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Morocco/Western Sahara: More Freedom to Name Their Children

State Recognizing More Amazigh, or Berber Names, but Choice Still Restricted

(New York) - A government directive liberalizing Morocco's policy on recognizing Amazigh, or Berber, given names for newborns is having positive results, Human Rights Watch said today.

In April 2010, the Ministry of Interior issued a directive that for the first time defined Amazigh names as meeting the legal prerequisite of being "Moroccan in nature." In the eight months since, there have been fewer complaints from citizens that local bureaus of the Civil Registry have refused to register Amazigh given names, several Amazigh rights activists told Human Rights Watch. However, the general requirement that parents choose names that are deemed "Moroccan in nature" continues to limit parents' choices and create administrative obstacles and should be eased, Human Rights Watch said.

"By explicitly recognizing Amazigh names as Moroccan, the government has eased a noxious restriction on the right of parents to choose their children's names," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "This move shows greater respect and recognition for Morocco's ethnically and culturally diverse population."

Some members of Morocco's Amazigh population have in recent years grown increasingly assertive in demanding official recognition of their culture and Tamazight language. The Moroccan state responded by creating a Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture in 2001 and initiating elementary school instruction and programs on state television in Tamazight.

However, the Civil Registry's refusal to register many newborns whose parents had given them Amazigh first names remained a sore point for Amazigh activists. This was all the more true since the ostensible grounds for the rejection was that these names were not "Moroccan," in contrast to accepted Arab-Islamic names, even though the Amazigh are indigenous to the country while Arabs migrated to it centuries ago.

While the directive (circulaire in French, daouriya in Arabic) reaffirms that the Civil Registry may accept only names that are "Moroccan in character," it instructs clerks of the agency to "guide, convince, dialogue and show flexibility toward the citizenry," and, "before refusing a name, research and investigate and take into consideration the decisions by the High Commission of the Civil Registry and the courts."

The High Commission, consisting of the kingdom's official historian and representatives of the Justice and Interior Ministries, rules on the legality of those first names that the Civil Registry has refused or hesitated to accept. For example, a list of names issued by the Commission shows that in its meeting on June 24, 2005, the Amazigh name "Sifaw" was among those it rejected and the Amazigh name "Mira" among those it accepted.

The April 2010 Directive
The Interior Ministry sent its Directive D-3220, dated April 9, to regional, provincial, local, and district governments, all of which house branches of the Civil Registry, where citizens register births, deaths, and marriages.

Directive D-3220 interprets the law that governs the choice and registration of first names, Law 37-99 on the Civil Registry, adopted on October 3, 2002. Article 21 of that law requires that a given name 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."

Directive D-3220 refers to "the right of citizens in choosing names for their children" and the need to prevent violations of that right and to "avert conflicts that might occur between clerks at the Civil Registry and citizens."

The directive elaborates on the procedures that the Civil Registry should follow when confronted with an unfamiliar name. It also makes public for the first time a two-part official definition of "Moroccan" as it relates to given names. The first part of the definition says:

Moroccan in character means the characteristics of the Moroccan society, from its north to its south and from its west to its east. The personal name has to be in use in Morocco to the point where it has become frequent; that is, to the point where holding that name has entered into custom, so the name sounds foreign neither to the Moroccan ear nor to the Moroccan milieu, with all its constituent parts. It is, thus, a name that is widespread, to the point that there is no discomfort or difficulty in recognizing it.

The second part says that given names must also come from one of the following five categories:

(1) Arab names that have been used in Morocco for a long time;

(2) "Attributes of Allah" (asmaa' Allah al-husna), as long as they are preceded by "‘Abd" [meaning "servant of"] and not just by "el-" [for example, ‘Abd el-Karim but not el-Karim];

(3) Amazigh names, whose meaning might vary from one region to another;

(4) Names that have become common in recent years in Morocco and whose pronunciation in Arabic is clear and origins are Islamic; and

(5) Hebrew names for Moroccan Jews.

