Jameel, 17, became very angry when a friend of his asked him a simple question: “What is your mother’s name?”
His friend, Haitham, who lives in the UK, did not know that in Yemen it is considered very rude for a man to ask the name of a Yemeni man’s female siblings, spouse or even parent.
However, feeling ashamed of women’s names is not only a problem for Jameel or for a few people like him. It is an issue for the entire country of Yemen. Like Jameel, there are millions of men who feel ashamed or shy to reveal their wives, sisters, daughters or even their mothers’ names.
This reaction is not restricted to less educated men. Even the majority of educated react angrily when asked about women’s names within their families.
Even when a woman asks a man about the name of a female relative, he does not readily answer.
When Basim, a young man with a bachelor’s degree in IT, was asked his wife’s name by a woman, he blushed and became nervous while trying to avoid answering the question.
This common issue is not only prevalent among adults. Astonishingly, it is present even among little children. Just try to ask a boy of 9 or 10 about his mother’s name, and watch what he does.
Khaled Qaed, 31, who now has no objection to revealing his mother’s name, could not find an explanation for why he felt shy when he was asked about it at the age of 10.
“I still remember once when a man asked me about my mother’s name. I grabbed a stone from the ground and threw it toward him while saying insulting words to him,” he said.
So why the fuss? Revealing women’s names in Yemen is considered very rude for many reasons.
“First, why do I have to tell my friends my sister’s name? They don’t tell me their sisters’ names, and they had better keep their mouths shut about my sister,” said Mohammad Ali, 16.
Feeling ashamed of women’s names not only makes men blush or consider starting a fight when asked about female members of their families: the issue even extends to the use of mobile phones.
Men fear writing their wives’ names on their cell phones. Instead, they use fake names like: “the house,” “the family,” or even “the Ministry of the Interior.” They do this so that others will not bother their wives if they lose their cell phones.
Women in Yemen are used to this situation, but there are some who feel annoyed by their brothers when they hide their names.
“Where do we live?” asked Heba, 22, when her brother told her that he would not reveal her name to one of his friends if he asked. “Saying my name will not describe me, what I wear, or even what I look like. This is my identity. Why do men in Yemen feel ashamed about revealing my identity? Why do they feel ashamed or prefer not to say, ‘My sister’s name is Heba’? This is my name and this is my identity, and I should not compromise them.”
But there are even worse scenarios, regarding more than just the names of women. Many men feel ashamed if they are seen by their friends walking with their sisters or mothers in the street.
Alya, 17, who unlike most Yemeni women, does not cover her face, told the Yemen Times that she was walking in a busy shopping street in Sana’a with her brother Ibrahim, 16, when he bumped into some of his friends.
“He wished the earth would open up and swallow him before his friends saw him with me. It was funny,” Alya said.
Nevertheless, there is a minority who object to these traditions.
“When some of my friends try to tease me and ask me about my mother’s name, I turn it on them and tease them instead,” said Anas Shahari, 23. “My mother is a crown on my head, I am proud of her, and I do not feel shy to say that she is my mother. Her name is always on my tongue, while your mother is hidden.”
According to Shahari, some Yemeni men sometimes become so angry when they are teased that they are driven to kill. He said that he was told by a friend that, in Shabwa governorate, a man was once stabbed in the belly by another just because he teased him, telling him that he knew his mother’s name.
Arwa Abdul Othman, a Yemeni writer from Taiz, expressed her anger over certain uses of women’s names.
“People in Yemen were raised to not reveal women’s names for certain reasons, some of which are to prohibit people from talking about them maliciously,” she said.
She added that sometimes, people may become enraged and kill a person who tries to tease them by mentioning a female relative’s name. It has happened. A man was killed in the qat market when he tried to tease another man by saying “You, son of [the name of his mother].”
Sheikh Jabri Hasan said that Yemenis live in a country which is sometimes ruled by its traditions. In Yemen, it is not good to say women’s names, he explained. Therefore, when people try to get others angry by saying their mothers’ or wives’ names, it is better not to respond. In order to avoid degrading women’s status, sometimes it is preferred not to mention their names in front of people who want to know the name in order to use it for their own purposes, such as teasing Yemeni people, who were brought up not to mention women’s names.
However, this does not mean that it is prohibited or forbidden to say women’s names in Islam. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) mentioned the names of his wives, including Khadija, Aisha, and Safia, as well as his daughter Fatima, without shame.