Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Calling Names, Finding Meaning

Image Contributor

What’s in a name? A lot, apparently.

Every time I introduce myself to someone, I am guaranteed to get a reaction. The usual questions I’m asked? “I’m sorry, can you say that again?” or “Masha’Allah! That is such a beautiful name!” or “What? Isn’t `Hijab,’ like, that thing women in the Middle East wear? The headscarf?”

If I had a dollar for every awkward introduction, I could probably afford a nice big collection of headscarves. Not that I need any, of course, since I don’t wear them. The conversation that starts with “If your name’s Hijab, why don’t you wear one?” is one for another day.

y father had chosen the name “Hijab” for me a long time before I was born. Someone once asked me if my father was an extremist cleric for insisting on naming me “headscarf,” and I giggled at the thought of Baba sporting a long white beard and green turban, preaching to men to force the veil upon their wives and daughters. For the record, he’s no cleric – he’s a doctor.

There’s a saying back home: “A person’s character is a reflection of his or her name.” Names carry a lot of weight in Pakistan, where I grew up. Parents would deliberate for weeks over the merits of one name over another for their children, based on their original meanings. Sometimes, these names would change mid-childhood, depending upon how the child’s personality was forming.

Take, for example, my cousin Azmar. “Azmar” means “lion” in Pashto, a language spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Naming my cousin after the king of the jungle resulted in his reputation as a particularly rowdy little tyke. Concerned, my aunt and uncle consulted with some people and decided to alter “Azmar” to “Azmarullah” – God’s lion. Call me superstitious, but I swear the effect was immediate. He calmed down considerably, and is now the world’s sweetest 12-year-old.

any Pakistanis are named after important figures in the Islamic tradition, to the point where 99 percent of boys named “Muhammad” go by their middle names. From time to time, you might catch a literary character’s namesake. Shaheryar (“king”) from “Arabian Nights” and “Shireen,” (“sweet”) the Farsi equivalent of Juliet from “Shireen o Farhad,” are two such names.

I know it probably sounds a little crazy that such a great deal of research goes into a name back home before the parents solidify it, but to us, a name is one of the most important things parents can give to their children. If Shaheryar grows up to be a strong leader, or if Shireen is loved by everyone for her pleasant character, then the parents must have done something right.

Which is why, when I come across names like “Apple,” when celebrities name their children after trendy destinations – “Paris,”Zuma” and “Brooklyn” – or when parents with the last name “Duck” name their son “Donald” and their daughter “Daffy,” I wonder if they are being serious or if they are just trying to entertain themselves. I certainly would not want to be a six-year-old Donald Duck in a playground full of bullies.

I could sympathize with Donald at the age of six, the first time someone asked me if I knew my name meant “headscarf.” Seething with anger after a day of pointing and giggling by my classmates, I marched off the school bus to my parents’ room and demanded to know why they would name me after an article of clothing.

They explained to me then what I explain to people now every time the Hijab-headscarf confusion occurs. Modern, colloquial Arabic has twisted the word “Hijab” to refer to the veil – and thus the cultural and political implications around the issue make sense. But its original, old-Arabic meaning is “modesty,” a character trait that my parents hoped I would embody when they signed the birth certificate.

So whether you’re a Brian (“noble”) or a Sarah (“princess”), a Karim (“generous”) or a Gulsaanga ( “rose branch”), find out what your name means and live up to it.

(And if you’re a Brooklyn – “broken land” – you’d better get on that name-change certificate.)

Hijab Shah is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. She can be reached at Behind the Veil appears every other Friday.

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