Everything. As in gender, stature, respect or lack of it, marital status, lineage, religion, even anonymity.
My grandmother never called my grandfather by his name. When she tried to get his attention, she would call out in Punjabi ‘mein kaya gee’. Translated—and it’s a terrible translation—‘I have something to say.’ The tone conveyed respect. Why the formality? Why didn’t Ami Jan—my grandmother—call him by his name? Because in Pakistani culture it was considered forward. No matter that one was on the threshold of great-grandparent-hood. What about the other way around? Well, Aba Jee—my grandfather—called Ami Jan by her first name, but in many households, that wasn’t the case. It was either ‘gul sunno’ (listen please—terrible translation again), or Kareem di ma (Kareem’s mother). And what was the husband’s reason? Calling one’s wife by her name was considered intimate. I said ‘was’. That culture of formality and distance is a thing of the past, more the exception. But honestly, for American baby boomers, this should not come as a surprise. Didn’t Dad call Mom ‘mother’?
As teenagers in Pakistan, my friends and I found it amusing when a woman would refer to her husband as munney ke abba (baby’s Dad), or point towards their child and say ‘their father’. If they had no children? It was ‘wo’ i.e. ‘he’, followed by a shy smile, indicating, ‘you know who I mean.’ We girls had decided that when we got married, we would have none of that. I had been married less than a week, when I attended an event with my husband. At one point, I called out to him—by his name. Immediately, I felt my face flush. This was a very conservative gathering, the munney ke abba kind, and I wondered if I had offended their sensibilities.
We never called an elder by their name. Everyone and anyone who was our parent’s age, was uncle or auntie, whether they were our uncles and aunties or not. And it was only auntie, not auntie Razia, or auntie Faiza, because then you were calling out their name. If a girl were perhaps a year or two older, I would call her Baji, an honorific for elder sister, or Bhai Jan if it were a boy. I take that back. I wasn’t allowed to talk to boys—none of us were—so that rule applied to boy-on-boy. Imagine my shock when I came to the United States and a neighbor’s ten-year old son called me Sabeeha. What a rude boy, I had thought. Didn’t his mother teach him any manners?
Then we had this thing with disclosure, as in disclosing our name to strangers. When the phone rang, here is how the conversation went:
Caller: Who is speaking?
Receiver: Whom do you wish to speak to?
Caller: Is this the Khan residence?
Caller: Who is speaking?
And the dance would go on until finally the caller would identify whom he wanted to talk to.
Forty plus years later, I still do that when I visit Pakistan. There is this inherent reluctance to avoid giving out one’s name to a stranger. Almost as though by revealing your identity, you are making yourself vulnerable to harassment. Now tell me, why can’t the caller identify himself or herself and get on with it, as in, ‘Hello, this is Sabeeha, may I speak with Shahina?’ Because then the caller has given away his or her best kept secret: the name.
Then there is this business with maiden name vs. married name. Whoever came up with the decree that women change their name after marriage, have no idea how they have messed up my efforts to find my friends on Facebook. The girls I went to high school with—my college friends—lost in the black hole of married names. Women in Saudi Arabia do not change their name, because Islamic law requires that one be identified by their father’s name. So why did my mother become Mrs. Kazim and I, Mrs. Rehman. As former colonies, Pakistan has the British to thank for. I feel badly for women who have to deal with divorce or widowhood, then re-marriage, and re-re-marriage. What an identity rollercoaster! When I do end up finding old friends, I have to back track on my names: ‘Hi, this is Sabeeha Rehman; I used to be Sabeeha Akbar’. If lineage, identity, and tracking means anything, can we please just do it the Islamic way.
Why am I writing about this now? Because I am still thinking of Mohammad Ali, and because the mini-series Roots is playing. I am remembering the moment when I learnt that Cassius Clay had embraced Islam, and changed his name. I am remembering that the press refused to address him by his new name. He kept saying, ‘My name is Mohammad Ali,’ and they kept addressing him as Mr. Clay. And I remember watching the original mini-series Roots, where they almost lashed the life out of Kunta Kinte, as they lynched out his identity.
What is in a name? Everything.