Saudi Arabia and women’s names

Women’s names are secret and it would be very shameful for a Saudi man if his mother’s name was publicly known, or worse, those of his sisters. For women it is customary to be nicknamed ”umm so-and so” or ”daughter of…”

Two years ago there  the hashtag ”IsmOmi” (my mother’s name) was created by those Saudis who are proud of their mothers and have no problem letting the world know their names.

Saudi tweeters see this as a way to express their love and gratitude for their mothers. It is also considered a step toward empowering Saudi women. Saudi tweeter Khalid Al-Ahmed believes the hashtag is a healthy way to break down some of the social customs that he sees have unnecessarily burdened Saudi society for decades.
”Women’s names have been the obsession of Saudi men forever. They see this as something they must protect and keep unrevealed. It is shameful for them if people know the name of their mother, sister or wife,” he said. “A Saudi man would blackmail another if he knew his mother’s name,” he added.

Saudi women are frustrated by this attitude and Saudi men should be more reasonable, according to a tweet by Abeer Hamdoun. “Refraining from mentioning your mother’s name is the first step toward undermining Saudi women’s rights. The younger generation are too shy to say their mother’s names for no reason at all,” she said.
“Our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) was not shy of his mother’s name and King Abdulaziz used to call himself Akho Noura, which is Arabic for Noura’s brother,” she added. Ahmed is a 28-year-old man who changed his Twitter name to “Omima’s son” to celebrate the love and pride of his mother.
“I don’t see anything wrong with saying my mother’s name to random people. It’s like saying any other name,” he tweeted. “Without my mom I wouldn’t be here. Her name is Omima, and you bet I’m proud to mention it,” he added.

In this Saudi tv show the interviewer asks men the name of their mother. (The name of their sister would be too dangerous?) You will hear ”Wish ism Umm?/ Wish ism  Al Walda?”.  A few men do gve the name of ther mother, the old men all do, but their mother will probably be dead. Some men answer something like ”I’m not crazy to do so” or they will say ”umm Abdullah”, or Umm Mohammed”.

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45 Responses

  1. Salaam alaikhoum. I am responding this way as for some reason I could not get to “comment”; even though I have commented a few times previously when Carol was alive. To my mind, I think “the keeping of the mother’s name secret” mindset could also be linked to the segregation and seclusion ideals, i.e. trying to render women non-existent to people outside of the family. Here in England I have come across this. My friends husband (like myself a “revert” to islam) had e-mail correspondence to a born muslim living elsewhere in the country. This brother had a “best friend” from his schooldays who he still met with regularly. They both knew that the other was married, but neither had even seen the other ones wife, even by accident when they were out. I do not mean actually seeing the lady “in the flesh”, as obviously she would be covered – I mean in reality; so how they avoided each other in a relatively small town, no one knows! Maasalaama, Amelia

  2. I’ve not experienced this at all in Saudi. I’ve met and been introduced to everyone by name and that includes mothers. Maybe it’s more relaxed on the east coast which is where I was visiting.

  3. Amelia, You should be able to comment anytime. this post was scheduled for Friday, We were still editing it but something went wrong, it came on and we took it off again, that must have been the problem. Now you have already commented we put it back on.

    I think you are right, it is part of making women invisible, making them disappear.
    That’s funny! ”actually seeing the lady ”in the flesh”” puts a really shocking image in my mind! You naughty girl!

  4. Actually its not only for mothers that “Umm” is used. “Abu” is also used frequently referring to the man. It is a form of respect. Even if a man has no children, he will still be called “Abu Rashid” or something. And sons and daughters are called bin or bint so and so.

  5. My understanding is that the woman’s name may be known among close family. However, the woman will be referred to as “mother of…” just as her husband will be referred to as “father of…” and/or simply as “aunt” or “uncle” out of respect. In the case the man does not have children, sometimes, he will still be known as “father of… out of respect especially if the man is older. In homes where the women are segregated, the women will seldom be known to others unless the families are close. However, once the woman is of a “grandmotherly” age, segregation is not as important. It is seen as more important among the younger women, especially teens and young adults.

