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Maymouna al-Basil

Iraqis change names to escape sectarian strife

Shia militias have been accused of sectarian attacks [AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 24 March, 2015

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Feature: In Iraq, the wrong name can cost your life. Many Iraqis are changing their names to escape persecution, with one district office receiving about 100 applications a month.

Um Omar wants to change the name of her only son, Omar, a name chosen by his father before he was killed.
Her neighbour, Abu Othman, changed his name to Abu Rami and his two sons' names, Othman and Omar, to avoid the tyranny of what he called "Iranian sectarian militias" manning checkpoints around their town - code for the Shia militias known as "popular mobilisation forces" that are fighting against the Sunni Islamic State group.

Many Iraqis living in areas such as Baghdad, Babel, Anbar and Diyala wish to change their names and nicknames because of the sectarian divide. The country suffered a terrible civil conflict after the US invasion of 2003, splitting towns and cities into Sunni and Shia and leaving thousands dead. Baghdad was transformed into a series of fortified neighbourhoods based on sectarian populations.

Iraqi society has again faced sectarian strife with the rise of the IS group, and the Shia militias. Having the wrong name at a checkpoint can cost your life. The IS group regularly murders Muslims they call "apostates", which the Shia militias have been accused of reprisal attacks.

An employee at the citizenship directorate in al-Miqdadiya, Diyala, says its personal status department is processing up to 100 requests a month for name changes.

"Names of most of those filing these applications hint at their sect or region. Only a very few of them want to change their names for other reasons," said the officer, who spoke to al-Araby al-Jadeed on condition of anonymity.

     Names of most of those filing these applications hint at their sect or region.

The displacement of Iraqis as a result of the deteriorating security situation pushed many of them to change their names and nicknames. Some of their original names put their lives in danger, he said.

"For the Iraqis, nicknames mean so much, because Iraq has a tribal society and many of them write their names or nicknames on their shops. However, some names have turned into a curse for their holders and many people were killed because of their names," the officer said.

"Needless to say that some people were treated unjustly within some government directorates just because their names carry sectarian meanings."

Iraq's constitution allows citizens to apply for a name change for one time only, provided that he has valid reasons to do so, such as carrying a name that is socially unacceptable.

Article 20 of the Civil Status Law of the year 65 amended in 1972 stipulates that those who change their names or nicknames are not allowed to regain their names.

This is an edited translation of the original Arabic.

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