Lawmakers in Tajikistan have voted to ban Arabic-sounding “foreign” names as well as marriages between first cousins, approving legislation to restrict two common practices that have irked the government of the predominantly Muslim country.
Reading out proposed amendments to the country's Family and Civil Registration laws ahead of the vote in the lower house of parliament on January 13, Justice Minister Rustam Shohmurod said that "foreign" names have caused divisions in Tajik society.
The restriction on names is clearly aimed to combat a growing trend in the Central Asian nation, where parents now frequently choose Arabic and traditional Islamic names for their newborn babies.
It is expected to win approval in the upper house and to be signed into law by President Emomali Rahmon, who has taken steps to promote secularism and discourage beliefs and practices that he sees as foreign or as a threat to stability in the former Soviet republic.
Names derived from prominent figures in Islam, such as Sumayah, Aisha, and Asiya, were once almost nonexistent in Tajikistan but have become the most popular names for girls in recent years. Muhammad, Yusuf, and Abubakr are among the most popular names for boys.
The amendments also counter the trend of adding Islamic and Arabic suffixes and prefixes -- such as mullah, khalifa, shaikh, amir, and sufi -- to men’s names.
The state Committee for Language and Terminology recently announced that it has prepared a list of some 4,000 recommended names for newborns.
It said the list consists mostly of "pure" Tajik or Persian names and has been distributed to registry offices across the country to help parents to choose names for their babies.
During the parliamentary debate, lower house speaker Shukurjon Zuhurov said that picking the names from the official list is not compulsory. But he said parents must choose names that are “compatible with Tajik culture.”
The language committee has said the amendments apply to ethnic Tajiks only and would not be extended to ethnic minorities. Tajikistan has a large ethnic Uzbek minority, as well as smaller groups of Kyrgyz, Russians, and others.
The proposed ban on marriages between first cousins, which is also expected to win approval from the upper house and Rahmon, has prompted heated debate in a country where the practice is fairly common.
Supporters of the ban say that children of parents who are blood relatives run a higher risk of birth defects and genetic illnesses. Opponents say they want more evidence of that link.
The Health Ministry says it has registered more than 25,300 disabled children, 30-35 percent of whom were born to consanguineous marriages.
Health Minister Nusratullo Salimzoda told parliament the legislation would also require couples to undergo medical tests before registering a marriage.
The results would not legally bar people from tying the knot. But lawmaker Gulbahor Ashurova said mandatory medical tests would help make them “aware of any medical conditions" of their potential husband or wife and enable them to make "informed decisions.”
Written by Farangis Najibullah, with reporting by RFE/RL's Tajik Service