“Very good! You read well. What’s your name?” asked Sister Imelda.

Sister Imelda’s appearance did not reinforce her stern, authoritative nature. A little over four feet and a little below fifty years of age, she seemed rather demure. She was soft-spoken – even at times of anger – and her face glowed with rays of kindness and humility. She was always seen in crisp, white knee-length dress and head-scarf with blue rims – the traditional attire for Catholic Christian nuns – which made her appear sober. Anyone would mistake her for a calm and loving motherly figure. Yet she was the most feared person around. Only she could tame the otherwise cacophonous and unruly school children. She was known for visiting the junior classes – unannounced – to test the children’s reading skills. Failing to impress her, the school children may face – among a myriad of possibilities – hours of scathing remarks, suspension from the Games period, days of counseling sessions with parents who would wear the “you just let me down” look, and disciplinary slips which can only be averted by volunteering to read to Sister Imelda for an hour every day after classes for a span of three months at a stretch.

Beaming with joy at the thought of not having to go through any of that, I replied with a high measure of enthusiasm in my voice, “Monica Islam.”

“What? Mollika Islam?” inquired Sister Imelda as if to alleviate the fear and confusion that overpowered her voice.

“No, it’s Monica Islam. M-O-N-I-C-A,” I spelled out for her, with my enthusiasm still intact in the form of a broad smile.

Her heart had shrunk by this time. She looked pale and weak with worry, as if my name had a sinister implication. Without looking at me, she signaled me to sit down and said sternly, “Meet me after class.” She continued the test, albeit with much lesser vigour.

Inside her scantily-furnished but well-ventilated room, Sister Imelda approached me, with a grave concern casting a shadow on her face. “What is your father’s name?” she asked.

“Shahidul Islam,” I answered, now equally perplexed as her, not understanding the relevance of the question to my reading skills.

My reply seemed to have confounded her further. Nodding her head sideways, she finally proceeded to discuss the issue that bothered her. “Are you a Christian or a Muslim? Why is your name Monica? It is a Christian name!”

She was clearly not willing to return to her convent with the idea that a girl with a Christian name could be a Muslim too, without any forced conversion at play. She arranged for several meetings with my parents so she could investigate my genealogy and the religious background of my family. She asked them the same questions that she had asked me, to cross-check my answers. She asked again and again if I was Muslim by birth to reassure herself that I had, indeed, a Muslim identity with the ceremonial practice of aqeeqah on the seventh day of my birth. There was nothing sinister or complicated to the story of my name.

Back then, being a child, I did not don a head-scarf. Although that scenario has changed with the adoption of my head-scarf – by choice, I still face the same old consequences of my “Christian-sounding” name. It is as if Monica and Islam are never destined to unite. It is as if we cannot have Monica, Jessica, Megan, and Chung Lee, who could be Muslims as well. It is as if we cannot have a name for its random beauty and not for its philosophical meaning which will later reflect on our character – or so it’s prophesied. It is as if we cannot look beyond the surface-level cultural elements – such as the name or dressing style – associated with a person, and understand and respect a person for what he or she does.

“What is your name, sister?” asked a Pakistani blogger. Upon stating my name, I am met with a question I am so accustomed to – “Monica? Are you a Christian or a Muslim?” At times, some well-meaning individuals remind me that it is more fitting for me to have an Islamic (read: Arab) name.

The fuss over name is rather complex with detentions taking place post-9/11 based on name. Osamas are barred from flying or at the very least, viewed with raised eyebrows. Khans, despite their stardom, are detained for hours, quizzed, and denied access to officials who know them beyond their name. What’s in a name?

“What’s your name?” I asked. “Huma Wallace,” she replied. “Christian?” I asked, almost instinctively. “What made you think so, MONICA?” she asked between giggles, as if she had already sensed the reason.

Irony of life! What’s in a name? What’s in a name that we get so caught up in it?

Comment on this Post


I am so proud of my country for having an Obama as our president, and a black Obama at that! A man, now deceased said, when President Obama was running for office, "Our founding fathers would turn over in their graves to know that a man named 'Obama' is running for our presidency," As he was a guest in my home, I didn't want to be rude, so I sweetly said, "Let's be honest. They are turning over in their graves because I and your wife are allowed to vote." That ended the discussion.

My parents were staunch Roman Catholics. My mother, for a few years, decided to have a celebration on our patron saints' feast days. This proved problematic for her when she simply had to make up a saint for my name "Yvette."

Gentle humor can defuse many bombs.


Your post reminded me of one from back in 2008 where community members entered into a wonderful dialogue about the background and history of their names. You can read it at http://www.worldpulse.com/node/1770. I have no doubt your post will inspire more engaging conversation.

As for me, my name is Janice and I am of Chinese descent. You can imagine how surprised people are when they meet me for the first time.