    My husband has introduced me to some of his friends and their families as this is normal because he close to them and trusts them. On the other hand, when there are men he is not close to visiting his family, I am not allowed to be seen or heard because he doesn’t know those people and it would be considered shameful. However, if it is a close friend or family member, then it is almost mandatory I meet them. So I hope that gives some perspective on Arab culture?

  6. As far as the segregation and the name hiding goes, this is my take on it: I think it’s a trust and protective thing more than anything else. I think it developed from the region being in almost perpetual tribal warfare and was done as a way to prevent women from being stolen and/or raped during tribal wars. (What better way to protect a woman than to make it seem as if she doesn’t exist? And if only her family knows her name, someone else knowing her name becomes a sign of trust.) Whether or not it is needed today, culture is slow to change especially when it is tied to religion.

    Note: This is my theory so I may be wrong. I haven’t studied the region and history in depth. Maybe someone who has would like to comment?

  7. Wendy, I take it from your name that you are a woman yourself. As you are a female the tabu doesn’t count.

    Strange One,
    Of course, why didn’t I realize this before?
    The complete obliteration of women’s personality is because they are cherished, they are Queens!
    That is of course a perfectly reasonable and flattering explanation for why women cannot be allowed to drive, why women’s bodies, face, their voices and even their names have to be hidden, and why women have no legal status.
    Women are pearls… jewels… And as dimwitted jewels we need to be protected!

  8. I always thought jewels were to be displayed. What’s the purpose of have a lovely diamond ring if you can’t wear it? :)

  9. It’s patriarchal. It’s men’s honor. It’s demeaning. It’s nonsense.

  10. Maybe the men are terrified their wives will dump them and walk away if they meet other men who are better :-) ( just joking)

  11. @Aafke,
    I never said anything about being a dimwitted jewel. And I’m not saying that I agree with it completely, either. Personally, I am fine with strangers not knowing who I am, more or less. I don’t like how I am judged (whether positive or negative) based on my citizenship, looks, and/or education level whether it’s good or bad. Even here in the States, I usually hide my education level, age, etc. unless someone asks because I don’t want to be judged because of it.

    In some places in the world, women who are walking alone are sometimes targeted for rape. So in those cases, they would either need someone walking with them, and/or would need to be able to defend themselves. I can’t fault someone for wanting to make sure their family is protected. Usually in these circumstances if the women push for more freedom, it is given but under the condition the women are trained to defend themselves. Otherwise, the women’s job is seen as being in the home unless they demand otherwise (which is rare, but accepted if she is seen as a “strong” independent woman). I have mixed feelings about the whole thing, but if it works for a given family or culture, it’s not really my business.

    And I never said anything about obliterating a woman’s personality. From what I have seen, that usually isn’t the case. But of course, different Arab countries have different cultures. Some I identify as being more like Europe and some I identify as being more like the US in terms of ethnic diversity, culture, etc.

    And in my husband’s culture, it’s sexy when a woman is a good driver. Women also serve in government, and that is respected by the majority.

  12. Strange one, I didn’t call you a dimwitted jewel. I was being sarcastic. Because your comment sounded like an apologist who has swallowed too much cool-aid. While being sarcastic I meant that all women are (apparently) dimwitted jewels.
    Of course whether you believe that or not, whether you think that applies to you or not, is up to you.

    It’s not about education it’s about shame, the men are ashamed of the woman’s name.
    It’s not about safety, it’s not about self defense, it’s not about driving cars being ”sexy”, it’s not about women serving in government, it is not about culture, it’s about shame. The word the men use is shame it’s about women being shameful things, it’s about men being ashamed of women and women’s names.

    You said in your comment of januari 23:
    when there are men he is not close to visiting his family, I am not allowed to be seen or heard because he doesn’t know those people and it would be considered shameful

    This is a really scary sentence, I am starting to feel worried about you, because this is a real problem, both your husbands attitude, and you seemingly taking the cool-aid and believing all these sugarcoated excuses. I was being sarcastic before, and making it into a joke, but I am serious now:

    You can accept this as part of a ”culture”, but it is still not about protecting women, it’s about being ashamed of women. And it’s about women being property. You are not being protected, his property is being protected. You are not a sentient human being, you are something shameful and therefore other men cannot see you.
    Even if this is part of a culture, it doesn’t mean it’s ok?! Cultures can be crap. Women being a source, or cause, or object, of shame is really, really crap. It’s wrong, it’s unhealthy, and in a spouse something one should be very, very worried about.

