Turning their backs on their real names: Iraqis on a main street in Diyala province. (photo: الجيش الاميركي - الجندي نيكو وانجلوس ماتوس )
In Diyala, something that many would consider harmless is causing locals to panic: Their names.
“Just over the past two months our department has received between 150 and 200 applications for a name change,” says Haider Hussein al-Mandalawi, an official working for Diyala's local Directorate of Nationality. “Most of the applications are being submitted by people whose names reveal their sect or the areas from where their family or tribe comes. But there are also others changing their names for reasons not related to security.”
In the Middle East a name can tell a lot about its bearer. A surname may indicate which tribe one comes from originally, and thereby which part of the country. A first name or father's name can indicate which sect one belongs to, especially if one is given a name specific to either Shiite or Sunni Muslims. In Diyala, a province with a population where Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and a variety of ethnicities mix, locals say that they fear being targeted for their religious sect (even though they may not actually be very religious) – and in particular by the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias who are fighting the extremist group known as the Islamic State, who base their ideology on Sunni Islam. The militias are gaining more and more control over Iraq's streets in the south of the country and many locals fear them because they sometimes act as though they are a law unto themselves.
Other locals say they're changing their names because they might be the same as wanted criminals.
For example, people say that Ali Hussein Mohammed al-Dayini, who lives in the area of Baquba, was lucky. He and his two sons, Hussein Ali Hussein, 26, and Hassan Ali Hussein, 27, were arrested outside Diyala's university campus. They have very common names that are also the names of wanted men. And the trio were only released because they have a relative who works in the local police and who also managed to organise a bribe.
But now al-Dayini is virtually a prisoner in his own house. He doesn't leave his house unless he is forced to and the furthest he will go, unless absolutely necessary, is the crossroads nearest his home. He tries to avoid all government checkpoints where identities may be checked electronically.
It isn't easy changing your name in Iraq. Any person wishing to do must first file a request at a court where personal status cases are heard and then get the approval of a number of different government departments. This doesn't seem to have stopped people though and dozens still try to change their names every month. Iraq's Ministry of the Interior issued an order two months ago stating that only those who have the name “Saddam” - as in the former, much despised leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein – would be allowed to change their names. People with this name are often harassed and suffer all kinds of discrimination and even potential violence because of their names. The Ministry of the Interior explained that they were doing this so that criminals couldn't change their names and escape justice.
However the responsible department in Miqdadiyah, in Diyala, has resumed the work. After permission for a name change is granted, the person with the new name is also supposed to notify local media so that they can publish the new name so that it is clear the person isn't doing this to escape justice somehow.
Some Diyala residents who have been to Iraqi Kurdistan, or who have perhaps settled there, might also take their wives' names or use the tribal names of their Kurdish family members.
Diyala local, Omar Yassin al-Dulaimi, 29, says he was advised to change his name before taking up a job as a civil servant at an Iraqi government ministry. “I was told to change my name from Omar – a name used almost exclusively by Sunnis – to Mohammed, which is a name used by both Sunnis and Shiites,” he told NIQASH. “It won't cause me any problems with the volunteer Shiite militias in the province.”
Al-Dulaimi says he's now getting used to his new name and the hassles that come with a new moniker are worth it, if it was going to save his life.
Another local man, Othman Bakr, 30, says that during some of Iraq's most troubled times, between 2005 and 2007 when there was virtually a sectarian civil war in the country, he didn't change his name because he couldn’t really go anywhere far from home – it was too dangerous. But now, as his family's primary breadwinner, he does have to travel. “And today the Shiite militias are deployed all around the province, working under the government's authority, wearing uniforms and using government vehicles,” he told NIQASH. “The situation is different. That's why I changed my name. I need to be able to move around easily and I don't want to die just because of my name.”
“Every person has the right to change their name once in their lives but they should be able to give valid reasons for the change,” explains local lawyer, Alia Aboud al-Hamdani. Valid reasons include a name that could bring about harassment or embarrassment due to existing social norms. Once a person has changed their name, they don't get to change it back either.