The directive also refers to existing lists of first names, many of them Amazigh in origin, that the High Commission of the Civil Registry had approved or rejected prior to the promulgation of Law 37-99. The directive states that civil registries may consult those lists, with their "approved" and "refused" names, but that these determinations are not legally binding.

Continuing Administrative Resistance: Case Studies

There are no publicly available statistics on the frequency with which Moroccan authorities have prevented parents from registering the given name of their choice. However, anecdotal evidence collected from Amazigh rights activists in Morocco suggests that administrative obstacles to the recording of Amazigh names were more frequent prior to the issuance of directive D-3220. But even before the Ministry of Interior issued the directive, Civil Registry bureaus accepted some Amazigh names, either right away or after the parents campaigned against or appealed their initial rejection.

Human Rights Watch documented the rejection of Amazigh names in a letter sent to the Interior Ministry on June 16, 2009, to which the government did not reply.

The stakes surrounding the registration of a name are not limited to personal or cultural expression. When the Civil Registry refuses to register an infant because of an objection to his or her given name, that infant is without legal status. The parents may face obstacles in getting public services, such as when applying for a passport for the child or seeking reimbursement for medical costs from state insurance plans. To avoid such problems as well as conflicts with the administration, some parents register an Arab-Islamic name rather than the Amazigh name they would otherwise choose, several Amazigh activists told Human Rights Watch.

While Directive D-3220 includes Amazigh names among those that may be considered "Moroccan in character" and instructs Civil Registry personnel to interact constructively with parents, the directive maintains a number of restrictions on the right of Moroccans to choose names for their children. They still face rejection if the clerk at the local Civil Registry bureau is unfamiliar with the Amazigh name they have chosen, or considers it difficult to pronounce or insufficiently familiar. This has occurred, for example, when a name is uncommon in one region but more popular in others.

Administrators at the local level continue to challenge some Amazigh names, as shown by a number of recent cases described to Human Rights Watch. While parents who persist seem to succeed in most cases, the procedure remains stressful and burdensome for families who, to exercise the basic right of naming their child, find themselves called upon to collect and submit additional documentation, make extra visits to the administration, enlist the support of nongovernmental organizations, or initiate a court case or media campaign.

Examples of names that were refused:

  • Yuba (Agadir): On October 21, 2010, Mohamed Elouihyoui and his wife, Rouqiya Bogarn, tried to register the name "Yuba" for their son, born October 9, at the Civil Registry in the el-Houda neighborhood of the southern city of Agadir. Elouihyoui said that the clerk on duty refused on the grounds that it was not a permitted name. Elouihyoui returned more than once during the 30-day period for registering a newborn. Although he invoked Directive D-3220 and explained that Yuba is the name of an ancient Amazigh king, the clerk persisted in refusing to register the baby under that name. The parents have initiated the judicial procedure necessary to register a newborn's name once the 30-day period has passed. As of December 8, Yuba remains unregistered, his father told Human Rights Watch.
  • Simane (Sidi Slimane): Aziza Boulwiha, from the city of Sidi Slimane, northeast of Rabat, gave birth to a girl on November 12, 2010. Three days later, her husband, Marzou Salh, visited the Civil Registry in the city's first arrondissement to inquire if he could register a newborn under the Amazigh name Simane, which means "two souls." The clerk said no since Simane did not appear on a list he had consulted, Salh told Human Rights Watch. The father said he then submitted Directive D-3220 along with documents showing earlier cases where Simane had been approved. On November 22, his wife went to register the name, but the Civil Registry again refused, explaining that Simane was not a sufficiently common name. The clerk proposed instead the name "Imane" - faith in Arabic - but the parents refused. Salh enlisted an Amazigh organization to contact the administration. In late November, according to Salh, the Civil Registry agreed to register Simane but also had him sign a statement that he assumed all the legal consequences of choosing this name.
  • Mazilia (Lille, France): The Moroccan consulate in Lille, northern France, refused in July 2010 to allow a Moroccan émigré, Lhoussain Azergui of Roubaix, and his wife, Abda al-Kasri, a French citizen, to register the name "Mazilia Tara" for their daugher who was born December 10, 2009. Shortly after the baby's birth Azergui had registered her at the French civil registry. The official at the Moroccan consulate accepted "Tara," an Amazigh name that the same consulate had first rejected in 2006 but later accepted after Tara's parents produced the Moroccan registration document of another girl named "Tara." However, the official told Azergui that "Mazilia" was shown as a name that was "refused" on a list he had consulted.