  13. This article makes it seem that it is only in Saudi and it is only for women. It is misleading and false. Unless one lives within the Arab society and experience the rich culture, one can neither appreciate nor understand it. For some who are living years with Arabs can still not understand it mainly because they don’t care too. They live with a kind of grudge and maybe hatred.

    The use of “kunya” such as Umm Mohammed or Bu Rashid is a very common in the Arab World and it is not a Saudi thing or something that was introduced because of shame. If they call men also in the same way, then what has shame to do with it. Even in the time of the Prophet (saas) women and men were called with kunya. Eg. Umm Salamah, Abu Talib …etc. It has nothing to do with shame or hiding the names. It is purely a matter of respect.

    When men greet each other, they do so using the title “Abu…”. It indicates the closeness, the friendliness and high regard. When women meet, they do the same. Sometimes husbands even greet their wives in such a way. Using the first names is considered rude in a way. Even in Asian cultures, younger ones called the elders as uncle or aunts and, likewise they do address their older siblings using their first names. Its not because they are ashamed of them.

    In some cases, people are called by names connecting them to how they are known such as Abu Hurarira – father of kittens – because he used to love kittens.; of Abu Bakr – father of cattle – because of the love for farm animals or camels. Again – nothing to do with shame or wanting to hide. In other cases it describes the person such as Abu Lahab – father of flame – because of his complexion and temperament. The Prophet (saas) himself was called Abu’l Qasim. His wife, Ayesha, was called Umm Abdullah, even though she had no children of her own.

    Its the culture/tradition, people.

  14. Correction :

    Even in Asian cultures, younger ones call the elders as uncle or aunts and, likewise they address their older siblings using titles of “brother” or “sister” instead of their first names. Its not because they are ashamed of them.

  15. @Aafke,
    I formed my opinion based on past events within the family. I agree with Sarah that the name thing is simply culture and it is by no means limited to women. To add to her comment, one time my husband called me “umm thuum” (mother of garlic) because I happened to eat garlic before bedtime. I retaliated later by referring to him as “abu bussel” (father of onion).

    I wasn’t lying or exaggerating the truth when I mentioned women working outside the home in dangerous areas. I really don’t need to say where he’s from, but I’m sure you could figure it out from the news. It’s obviously not KSA. And in this case, it has a lot to do with safety. For instance, if a woman (or man) is outside the home, she (or he) will be armed with a loaded gun. If she is in politics and stands up to a man no one likes, she is applauded and supported by men and women around her. Some families are more open than others, and some tribes are more open than others. There are different views on modesty within the country that vary from tribe to tribe and family to family, although women are still expected to dress conservatively (meaning no cleavage showing, no short skirts, etc.).

    There are some things I deem to be cultural and do not completely agree with, such as views on modesty, etc. However, I also understand that it’s been going on that way for many, many years and it’s not going to change overnight. If I learned anything from my fashion courses, it’s that cultures are slow to change.

    The statement of mine you quoted, while true, I consider to be a cultural issue and it’s not going to change overnight. Not all families are that way, but he is from a more conservative one. In some ways, I find it humorous but to be honest I don’t want to meet strangers that I may never see again that will judge the family’s/my husband’s honor, etc. partially based on me. It’s kinda stressful to think about so I like the way it is.

  16. Don’t worry Aafke. Its all good. If Strangeone’s husband wants to protect her, its his right and its his wife he is protecting. Its not shameful to do that. And I am sure many husbands, whatever race do the same. For you to worry about that makes me worry about you! :)

  17. Using “Um” and “Abu” is not what the issue is. That is truly very common and I use it myself. But there is actual secrecy in Saudi in vast segments of society where the name must not be said or publicly known because it’s shameful. I do not know if other Arab countries do the secrecy/shame thing. I would be interested to hear from someone who knows why.