What's in a name? You were too young to ask why the Catholic sister's name is Imelda. Nuns are given a new name, usually after a saint who serves as her role model. In the Philippines, the name Imelda is associated with beauty, elegance, extravagance and shoes- hundreds of them.

Five decades ago, our names were usually taken from the almanac. Hence, those born on the same date, have the same names.

One day, a young couple brought their one month old baby boy to church for baptism. When the priest asked the parents on the name of the child, the father replied, "He will be named Tigre". The priest replied that a baby cannot be named after an animal because he might be a subject of jokes and bullying later. He went on to explain that sons should be named after their father so he can acquire the traits of the father- responsible, good provider and God loving. The young excited parents, nodded in approval. Then the priest asked, "so what's your name?" The young father replied, "Leon".

M-O-N-I-C-A, what a beautiful name. Are you Catholic or Islam? :-)

Have a wonderful, funny Sunday.

Dear Ms. Paulina,

Your comment was so interesting! I learnt the meaning of Imelda, and the story in the last paragraph was so funny! As for me, I still remain unaffected by names. I understand names create our initial identity and of course, we wouldn't want to have a name which has a bad meaning, but perhaps our actions establish our identity. There are many Monicas, but their actions create differentiation/association points, and make people remember them. For instance, in my university, although there are numerous Monicas, people usually associate my name with hard-work and honesty. Therefore, I try not to make immediate associations or other judgments based on a name. What may be true for one might not be true for all.

I love my name too! My father gave me that name because on the day I was born, a woman of that same name assumed a ministerial post. My father does not remember the full name and post, but he says she was from Colombia. So I believe it was Monica Lanzetta Mutis of Colombia. I strongly feel what later reflects in our life is not the meaning of a name, but the intentions and expectations of whoever gives the name.

I am spiritual. :D I am a Muslim but I tend to practise spiritual aspects of all religions/philosophies.

You too have a great day!

In friendship, Monica

I like your post because I found it very interesting and quite humorous. I bet a name can cause a stir! Thank you so much for sharing. I look forward to reading more of your posts. You not only read well, you write well!

Hugs, Greengirl

So well written Monica ! Simple yet thought provoking. Let me tell you that my name is highly uncommon in India. They confuse it with a guy's name. But that's alright. I fret no more. As you said, "What's in a name?".

It was wonderful to read this post of yours.

Lots of love,

Mukut Ray

My mother's name is Monica, after the saint, mother of St. Augustine. Now, don't ask me why 'libudsuroy." Thank you for this well-written piece, Monica.

Blessings, libudsuroy

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Dear Lina,

It's so nice to hear that your mother is my name-sake! I feel this post has been worthwhile because I am learning meanings and histories of names.

Warm regards, Monica

I loved reading this post, especially since it made me smile and I love to smile :)

All my life I have been quite vocal about appreciating one's culture. In Ghana, as might have been the case in other countries which were once colonised by some European nations, one was not allowed into schools if you didn't have a Christian name. (There are so many facets to the inculcation of Christianity and how society accepted you based on that, but I will stick to names for now.) With time, Christian and other foreign names became more 'proper', although this is changing now.

Anyway, so my mum was named Betty, and I inherited her name when I was born. Being that she passed away when I was 2, I'm the only one in the family who has absolutely no memory of her. Everything I know about her was told to me, and so most times I feel like all I have of her is my Betty. I ABSOLUTELY LOVE MY NAME!! Now, how do I reconcile that with advocacy for people to recognize the beauty in original Ghanaian names??? I've learnt to very calmly but boldly tell people that I do love my Ghanaian-ness and am already compiling a list of traditional names for when I have children (some of them have really amazing meanings!), but there is absolutely NO WAY I will change my Betty!

Your post really struck a chord :) What's in my name? The beauty and strength of my mother!

Betty Maternal Health Channel Asking questions. Seeking solutions. Saving lives

Dear Betty,

Thank you for reading and leaving a comment! I am glad you liked it.

Your thoughts resonate with the essence/context of my article. I strongly believe that names should not be treated too critically, e.g. generalizing based on names, or as you mentioned, restricting resources/rights to education because of names. I also believe that names should be allowed to travel across cultures. Just because you are named Betty does not imply you are less of a Ghanaian or just because I am named Monica does not imply I am any less of an ideal Muslim.

Your name is beautiful and powerful because it reflects the qualities of your mother!

Warm regards, Monica

Dear Monica,

A beautifully written and thought-provoking piece. I often ponder how names might influence one's self-esteem/identity. My son's friend was given his mother's last name because his parents, wisely, knew the father's surname, "Dumm" would not serve him well in life. A pleasure to read--thank you!


______________________________________________________________________________ "I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being." -Hafiz

Dear Ms. Susan,

Thank you for reading and leaving a comment!

I agree with you. We definitely would not like to have names with bad meanings/implications.

Regards, Monica