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The Politics of Iran's 'Forbidden Names'

FILE - An Iranian newborn cries in an incubator at a hospital in Tehran, Dec. 5, 2006. When naming their children, Iran's government requires that families pick from among a list of approved monikers.
FILE - An Iranian newborn cries in an incubator at a hospital in Tehran, Dec. 5, 2006. When naming their children, Iran's government requires that families pick from among a list of approved monikers.

On February 14, the Marand High Court in Iran's northern province of East Azerbaijan ruled that a newborn boy could not be named "Türkay" — a word meaning "Turkish moon" in Azeri Turkish.

His parents, disturbed but not surprised by the decision, decided to fight back. Following more than two months of legal battles, the East Azerbaijan Appellate Court in late April decided that the name was not actually on the list of "banned names," and the family could use it for their son.

It was a rare win for ethnic minority families in Iran who have long been frustrated by the government's refusal to allow them to name their children as they wish.

"Finally, another Turk got his ID card," tweeted family lawyer Sina Yousefi in Tabriz alongside the picture of the court decision.

"Azerbaijan people have to go through a tough process of court and judicial procedure to choose their picked name for their child, but they will never give up their civil rights," he said.

Since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, the government has forced families to pick from among the approved names for their children, which critics say is part of a campaign by the country's rulers to enforce their cultural and religious preferences on all Iranians.

Authorities argue that unapproved names could sow ethnic divisions in the country by highlighting differences. But critics say it's a heavy-handed attempt at social engineering that mainly hurts minority groups.

'Forbidden' names

Legal advocates say most families who petition for permission for their preferred name lose in court.

In interviews with VOA, several parents explained how they had to give up their names for their children after they were labeled by local authorities as foreign, un-Islamic, or appealing to ethnic nationalism.

The restrictions have made it common for many Iranians to have two names — one used on legal documents and another by family and friends.

Iran's civil registration law classifies as "forbidden" any name that "insults the Islamic sanctity, as well as choosing titles which are obscene, offensive, or inappropriate." The law empowers the High Council of Civil Registry to decide which names are allowed and which are not.

In 2015, a senior official in the department suggested authorities are even more restrictive than what the law specifies. Assadollah Parsamehr, the Civil Registry's deputy of identity documents, said his office approved names "related to" Iranian and Islamic culture but rejected "foreign names belonging to foreign cultures."

According to Alex Vatanka, founding director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, the restrictions on names are a part of a yearslong "social engineering" campaign by Iran's leaders.

"The Islamic Republic officials have for 43 years sought to impose their preferred way of life, which includes what people should call their children, how they should dress and what sort of values they should hold," Vatanka told VOA.

He charged that Iran's rulers in the 1980s issued similar restrictions on common Persian pre-Islamic names such as Cyrus and Ardashir, leading some authorities to change their own surnames, apparently for political gains.

"If you want to go the other way, that is, if you want to change your Persian name into an Islamic name, that is totally fine. Most famously, (former president) Hasan Rouhani, who wasn't born Rouhani but Fereydoun, changed his surname because it did not sound Islamic."

Social engineering

Minority groups allege that Iranian nationalists in the office use their position to maintain the cultural dominance of Persians in Iran, manipulating decisions to punish minority groups, even when the names they select do not violate the law.

Wrya Mamle, a Kurdish activist and writer from northwest Iran's Mahabad, now a refugee in Norway, said he felt the impact of this law when he applied to register his daughter's name, Hana, which is popular among many cultures. The name means "turn to" or "approach" in Kurdish.

"They said they couldn't accept that because it was a foreign name," Mamle said. "I told them, 'No, it is Kurdish.' After that, they took out a document of about 100 pages containing names that were considered acceptable. They told me Hana is not on the list and therefore, cannot be used."

Farhad Javadi, author of a 2001 book on Turkish names, said although he advises people that there is no law preventing them from picking their preferred Turkish names, the bureaucracy still ends up thwarting them.

"They [Iranian authorities] create conditions for a person to go back and forth for a few days and then get tired and say, 'We will just choose any name.'"

Not having a legally approved name can have dire consequences for some families.

Taymaz Mehralibeyli from the city of Julfa said he has not been able to get medical insurance for his 3-year-old son since last year. He said authorities refused to issue his son an identity card because he insisted on naming him Huntay — meaning "resembling the Huns."

Huns are ancient nomadic people who lived in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe between the 4th and 6th centuries AD.

"We had to pay out of pocket for all of the child's drugs and other medical expenses," Mehralibeyli said, adding that he was still hopeful that Iranian registry authorities will one day accept the name.

Salah Piroty and Bafraw Noori contributed to this report.

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