Friday, June 10, 2011

My father's daughter.

My long name has been a topic for small talk, discussion and introduction into Singaporean Malay Muslim culture in the countries I've lived in and the people I meet. In the Singaporean Malay Muslim culture, you often find girls with the term "binti" in their name. This is derived from bint, the Arabic word for girl. Boys often have "bin", coming from the Arabic ibn. This is also equivalent to the "s/o" (son of) or "d/o" (daughter of) found in some Singaporean Indian names.

Add in the fact that most Muslim men in Singapore have 'Muhammad' as one of their first names, our names can get to be quite a mouthful. Haven't found an administrative form that can fit all the 33 characters of my full, official name (spaces included). But I digress...

The reasons that I've heard for this practice is to ensure that the father of a child is known to the child and everyone around him. Consequently, in terms of inheritance according to Islamic law, it would be proof of a child's right to his father's inheritance. Never you mind that putting a "binti" or "bin" isn't a standard practice around the Muslim world, but that's a different story.

So, why is it so special to us, what does it signify, and what does this practice possibly reproduce?

Putting a marker to indicate a man's relation to you is not new. Automatically giving the father's family name to a child is a practice found in most parts of the world. In this practice specifically though, calling someone the child of a man only gives the information that the child belongs to a certain man, as if he has more importance in the conception process. We hear this also for example when a girl aborts a child and the father of the child goes "How could you abort my child?!"

Polygamy also plays a role. A Muslim man is allowed up to four wives, but all the children's names will indicate that they are his. It's also a way to keep tabs on the 'morality' of a woman. If a mother has children whose names indicate different fathers, then one can know immediately the non-monogamous sexual history of this women.

At the same time, I'm not romanticising the use of family names, or the choice to indicate mothers in our names. I do like being identified as the child of either of my parents. In trying to remind my late grandmother who I was, I alternated between "Ni anak Jah" (this is Jah's child) or "Ni anak Taha".

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