Chekib Benmoussa
Minister of Interior
Ministry of Interior
Quartier Adminstratif
Rabat, Morocco

Dear Mr. Minister:

We are writing this initially private letter to you in the hope that you will respond in writing to the concerns we raise, so that we may reflect your answers when we make this letter public. If you signal to us by June 26, 2009 your intention to respond to this letter, we will await for your response before publishing it, provided it reaches us by July 12, 2009.

Human Rights Watch is aware that Morocco has taken steps to recognize and promote the culture and heritage of its Amazigh (Berber) population, notably in creating the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture in Rabat in 2001.

We are nevertheless concerned by reports that authorities continue to refuse to accept certain Amazigh first names when parents attempt to register those names for their newborns at bureaus of the Civil Registry, which is part of your ministry.

The refusal to allow people to choose the first names of their children constitutes a violation of their rights to privacy and freedom of expression, rights that Morocco pledged to uphold as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Our research indicates that the rejection of certain Amazigh names by Moroccan authorities persists despite your testimony before the Chamber of Counselors on May 13, 2008. According to Le Matin du Sahara of the following day, you affirmed there that the choice of first names is regulated solely by the Law on the Civil Registry, as Le Matin du Sahara reported the following day. 

Article 21 of Law 37-99 on the Civil Registry stipulates that a first name must have "a Moroccan character and must be neither a name of a family nor a name composed of more than two first names, nor the name of a city, village or tribe, and must not constitute an affront to good morals or the public order."

Decree n° 2-99-665 on implementing Law 37-99 explains, in Article 23, that if a bureau of the Civil Registry rejects a first name, the child's parents or guardians can appeal that decision to the High Commission of the Civil Registry, which examines whether the first name conforms to Article 21 of Law 37-99. This commission, according to the decree's Article 20, is composed of the kingdom's official historian and representatives of the justice and interior ministries.

We are in possession of lists of names on which the High Commission ruled in 2005 and 2006. Several of the names it rejected are Amazigh names. For example, a list attached to a letter dated August 4, 2006 and circulated by the Ministry of Interior to Civil Registry offices states that the Commission, when it convened on July 5, 2006, rejected the first names of Sifaw, Iguidir, and Mazilia.  A similar letter from 2005 reports that the High Commission met on June 24 of that year and rejected the Amazigh names of Sifaw and Massine, along with several other names.

We are aware that most countries and jurisdictions have laws or guidelines regulating the first names that persons may give to their children. We also know that only a portion of the first names that authorities reject each year are Amazigh names, and that authorities also approve some Amazigh names. Nevertheless, the rejection by Moroccan authorities of certain Amazigh first names has discriminated against the Amazigh community in their freedom to choose names that are Amazigh rather than Arabo-Muslim in character.

We invite your comment on the following five cases involving the Civil Registry's initial refusal to accept certain Amazigh names for newborn babies. These are only a sampling some of cases that have been brought to our attention; the most recent one occurred earlier this month.

(1)  On May 11, 2009, Mbarek Oulemda and Houda Bent Lahcèn Tabiat of Beni Mellal went to the Civil Registry office in their district to register as Ayyur Adam their son, born on April 28, 2009. According to Oulemda, the agent on duty said, "Adam is approved but Ayyur is strange." When Oulemda insisted on keeping Ayyur as part of the name (Ayyur means "moon" in Tamazight), the agent referred him to the office of the Civil Registry at the provincial level.  The agent there told him that Ayyur was "not on the list," Oulemda recalls.  He responded  by alerting human rights and Amazigh rights associations, and recounting his case online.  On May 18, authorities informed him that they would allow him to register Ayyur Adam.

(2) Abdeljaouad Oujeddi and Zeineb Oucheikh of Boufekrane, near Meknes, gave the name Massine to their son, born January 27, 2009. On February 7 Oujaddi went to the Civil Registry bureau in the municipality of Boufekrane. The agent refused to register Massine, saying it was among the refused names. (Massine, the diminutive form of "Massinissa," an ancient Berber king, appears on the 2005 list of names that the High Commission rejected.) Amazigh activist organizations rallied in support of Oujeddi and Oucheikh, and filed a complaint on their behalf in the administrative court. After the Moroccan press reported on the case, Al-Jazeera television profiled the couple and their battle. Then, says Oujeddi, the municipality of Boufekrane contacted him and proposed to find a mutually acceptable solution. He insisted on naming his son "Massine." Finally,without waiting for the court to rule, the municipality issued the couple a registration for their newborn with the na me "Massine." 

(3) Zeineb el-Afroukhi of Meknes gave birth to a boy on July 30, 2008. Shortly thereafter, her husband, Driss Bouljaoui, went to the Civil Registry office of the 9th arrondissement ("Hamriya") of Meknes, where the agent refused to register the name of Sifaw (Tamazight for "enlightened"). Bouljaoui then went to the office of the inspector at the provincial level, whose deputy told him the name "Sifaw" was on both the 2005 and 2006 lists of names that the High Commission of the Civil Registry had forbidden.

On September 29, 2008 Bouljaoui filed suit against the office of the Civil Registry in the administrative court of Meknes. The president of the city council responded in writing that the office of the Civil Registry had acted properly since the High Commission of the Civil Registry had twice refused the name.

The administrative court ruled on February 5, 2009 in favor of Bouljaoui and el-Afroukhi, on two grounds: first, that there was no basis in the Law on the Civil Registry to reject Sifaw as a first name, notwithstanding earlier decisions against Sifaw by the High Commission; and second, that the High Commission had itself in 2007 ruled to approve the name.

