and Berber identity. Berbers (today called Imazighen) refer t o the people indigenous to North Africa and who traditionally lived in tribes. Berber language and Berber heritage are important (and controversial) topics in contemporary Morocco. Although most Moroccans today (including the King) have some Berber heritage, there’s traditionally been a lot of discrimination towards Berbers (and there continues to be). A lot of recent reform efforts have sought to try to preserve Berber language by standardizing the alphabet and offering Berber language classes in schools.

Despite these reforms, however, just recently (in 2009), a law was put in place that banned the use of Berber names on Moroccan birth certificates. Understandably, a lot of human rights groups criticized this law but the response of Idris Bajidi, the administrative authority officer was that “the [Berber] names on the list contradict the Moroccan identity and it opens the door for the random spread of meaningless names.” In other words, there could be no Pilot Inspektor in Morocco.

Of course, it is grossly problematic to conflate the idea of using Berber names with “the random spread of meaningless names.” What’s really interesting to me (and some human rights groups) about this law is that the idea of names with a “Moroccan character” is being interpreted to exclude Berber names, even though the Amazigh people were the oldest people to be in Morocco. This means that a “Moroccan name” is being defined as one that is specifically Arabic-Islamic.

This also brings up huge questions for me about the role of freedom in naming--is limiting the names that people can use an affront to human rights? It seems, like in the case of discriminating against Berbers, it certainly is. On the other hand, might not limiting the names that people can use similarly an affront to human rights? (Although allowing someone to give their child any name of their choosing, as it is in the U.S. for example, is giving that person a specific freedom, isn’t the kid who grows up being called Hitler having his freedom restricted, in some sense?) (See, for example:

I’m hoping to talk to a wide range of sources while I’m here in order to try and delve into these questions.

Sources & Further Reading:,,,

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