Hundreds of girls in India are given names indicating they’re unwanted. A woman in Haryana broke this spell and took on a new name. This is her story.
Bharti was born in the 1970s. Back then, Haryana, where she was born, had a child sex ratio of 898 girls for 1000 boys, according to census data. In an environment where the girl child was unwanted, many were being subjected to gender-biased sex selection and infanticide. But even those who did make it were often given names that would remind them, everyday, that they were unwanted. Bharti was one of them. Born after three girls and no boys, she was named Bhateri, a colloquial term in Haryana which means means ‘enough’.
Almost half a century later, Haryana’s child sex ratio has plummeted to 830 girls for 1000 boys; the girl child is still unwanted and names like Bhateri abound. But at the same time, there is some consciousness about the etymology and perception of names. Individuals, families, organisations and even the government is recognising the problem, which is symbolic of the country’s larger attitude towards girls and woman as second-class citizens.
A resident of Gurgaon, Bharti joined a programme by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and started attending their meetings. “At the meetings, we had to introduce ourselves, and the strangeness of my name rankled. I was ashamed of it,” she says. The group helped her pick a new name, and the new name also gave her a new identity.
The collective has also made efforts to talk to former and current state governments to go through school records to identify and encourage girls to take on new names. Individual activists in Haryana are also trying to end the discriminatory practice, starting with their own families.
“Our names stay with us from the moment we’re born till the moment we die, so parents must give some thought to their children’s names”, says Bharti, who has played a leadership role as AIDWA’s Gurgaon chapter secretary since.
The problem is not unique to Haryana. This discriminatory attitude towards girls manifesting itself in the form of given names also prevails in other states. Maafi (apology), Kaafi (enough), Bharpai (paying a penalty), Unchahi (unwanted) are other common names. Another name that caught national and international attention was Maharashtra’s Nakusha or Nakushi, also meaning unwanted. The former Maharashtra government, in 2011, carried out an awareness drive to help young girls adopt new names.
Sometimes, girls are mindlessly given such names, with parents and children either not knowing what the names mean or without thinking of the symbolism. At other times, it is the superstition that a boy will be conceived next if a girl is given a name that means enough or unwanted.
In an interview to The Indian Express, the mother of a girl formerly called Nakushi said that she did not think that her daughter was unwanted. It was simply elders who named her so, so that the next child would be a boy. The girl is now called Aishwarya, and adopting a new name has given a new identity to many girls like her.
One’s name is closely tied to one’s identity. In India, names are markers of caste, religion, occupation, place of origin, gender, and the expectations and stereotypes that come with all these aspects of one’s identity. Many people choose to give up or change their birth names for names that they better identify with.
Women’s names and surnames are often symbols of patriarchy; from taking the names of fathers and husbands to being forced to entirely change their names after marriage, and in its worst manifestation, being given names that deem them worthless.
Bharti is breaking out of this web of patriarchy with her small but significant act, and with more women like her, more and more girls will take on names that are empowering and respectful.
Video by Community Correspondent Reena
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team