(4) Addi Fdaïl is a Moroccan living in Lille, France.  On June 15, 2006 his French wife, Julie Fadart Fdaïl, gave birth to a girl whom they named Tara Khira Madeleine. Tara in Tamazight is the name of an aromatic plant; the child's second and third names are those of her paternal and maternal grandmothers, respectively. Fdaïl registered Tara with the French civil registry. He went soon thereafter to the Moroccan consulate in Lille in order to add Tara to his Moroccan livret de famille (family identification document). According to Fdaïl, the consular agent on duty consulted in his presence a list of names and informed him that Tara was not on that list, and proposed that he register her instead as Khira. Another agent then asked, according to Fdaïl, "Why do you complicate matters by choosing strange names?" When Fdaïl persisted, the agent in charge said she would have to submit the name to the High Commission in Rabat. Fdail left without being able to register his daughter. He then contacted an acquaintance in Morocco who had been able to register his own daughter there under the first name of Tara, obtained a copy of her registration, and submitted it to the Moroccan consulate. Upon seeing this document, the consulate agreed to register Fdaïl's daughter under the full name he and his wife had chosen for her.

(5) Lhoussain Azergui, a Moroccan living in the northern French town of Roubaix, and his Moroccan wife, Abda al-Kasri, recorded their newborn daughter as Numidia Tin-Ass (Numidia is the name of an ancient Berber kingdom located in what is today northern Algeria;  Tin-Ass in Tamazight means "light") at the French Civil Registry office there.  The Moroccan consulate in Lille however refused to register this name when Azergui applied on March 6, 2007. The agent consulted a printed list in front of Azergui and then informed him that Numidia was approved but Tin-Ass was not, Azergui recalled. When Azergui insisted, the agent on duty said he would have to consult with the High Commission in Rabat. When Azergui returned on May 2, 2007, the agent on duty told him that he had not yet received Rabat's reply. However, the agent added that if Azergui could produce the birth record of another Moroccan girl with this name, he would register Azergui's daughter right away.  It was not until December 18, 2007 that Azergui received a letter from the Moroccan consul general in Lille informing him that he could register Numidia Tin-Ass as his daughter's given name.

Each of the preceding cases ended in victory for parents who challenged the initial refusal by authorities to register the Amazigh first names for their newborns, either through the courts or public opinion campaigns. We are pleased to see that Morocco has a review process in place that has overturned many of these unjust initial refusals.

Nevertheless, parents should not have to launch a court case or media campaign in order to enjoy exercise their right to choose the first names of their children. In addition, for every family that chooses the Amazigh first name they want, there are many others who reportedly opt for first names they know will be accepted even when they prefer a different name. They do so for a variety of reasons that include fear of the authorities or a wish to spare themselves the humiliation of a rejection; a desire not to be subjected to pressures from officials to revise their choice, and a reluctance to invest the time, effort, and expense required to appeal a rejection. They may also worry about practical disadvantages associated with having a child who has yet to be registered by the public administration.

International jurisprudence supports the freedom to choose one's name. The United Nations' Human Rights Committee ruled in the 1994 case of Coeriel et al v Netherlands, "Article 17 [of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] provides, inter alia, that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.  The Committee considers that the notion of privacy refers to the sphere of a person's life in which he or she can freely express his or her identity .... [This] includes the protection against arbitrary or unlawful interference with the right to choose and change one's own name." (emphasis added.) Moreover, the ICCPR's Article 27 states, "In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of the group, to enjoy their own culture..."  This right extends in our view to the freedom of choice when naming one's own children.

We welcome your comments on each of the five cases described above, involving the Amazigh names Ayyur, Tin-Ass, Sifaw, Massine, and Tara. More generally, we would appreciate your answers to the following questions:

  • (1) What directives, instructions, guidelines or regulations does your ministry give to officials working at Civil Registry bureaus, beyond Article 21 of the Civil Registry Law as to which first names, or which types of names, they should refuse to register? ­For example, what criteria do Civil Registry agents or the High Commission apply to determine whether a given name is "Moroccan" in character, as per Law 37-99?
  • (2) Do Civil Registry officials consult an official list of "accepted" and "refused" names to guide them when asked to register children's names? If so, can you provide us a complete copy of that list, or indicate where it is published online?
  • (3) Have any officials been disciplined for refusing to register first names of newborns in violation of state policy?
  • (4) According to the above-mentioned article in Le Matin du Sahara, you said that in 2007 some 88 names were submitted to the High Commission, which approved 75 names and rejected 13. We would be grateful to know the thirteen names that the commission rejected in 2007 and the reasons for the rejection of each name, and whether those reasons were communicated to each family.
  • (5) Are the decisions on first names taken by the High Commission of the Civil Registry subject to appeal, and if so, what are the laws or guidelines that govern that process?
  • (6) How do you reconcile Morocco's broad criteria limiting people's freedom to choose first names for their children - especially, requirements that the names they choose be "Moroccan" and not disturb "good morals or the public order" - with Morocco's obligations to uphold people's rights to freedom of expression and to privacy, and the rights of members of ethnic minorities and groups to enjoyment of their culture?

I thank you for your consideration and look forward to your timely response to this letter so that we can reflect your positions when we make this letter public.

Sincerely yours,

Sarah Leah Whitson