Remember when the substitute teacher in class couldn’t pronounce the “foreign” kid’s name, and they’d always pause a little longer to drum up the courage to say it? That used to happen to me all the time. Or in line at Starbucks, I’d get so frustrated I’d just say my name was “Bob.” It got to the point when I was little where I wished my name could be Ella, like the great Ella Fitzgerald or even Elle Woods. Two women, who while very different, are both equally fantastic and inspiring.
I won’t pretend to say I didn’t struggle with my name, my identity and being “different,” until recently. As an Egyptian-American, an immigrant born in Cairo but raised in the U.S. and a Muslim female, it’s been difficult feeling comfortable in my own skin, especially in a post-9/11 America. But as I have grown up, I have begun to understand how historic my name is, and how much beauty and value it holds. So before I go any further, I’d like to say: thanks mom and dad, you both bestowed such a gift upon me.
Isis, a goddess from the ancient Egyptian religion, and later worshipped throughout the greater Greco-Roman period, is truly a model of matriarchy. Feminists should look towards Isis as an early female figure of power.
It’s not derogatory, it’s not a racial slur, but it feels completely dehumanizing.
Her name is often linked to the ancient Egyptian word for “throne,” and her depiction in ancient temples is often seen with a throne as her headdress; this link is largely interpreted as a representation of the pharaoh’s power.
Her strong female influence taught me at an early age, in a society where the majority of our leaders are male, that women can hold power as well. I, too, could be strong, powerful and influential.
But this powerful and majestic female figure has shifted culturally from a superhero (circa 1975) to clickbait for the 24-hour news networks. “Click this! Look, danger! Fear! Read! It’s in your backyard!” And this drastic transformation happened simultaneously with my start in graduate school in Texas.
I began a master’s program at a presidential school, and I expected my peers to be pretty knowledgeable of at least the idea that my name meant more than the buzzwords media organizations were throwing around and using to describe the heinous acts of a terrorist group.
The first time I really noticed this shift was at my first true tailgate experience for my new school’s football team. With beer in hand, feeling excited to participate in an American pastime, I turned fresh-faced to a new peer, who ironically was studying international affairs, and introduced myself.
“Hello, my name is Isis. I’m studying public policy!”
“Wait, seriously? I bet your parents regret naming you that.”
How does someone even respond to that?
Unsure what to do, I chuckled, and said, “No, actually it holds a lot of meaning,” then I turned, walked away and tried to move on.
That was in 2014. Since then, every time I’d meet someone new, with the news constantly filled with headlines that read “ISIS threats in Europe,” or “ISIS goes global,” I’d experience a new version of “That’s unfortunate” or “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
I could detail every exchange I’ve had, but honestly that would take two full years of time, and I’d prefer not to relive it. Instead, I’ll detail the most affecting experiences.
It’s hard to not only feel different, but targeted, singled out, less than.
I was at an airport (now that’s how all good stories start) and was flying to New Orleans to meet a friend. I was so excited for the trip, but mostly filled with worry that I was going to miss my flight. Standing in line in the Houston airport, all I could think was: how can I make these lines move faster? I finally got to the TSA agent checking IDs, and I smiled politely, handed over my Texas driver’s license and said “Hi there, how’s your day?”
The TSA agent looked at me, then my ID, and said “Oh, you should really change your name.” At first I thought, “Is she serious? How do I even respond?” Then I thought, I can’t argue with a TSA agent. I need to catch my flight, and I don’t want to be pulled aside for “random selection,” which I’d probably get pulled over for anyways ― just another symptom of traveling while brown. So I smiled and said “Ha, okay” and took my ID back and walked away.
Can you imagine a person you’ve never met before telling you that you should change your name? It feels so personal, so offensive, and yet it’s completely acceptable. It’s not derogatory, it’s not a racial slur, but it feels completely dehumanizing.
As an immigrant, and someone who does not fit the profile of the typical American millennial, I’m okay being different. However, when the label that no one can escape, your name, is a word thrown around in presidential debates, a word bigoted individuals like Donald Trump spit out to incite fear, it’s hard to not only feel different, but targeted, singled out, less than.
In the presidential debates and throughout this election cycle, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has revolved around inciting fear with phrases like “Islamic terror,” which to him equals “ISIS.” However, these do not correlate. Daesh is an organization whose origins can be traced back to groups existing during Saddam Hussein’s reign, but as we know them today were born, in part, out of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. This group, does not by any means represent Islam, or Muslims ― nor does it represent me and the thousands of American babies who were named Isis just in the last decade. This group represents a struggle for power and a capitalization on the void the U.S. created in Iraq.
But beyond that, let’s look at the group’s acronym: ISIS. ISIS was meant to be a rough translation of the organization’s Arabic name: Daesh (Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham), but in recent U.S. conflicts with terror groups, this translation of names is somewhat unprecedented. We never translated Al Qaeda, so why translate this? Why create this buzzword out of a word that already held meaning and positive association for many so people? So people like Donald Trump and anchors on Fox News and CNN could throw it around to catch the American public’s attention?
I say Isis, and what do you think? Terrorism, death, and pretty much every negative word the media has found in the dictionary.
These rhetorical devices utilized by powerful figures (see most of the speakers at the RNC) that spew hate, somehow makes it acceptable for the public to similarly spread hatred. And it has expanded to places and corners one wouldn’t expect, like when getting a new social security card, buying a drink at a bar, family members of friends, and the list goes on. Now society hears certain words or nomenclature and associates them with specific, often biased, imagery. It’s the extreme version of the classic picture association test, where people are presented with images and asked to say the first word that comes to their mind. I say Isis, and what do you think? Terrorism, death, and pretty much every negative word the media has found in the dictionary. I’m no longer a strong female powerhouse, I’m broken down to an association. A hateful association.
Let me just say, Mr. Trump, you may know how to run a business (except those times you filed for bankruptcy) and you may know how to build a brand (Trump Steaks …really?) but I, as a Master of Public Service and Administration, a Muslim and a woman who shares a name with the group you use to fearmonger voters, know more about public policy and government than you do, and ever will.
I don’t want sympathy. I want change.
I want society to step out of this practice of reiterating the same things the 24-hour news cycle spits out for ratings and clickbait. We need to rise above the endless misinformation, mislabeling and fear-mongering.
I want to stop being told that my name is “unfortunate” (I see you, Jimmy Kimmel), and for baristas to stop being afraid to say my name aloud, or immediately assume it’s a prank, and joke. “There’s a bomb! Hide.”
My name is Isis. I’m an American. I’m a female. I’m a voter. And I’m not going to accept your hate or your ignorance.
What’s in a name? My value, no. My power, yes.
On the plus side, at least now when I go to Starbucks everyone knows how to spell and say my name.