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Egypt can maintain its identity in the face of foreign names

Heba Yosry

Published: Updated:

New revisions of an existing law concerning new-born names were presented to the Egyptian parliament for discussion recently. The revisions aim to increase the penalty for those who do not abide by it from 200 EGP to 5000 EGP and up to one year of imprisonment.

The suggested revisions presented by the parliamentarian Hisham al-Jahil included a peculiar addition that caused an uproar on social media. Al-Jahil explained that he had noticed the increase of “foreign” names within Egyptian society. Names such as Lara, Mark, Yara, Karma, and others were, to his dismay, pervading Egyptian culture and jeopardizing our identity. Accordingly, “foreign” names should be outlawed to retain our authenticity.

There are several problematic repercussions to his suggested revisions. But before tackling the consequences, we must investigate his underlying supposition. His claim is founded upon the notion that Egyptian identity is monolithic and perhaps Arab.

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Though one cannot deny the predominance of Arab influence in Egypt, the Egyptian persona isn’t solemnly Arab. We have various peoples including, Pharaonic, Coptic, Turkic, and Western. They are interwoven within our very being. Not to mention that the notion of identity itself isn’t a static emblem but instead a dynamic flow that changes over time. Hence, to flaunt prison time upon unsuspecting parents for the mere and simple fact that they wish to call their children names that he has deemed “foreign” seems to emanate from a need to control. The motive is not a sincere desire to safeguard Egyptian authenticity.

Even if we set aside the fact that this proposed law infringes on parental rights, it has the potential to fan the flames of religious intolerance among Egyptians. As a child in school, I wished to become a Christian to have an exciting name like my Christian friends.

I’m happy to report that I’ve made peace with my name, but at the time, I hated that I was called Heba. My name felt mediocre when other girls were called Laura, Silvy, or Mary. I envied my Christian friends for their sophisticated names, while I was one of five Hebas in my class. Back then, a “foreign” name denoted that you were either Christian, lived abroad, or had a non-Egyptian parent.

Nowadays, if a girl is called Natalie, you don’t automatically assume she’s Christian or foreign. The pervasiveness of “foreign” names being questioned was an equalizing factor. People don’t make assumptions about a person’s religion based solely on their name except if they have a particularly religious name. That is a good thing, something that we should embrace and celebrate.

If this law is passed, Egyptian Christians will find themselves compelled to abide by a pre-approved list that doesn’t consider the fact that they want to call their children Mark, John, or Mary. And it feels like a recipe for prejudice. As it was once said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. When several churches in different parts of Egypt were in flames, and entire families suffocated to death, we didn’t need to add fuel to the fire.

Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve thought about what I would call my children when I have them. When I started studying philosophy, I wanted to call my future daughter Sophia which means wisdom. My boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband, wanted to name our daughter Dandelion because he liked how I said it.

Yet, before I got pregnant, I had a peculiar dream. I dreamt I was pregnant with twins and was told their names were Maryam and Zakaria. It felt like a message, one of the good tidings. I woke up and told my husband about my dream and no one else. One year after that, I found out that I was pregnant, and I knew that I would have twins, a girl and a boy. I knew their names would be Maryam and Zakaria.

My children are almost seven, and I never miss an opportunity to tell them this story. Now imagine if I couldn’t call my children what I believe were their divinely inspired names because some lawmakers deemed them inappropriate or intrusive to the culture. I would feel oppressed. This is what every Egyptian Christian could feel if these revisions were passed.

Egypt is a country with a rich and diverse history. We are resilient, funny, and resourceful. Egyptian history is replete with violent outbursts, wars, and conquests that aimed to morph Egyptian identity. No matter, a country that was able to maintain its unique identity even when governed by foreign rulers can maintain its identity in the face of foreign names.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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