    This was one of the reasons with all the problem here of women getting ID cards. Their names would be known. They finally had to change the law so women no longer needed their guardians permission to get one. To their credit they did change it- though practically speaking it may be difficult for some women.

    So instead of all the explaining about Uncle and Aunty- how about addressing the issue at hand? ANd no need Sarah to take pot shots at people “not understanding

    “For some who are living years with Arabs can still not understand it mainly because they don’t care too. They live with a kind of grudge and maybe hatred.”- especially when you are the one that doesn’t understand it.

  18. I know what the post is talking about (btw, its almost same post by another blogger posted in 2011 with the same video :) )
    This is old traditional tribal thing. But its almost dead. With new generation, its not there. Its merged with calling people Umm and Abu. Still its nothing to do with shame but honor. It depends on how you look at it. People used to abuse the name and make fun/tease. So not saying the name is kind of protection of the tribe.

  19. Personally, my name is Wendy … I do not want to be identified as the ‘mother of’ anybody. I am my own person. BTW, knowing someone’s first name is not going to put them in danger. Giving an address and phone number and other details to the public is stupid but a first name … I think not.

    In my travels in African Muslim countries first names are the norm for introductions in my experience and not all are relatives. My husband is introduced to the woman by first name also.

  20. StrangeOne, Again: That’s the whole point, that’s the really bad thing, that the woman, her behavior, her name, etc. is responsible for the family’s honor, that a woman’s name is something shameful. If you are fine with that, fine for you, fact remains, it’s still very bad.
    Insane actually.

  21. @Aafke,
    It doesn’t matter if I am fine with it or not- it’s still going to affect his family. That’s MY point. And family protects family in my book. This is about what the visitors will think, and while some things can be excused because I am not from their culture, other things cannot. Not everyone is understanding of other cultures as can be seen by comments on here that appear to go both ways. In the US and similar countries, people are judged on an individual basis. In much of the Arab countries, people are judged on a tribal/familial basis. You can’t change the minds of millions of people; they have to want to change their own mind and do so.

  22. I’d much rather be known by my name. Again it’sconditioning and the culture adn patriarchy levels of where one comes from. My husbandisway diff from his siblingsbecause he has for the most part not been raised in saudi. yet he is moreliberal and open than I am even though we grew up in the same place.His aunt and uncle who raised him are the most open peoplein the planet, I come from an orthodox s.indian family, Yes we are liberated enough to educate girls, and let them do what they want but not as open as my spouse’s. A bit of it is in the upbringing too. for instance although I do as i please i care a teeny bit about what others back home may say, whereas F is totally not bothered. he does as he pleases adn tries his best to teach our kids to be individuals. which i find fascinating especially coming from him and especially after i’ve seen his family . they live in the 18th century, how on earth did this man turn out like this is still a mystery.
    so i think this name thing is all cultural adn also people worrying about how it may look to others. in most asians societies atleast, peopleconstant worry about their image, shame and honor, they can be total crooks inside but that doesnt matter it is what you show to the outside world. maybe saudi is kind of like that.

  23. Radha, it seems that F is a really intelligent rational person who thinks. For himself.
    Very few people can think for themselves, but those that do are the best of humanity, for they are not hampered by religious or cultural baggage, they don’t have their morality twisted by religion, and they will never feel ashamed because of a woman they love is considered shameful. You made a good choice!

  24. Thanks AAfke, Cant say i made the first move though, F claims I was blind as a bat and he gently prodded me into the relationship :-)

  25. Well… F made a very good choice too of course. And you made a good decision by saying ”yes” at the right moment!

  26. @Aafke,
    I guess my point is why should I care if I meet virtual strangers that I will likely never come across again? Why should I make a big deal out of it? Besides which, usually I am busy enough with my own life. If I am going to stop to talk to people, I want it to be worth my time. Usually, it’s someone who happens to visit when we are calling his family. So when he is trying to speak with his family, he also says hello to the guests.

