Giving a mother’s or a father’s name to children at birth has become a battleground for activists in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan

Uprooting naming conventions is no easy task, but activists in Central Asia, especially women and LGBTQI+ people, are defying the traditions that encircle identity.

One of these traditions is appending the name of a newborn child’s father to the name of the child – commonly referred to as a patronymic. While patronymics are common in several cultures, children in Central Asia are not allowed, by law, to be given a matronymic, a mother’s name.

Cases involving the politics of naming and its intersection with gender are generating a new wave of feminist discourse in Central Asia. One recent example, which gained resonance on social media, involved a lawsuit from Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Justice against Altyn Kapalova, an art curator and activist living in the capital, Bishkek.

In 2019, Kapalova curated the ‘Feminnale’ art exhibition in Bishkek; a bold statement about women’s rights in Central Asia, it was censored by the Kyrgz government. Now, Kapalova finds herself in the midst of a legal battle. At the end of 2020, Kapalova applied to her local registry office to change her children’s patronymics, removing their fathers’ names and replacing them with ‘Altynovich’ and ‘Altynovna’ for her sons and daughter, respectively.

Swapping the children’s fathers’ names for the mother’s caused a strong public reaction from the government. Kyrgyz law allows parents to give their children patronymics, but not matronymics. Although Kapalova’s application was granted by her local registry office, she became a target of harassment and scrutiny by the state after the story circulated on social media.

After being pressured by leading government officials at the Ministry of Justice, the registry office contacted Kapalova and requested that they be allowed to reverse their decision. Kapalova refused and decided to take her case to the Constitutional Court, the highest court in Kyrgyzstan.

“There was a time when I wanted to give up. I wanted them to stop pressuring me, it’s been non-stop,” she said. “But now this is about women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan.”

Kapalova said that the reaction from the government made her realise that this issue was bigger than her – which is why she is trying to change the law by taking the case to the Constitutional Court.

Kapalova said she is not the first in the region to request a patronymic change, and she knows of women who would like to change the names of their children from the patronymic to the matronymic form. “Many wanted to give their names to their kids, but it’s not possible,” she said about women in Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Kapalova is right. Similar cases can be found across Central Asia.

Matronymics illegal in Kazakhstan too

In Kazakhstan, Irra Belfer – who is an activist for women’s reproductive rights and disability rights, and has worked in several executive roles in the country’s NGO sector – recently petitioned the government about changing her own patronymic to her mother’s name.

“I cannot understand why I should carry the name of someone who did not play a meaningful role in my life and in my upbringing,” Belfer said.

“When I went to the registry office to change my name, the woman at the desk said it was impossible to change my name to a matronymic,” she said. “That’s when I wrote the Ministry of Justice.”

Belfer received an ambiguous letter from Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Justice (similar to the response Kapalova received). The letter said that while both parents or legal guardians of a child have the right to decide whether or not to give their child a patronymic, no law existed for children to receive a matronymic.

Kapalova and Belfer are just two women among many who are bound by the patriarchal confines of cultural and linguistic politics, which have been established and upheld by the state.

While changing one’s name in both countries is a tedious bureaucratic process (which can often be sped up via informal avenues of bribes and favours), gendered naming conventions seem to be set in stone.

Gendered naming conventions

A 2019 investigation into how legislation about name changes in different countries targets trans people, directly or indirectly, found that a transgender person in Kyrgyzstan can change their name, provided it matches their gender marker.

The country’s 2003 Family Code (which regulates marriage and property relations between partners) previously stated that “changes and amendments to civil registries are made when it is necessary to change name, patronymic and surname due to change of sex (of hermaphrodites) upon a statement issued by the medical institution that performed a sex change.” This section on naming was struck down in August last year, giving insight into the precarity of Kyrgyzstan’s legal system.

Changing names, it seems, is only possible if it conforms to heteronormative patriarchal norms

In 2018, Viktoria Rai, a transgender woman from Almaty, Kazakhstan, filed a lawsuit against the country’s largest bank because the teller did not allow her to withdraw funds due to her “womanly appearance”. Rai was still registered as “male” on her identity papers because, without a medical certificate showing she’d had a gender reassignment surgery, she could not change her gender in her documents.

Changing names, it seems, is only possible if it conforms to heteronormative patriarchal norms. The same patriarchal logic exists in the response that Belfer received from Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Justice. According to Kazakhstan’s Law on Marriage and Family, everyone has a “right” to a name (first name, patronymic and surname), and a “right” to change it, but the parentally linked name can only refer to the father, not the mother.

In Kapalova’s case in Kyrgyzstan, there was an outpouring of public support for her. However, some people expressed concerns about how her children would live with a matronymic, characterising the change as a selfish act that will cause them embarrassment later. “She [Kapalova] has not thought about how this will make her children outsiders,” said one social media user.

But, as Kapalova explained, her decision to petition the government followed a conversation with her son. In fact, her son was so frustrated with his patronymic and surname that he had put his mother’s last name on his school soccer jersey. “My son was unhappy to have the name of a man he doesn’t know. For my children, having my name is a source of pride,” she told openDemocracy.

Kapalova’s children repeatedly questioned their mother about why they were unable to have a matronymic – and why they had to be associated with fathers they did not know. Kapalova’s case is still unresolved, having been postponed on 20 April for a fourth time.

These cases exemplify the experiences of numerous women in Central Asia, and are proof of an indisputable trend. Why are these women being harassed by their own governments for merely wanting to give credit where it is due? Kapalova is raising her children on her own; Belfer’s father was not present during her upbringing.

For these women, carrying the father’s name erases both their legacies and those of their mothers.