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My Name and Surname Are Not the Same

I refuse to refer to my name as my first name. It is not my first name; it is my only name. Yes, I acknowledge that for identification purposes I sometimes must be addressed by more than one name. Beyond that, what constitutes the ‘self’, at least in my case, need not be identified with an entire institution called family.

Does my surname really sound that bad? Absolutely not. It’s lovely. The problem lies in the social construct within which it is the designated author of my truth. I am always a subject of my family. There is no escape. Whether my family likes it or not, they are as accountable for what I say and do as I am.

When did I come to notice how problematic that is? When I experienced what it’s like to not be identified with my family. This was my most valuable experience as an undergrad back in London. There, nobody knew or cared about who my family is. There, I experienced what seemed to me like absolute autonomy. When I held bigoted views against non-Muslims as a newcomer, it was me who was bigoted. Not my family. When I chose to identify as a humanist two years later, it was me who was a curious skeptic. Not my family.

Enjoying autonomy from the family institution, as opposed to the default subject of its orientation, is both emancipating and enabling. It emancipated me from the many imaginary self-imposed shackles, and it enabled me to restructure my identity from scratch, away from the gaze of a society that would cruelly turn back to my family and shout: “you did this! You made her reject the Default!”

One must not dare reject the Default, for the Default is what reproduces and sustains society generation after another. Of course, every society has a default, for it is simply a kinder word I use to describe the dominant ideology, whatever it may be. According to French Philosopher Louis Althusser, what sustains the reproduction of the dominant ideology, is the various state apparatuses, both repressive and ideological[1]. The Repressive State Apparatus (RSA), as the name suggests, is the authority that enjoys a legal monopoly over the use of repression in order to keep things ‘in line’. The Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) on the other hand, includes institutions such as the school and the family, and they are a bit tricky. These do keep things in line with the Default too, but they do so rather indirectly, and sometimes unconsciously.

All apparatuses sustain the reproduction of the Default through what Althusser calls ‘interpellation’. Interpellation is the process by which the Default constitutes your identity through its various institutions in line with its needs. It organizes and situates you in society as either subject A, B or C; it all depends on the identity you must uphold in order to keep the Default from collapsing. The moment you’re born, you’re therefore already ‘interpellated’ as a subject of the Default through your first encounter with one of its most powerful apparatuses: family.

I am sure my family does not actively think of ways to sustain the Default. Yours definitely does not either. Interpellation does not happen like that. It happens very subtly, through a complex ideological construct.

The Default where I come from denies access to the Political from those marked female for gender. Note here that the Default should not be mistaken for the legal system, as there are no laws that restrict women from political participation. The kind of access female are denied is rather social; it is a product of the cultural imagination. How that came to be requires historical investigation that many feminist thinkers have attempted. What is critical to my discussion, however, is how my interpellation as a subject of the family institution in the local context excludes me from active political participation. Here’s how.

The Default had situated me somewhere between the private and the passive public spheres, primarily through my family. I am hidden from the active public sphere, namely the Political. What then can represent me in the Political is my surname; it becomes the author of my truth. The quieter I am, the louder my surname represents me. What happens when I become vocal? I co-write my family’s truth. Even worse, as I trespass into the wilderness of the Political, the burden of ‘honour dependents’ makes me vulnerable to predators.  What an easy target you are when you have so much to lose from a single ‘honour’ strike, whether based on truth or lies.

I love my family enough not to want them to suffer the consequences of my distanciation from the Default. I am not exactly an activist; I am just a vocal observer. But that is enough for me to become somebody’s target if my observations systematically target the Default, and I fear they do.

They should not take the blame because they were not the cause. But that does not matter; I am ‘theirs’. My family takes the blame only in the sense  my interpellation as their subject was nurtured since I was born. “You’re a girl” I was told, “you’re the frontier of our reputation. If you ruin yours you ruin ours”. Why must I carry the burden of everybody else’s reputation and not just mine? Why is my mind everybody else’s property and not just mine?

In societies where the current Default was yet to be introduced, i.e pre-capitalist societies, women were far more involved in the production process that marked the heart of the public sphere. They were not only mothers and helpers; they were crop-growers, teachers and Goddesses too. Life activities such as reproduction, raising offspring and seeking entertainment in pre-Default society were not separated from labour activities. Sociologist and Philosopher John Holloway tells us that the moment life activities were separated from those of labour as we entered the domain of the Default, subordination of life activities consequently led to the subordination of women[2]. Patriarchy did exist in feudal society, but as the two activities were intertwined both physically and psychologically, women could not be isolated from the active public sphere. Once labour was isolated from the social life and moved inside factories, a new hierarchy between men and women came into being and denied the latter direct access to means of production and consequently, decision-making.

Establishing the new hierarchy required redefining what it means to be a woman and what a woman can and cannot do. These new shackles were not only imposed on her doing, but also her body; and the two came to be one and the same. When she sought control over her doing, she was a witch and her doing witchcraft; when she sought control over her body, she was (and is, in today’s society) a slut. The retribution over deviation of the new ‘normal’, the new Default, had to be violent if it were to forcefully assign particular identities to its subjects in order for them to sustain it. The ‘honour’ culture is just one manifestation of the bloody misogyny through which the new order came into dominate.

Although such functional misogyny manifests itself in the education system and the labour market, it is nowhere more visible than within the family apparatus, often using the aid of patriarchal interpretations of religion. One can observe how it functions in scenarios many of us are familiar with, like telling a female that if she deviates from the ‘norm’, no man would want to marry her. Or telling her that she should listen to her older (and sometimes younger) brother because he’s a man. Or that in the absence of a servant, she should help her mom clean the dishes, not her equally capable brother.

Having developed a keen interest in the intersectionality of oppression, and poststructuralism a couple of years ago, my sister and I started a movement against patriarchy in the house, and we were relentless. Our revolution ultimately overthrew the system. At last, I am able to dress as I please without having my brothers perceiving it an attack on their manhood. I am now able to make crucial decisions in the house that carries heavier weight than most my siblings’, and even write this piece with their blessings!

We were not granted such freedom easily nor through our conservative society. A feminist revolution had to take place inside the house; concepts had to be redefined, history of social relations rewritten and a new egalitarian system constructed from scratch in which I am in control of my body and my mind. Such effort that breached the normalization process my family, and consequently my sister and I were undergoing, had wielded us a powerful shield against strikes that could one day target my family if I were to step into the wilderness of the Political, facing the Default both unarmed and unstoppable.

If my family came to accept that unless they force me to be their subject, I cannot co-write their truth, maybe as more and more feminist revolutions take place within our households before they take place in the broader society, the latter will eventually cease to point fingers at the wrong traitor of the Default’s many codes of conduct, our families. And maybe turn back to us, female comrades, and concededly mumble: fine, you can take back what’s yours.


[1] Althusser, Louis. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Lenin and Philosophy and    Other Essays, Ben Brewster, trans. Monthly Review Press. 1971.

[2] John Holloway. Crack Capitalism. New York: Pluto Press. 2010.




Dabya Al Rafaei has a BSc in Economics and Political Science from Queen Mary, University of London. She tweets at @Dabyaaa_


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect that of the Bahrain Debate’s organising body. 

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