    My husband doesn’t find me shameful, but he doesn’t want to make a big deal over something that is not that important to us but important to his family. Why would we do that? Also, due to perceptions of American culture, it could actually put me in a bad light to be so forward with introducing me, causing problems later on.

    From what I can tell, you are quick to judge another culture if it is different from what you perceive to be the one “right” culture without ever really taking the time to fully understand the culture you are judging. And then, you use partial truths and examples to justify your statement. In short, I perceive you to be biased. However, we all have some cultural bias. My point is that no culture is 100% correct, and no person is 100% correct. Why, then, are you so intent on judging others without even meeting or knowing them?

    There are many things you don’t know about my relationship because this really isn’t the place to delve into all its intricacies. I post what I post to help others who are in a relationship with an Arab better understand the culture, and also to help me understand the culture. The whole point in this blog, from what I remember Carol telling me, was to promote cultural understanding. It wasn’t meant as a place to prove one culture is better than another. So, why do you do that?

  27. And also, I am always introduced by my name (which usually is followed by a joke regarding my name, which I actually love because I find it to be cute).

    One of the differences I have noticed when it comes to Arab vs. American culture in terms of views of women in the workplace is this:
    Arab households will beg and plead with the woman to remain in the home, but at the point that she is working outside the home they will support her and prefer that she work in a field such as engineering, medicine, teaching, business, etc. In other words, they want it to make up for her absence in the home. In American culture, the woman is expected to work outside the home these days while also caring for the home. However, when she talks about being a doctor and/or engineer, there is actually a greater chance the man will talk her out of it because it is hard to balance such a career while also maintaining a home. I have found Arab men to be much more supportive of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and medical fields than American men.

    I have even seen this multiple times within my own family. My husband is exponentially more supportive of me entering medical school (even though I am nearing my 30′s) than my own father and/or siblings are, especially when I first mentioned the idea. Now, the Americans around me grudgingly accept it while my husband is all for it. If I were to change my mind and want to start my own fashion business, my husband would be confused but supportive, too. So I chose someone who will support me in my goals in life and push me to go after them. Is there something wrong with that?

  28. I should know this but are you in Saudi, Strange One?

  29. Strange One. It’s really interesting to hear all the details about your relationship and future plans. And it is indeed good to have an example of a happy marriage on the blog.
    Fact is, every culture has good and bad, for example: Arabic culture has resulted in fantastic, beautiful architecture, like in the south if Spain.
    And you can disagree with me but I will never be apologetic about my opinion that one of the worst aspects of Arabic culture is it’s denigration of women. Their extreme treatment of women: as a lower class of person. As something shameful.

    In the video the men use the Arabic equivalent word of ”shame”.
    Considering a woman’s name to be shameful is a very bad thing, yet you keep skipping that problem. There is nothing worse than saying a woman’s name is shameful, it is not even her body anymore, now you can not even bring their name up. Women are less than shadows, they are a shameful secret.

    Look, your anecdotal stories about your marriage do not explain this away. It’s still a bad thing. It’s not that I don’t understand the culture, I understand it very well.
    And this aspect of the culture still sucks.

  30. The name thing is not a part of all Arabic culture, only in some countries.

  31. Wendy, you are right, I should have been more precise.
    Although as this post is so clearly about Saudi Arabia I thought that was clear. But you are right. And one of the things I like about commenting on blogs is that it forces you to be precise, and I was not precise.
    The name thing seems to be typical Saudi. Or mostly. So I wonder, if muslim men outside of Saudi Arabia have the same hang-up, would that be the wahhabi influence?

  32. Not all Saudis do this either, I feel like it must be more common in tribal families. I’m married to a Saudi and I can specifically remember him ranting to me a couple years ago about some of his friends who did this…he thought it was stupid and didn’t see the big deal in mentioning his sisters’ or mother’s names to people.