Mazilia is one of 11 names marked as "refused" from a list of 40 given names that the High Committee on the Civil Registry ruled on during a session on July 5, 2006. That list is among those that the Interior Ministry circulated to Civil Registry bureaus.

Azergui told Human Rights Watch that he wrote a letter of protest to Moroccan authorities but has not heard back, and has not tried again to register his daughter. Azergui and al-Kasri had a similar problem when they tried to register their older daughter, Numidia Tin-Ass, on March 6, 2007, at the consulate in Lille. The clerk on duty, after consulting a list in Azergui's presence, accepted "Numidia" but not "Tin-Ass," promising to accept the latter if Azergui could produce the birth certificate of another Moroccan girl with this name. In December of that year, Azergui and his wife received a letter from the Moroccan consulate inviting him to register their daughter under the full name they had chosen.

Mazilia is the name of a dynasty of an ancient Amazigh kingdom.

  • Simane (Kenitra): Rafii Seddiq of Kenitra, a city northeast of Rabat, went to a local bureau of the Civil Registry two weeks after the birth of his daughter on April 4, 2010. The clerk on duty refused the name and advised Seddiq and his wife, Hind Jabari, to choose a more common name. Seddiq told Human Rights Watch that Simane is more common in the Sousse region in southern Morocco than in the northern region, where he currently resides. Later the same day, Seddiq returned to the Civil Registry, brandishing a copy of Directive D-3220, and explained the meaning of "Simane." This time, the clerk registered the name.
  • Massilya (Témara): One week after the birth of his daughter on November 3, 2010, Jamal Eddarhor went to the civil registry in Témara, a Rabat suburb, to register her as "Massilya," the name chosen by him and his wife, Samira Heri. This ancient and uncommon Amazigh name means "goddess of the sea." The clerk on duty responded that he did not know whether the name was acceptable and asked the parents to choose another. When Eddarhor refused, the clerk asked him to check with the préfecture of Temara to see whether the name could be registered. The préfecture said they could not respond but proposed that he submit his request in writing to the Civil Registry. The parents complied and received a favorable reply three days later. They registered their daughter's name on November 29.

International Law Supports Parents' Right
The purpose of requiring a "Moroccan character," Directive D-3220 states, is "to preserve our Moroccan identity, our authenticity, and our traditions that are founded on a firm basis."

But such an objective does not an constitute an adequate justification for infringing on the freedom of parents to name their children as they choose, Human Rights Watch said, noting that many of the names that are challenged constitute an expression of the parents' ethnic or cultural identity.

The internationally recognized rights to individual and cultural expression, as well as the right to privacy, and the duty of states to respect the rights of minorities, limit the power of the state to refuse names to exceptional and narrowly defined circumstances.

In the 1994 case of Coeriel et al v Netherlands, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled:

Article 17 [of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)] 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].

A 2010 ruling by the same Committee in Raihman v Latvia stated that the imposition of a "Latvian-sounding name" on a member of the Russian Jewish minority in that country was a violation of the Covenant. 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 under article 27 extends to the freedom of choice when naming one's own children with minority names.

"Morocco should reform its law to limit strictly the government's role in the name-regulating business," Whitson said. "Unless a first name is patently offensive or objectionable or harmful to the interests of the child, authorities have no business curbing the right of parents to make this very personal choice."

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