April 12, 2010
One of the consequences of Kemal Attaturk’s reforms was that Kurdish people in Turkey were not able to speak their own language and consequently they were not able to carry own Kurdish names. Recently this changed. However, the Kurds still face problems with the registration of their names, as they are bound to the Turkish alphabet for the spelling of it. Contrary to the Kurdish alphabet, the Turkish alphabet does not contain the letters W, Q and X.
The Turkish authorities consequently refuse to register names with the above mentioned letters. In the case Kemal Taskin et autres c. la Turquie, the European Court of Human Rights had to answer the question whether this refusal consists a breach of article 8 of the convention. Moreover, the Court also had to deal with the question whether or not the refusal to register these names is discriminatory as Turkish people with a double nationality who are registered in a third country and who wish to register in Turkey can keep the spelling of their names including the letter W, Q or X.
The Court did neither find a breach of article 8, nor did it find a breach of article 14 in conjunction with article 8. In the Court’s opinion, nothing shows that the phonetic transcription of the names leads to a ridiculous or a rude significance, although one of the applicants argued that the name Ciwan – which means “young and beautiful”- he wanted to register ,would lose its significance if he was obliged to spell it as Civan, which means “rendez-vous”.
The Court further states that the applicants’ cultural and ethnic identity was not affected, as they are able to register Kurdish names, as long as they do this according to the Turkish alphabet. The Court consequently did not find any discrimination on the ground of ethnicity.
Very striking in this case is that the Court consistently ignored the big elephant in the room; namely the fact that the Kurds are a minority in Turkey which faced a lot of problems in the past. The question arises whether the refusal of the authorities to register Kurdish names with the above-mentioned letters is not a way to discriminate the Kurds in an indirect manner. Two findings can confirm this opinion. On the one hand, we see in practice that the letters Q, X and W are well integrated in the Turkish public life. One of the channels of the Turkish television is named “Show tv” and of course all the websites start with “WWW”, including the websites of the Ministries. The fact that it is possible for persons with a double nationality to register their names with the letters at stake also proves that it is practical feasible, and that it does not disturb “the order”, as the authorities claimed. On the other hand, there is the finding that Kurdish people have several times been subjected to prosecution because of the use of their language. For example the mayor of the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality, Osman Baydemir, has been subjected to a judicial process, because the celebration cards he used in 2006 and 2007 contained wishes in the Kurdish, Turkish and English language. (http://www.todayszaman.com/tz-web/detaylar.do?load=detay&link=115171) The prosecutor wanted to punish him under Article 222/1 of the Turkish Penal Code. This article prescribes that anyone who violates the rule that only the Turkish alphabet is applicable in Turkey should be punished with two to six months imprisonment. The Kurdish expression for happy New Year is namely ‘Sersela We Piroz Be’ which contains the forbidden letter W. The prosecutor apparently didn’t realize that the English version of Happy New Year do also contains the same letter. This didn’t cause any problem, though.
These findings clearly show, that there is more at stake than a purely practical inability of the authorities to register the Kurdish names, although the Court does not see any problem here. It seems to me that the Court agrees with Shakespeare’s philosophy that a name doesn’t matter. However, for the sake of protecting minority rights, it would be more preferable that the Turkish authority would be the one that supports this beautiful principle, not only in theory, but also in practice.
By Saïla Ouald-Chaib