  33. Come to think of it, my husband does not refer to me by my name to anyone except his immediate family members. And its not due to shame but on the contrary as a respect. If used with near family then it because of familiarity. A name is something personal and not to be thrown around to anyone and by anyone. I relate to Strangeone and get what she means. (Btw, I do not refer to his first name with anyone else, too :) )

    Calling someone by first name indicates closeness and trust, as does the term “Abu” or “Umm”. (And this is true even in the West – when one asks you to call them by first name means there are building a closer relationship). With strangers there is no such closeness and certainly not with other strange men. But with strangers “Umm/Abu” is used sometimes.

    In addition, using the first name indicates “loose” character. Her name is known by anyone, there is no honor in that, nothing special. AND if anything, that is a shameful thing – not the name per se. This maybe difficult to understand from a western perspective because they are mostly known by first names.

    AA, I don’t think that you understand this culture at all and as I said one cannot understand it until one lives it. What we can say about the western women as being shameless with their dress sense, or women being sex objects and slaves to men (which we see as “denigration of women”), may not run well with you because you experience it differently. So its same here.

    Besides, you are not doing justice to Carol’s blog with your attempt at breaking cultural bridges. Your views does not have to be only view and the correct one. Carol would have changed the wordings and made it her own article with her balanced views and not made it look like almost exact copy of another post in another blog. There is no creativity in that. Just saying …

  34. Ashley, Welcome to the blog!
    Of course not all Saudis are ashamed of their mother’s name, as the article points out, there are groups of Saudis who have started campaigns to stop this name shame-thing. And in the Saudi video about 30% of the Saudi men don’t have any problem mentioning their mother’s name. Notably the older men.
    And the fact that a Saudi tv show highlights this shame aspect at all is also interesting. It seems to indicate a change.

  35. I suspect it may be more prevelent in the interior region of the country. I have been introduced to many Saudi men with my name and my husband knows many women by their name (I mean this in a normal way). Jeddah society talk uses names of people and many of them are tribal. But Jeddah has been an port city and more open for centuries. I’m guessing this is Nejd or Bedoin tradition.

    And it’s total bollocks that the cultural practice itself is respectful to women- though I do understand that individuals mean it in a respectful way.

  36. Now I said this earlier … when I was in Saudi it was first name introductions so Ashley has confirmed that this is not abnormal. Sarah will now pass on her thoughts to children about the ‘shame’ of having her name spoken outside the immediate family and then will pass it on and so on and so on UNLESS somebody decides it’s nonsense.

  37. Thanks aafke! I’m new to commenting but have actually been a lurker for around five years :)

  38. No Wendy, the ways of the people, behavioral changes take place on their own. Things phase out to be replaced by other behavior. Sometimes we don’t even realize it.

  39. No, Sarah. You are wrong. Things change because people change them. Things phase out to be replaced by other behaviors only because people have done something to phase something out and replace with another. . Change can be brought about by people actually using their brains rather than following ‘the party line’ so to speak. Your way of thinking is how places like Saudi and Afghanistan for example can remain in the stone age.

  40. Ashley, glad you stopped ”blurking” :)

  41. You are right, some things can change through the effort of the people but some do change by themselves because it “goes out of fashion” and no more “cool” or “its not done”. Its mental attitude change. Some things are not done anymore because something else looks “cooler” and more fitting to the current times. For example: few years back, when we sit in the mosque waiting for the prayers, we see people holding the Book and read. Nowadays you see them pulling out their ipads, tablets …etc to read the Quran. Its not a conscious change but behavior which goes along with the time. These days you see people everywhere almost always looking down at their cell phones fidgeting with it. These are changes that just happen, we are not making an effort to make it happen. Something’s just phase out without we changing them.

    And yes there are other things that consciously change because people change and replace with other things.

  42. So you are saying that it is not a conscious decision for someone to decide to buy an Ipad or a tablet? Seems to me those things didn’t just fall into their laps.

  43. I think you didn’t get me or trying not to get me. What I am saying is its going with times. People do things with changing times. So things phase out. Old customs do die out. Using the device itself is not the issue. Its the behavioral change.

  44. Sarah, you are still not thinking about this. No change comes unless people generate them. Technology can be ignored if people don’t want it. I’ll leave you to your ideas which are much more comfortable to you for some reason.

  45. Everyone has their own take on the matter. So lets leave it at that.

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