News & Politics

Having the First Name 'Isis' Has Become a Massive Burden for Lots of People

A petition calling for news outlets to stop calling the organization ISIS has a whopping 63,000 signatures.

Photo Credit: AVN Photo Lab/Shutterstock

Over a few decades’ stretch, the name Isis became an increasingly popular name to give a newborn, particularly among parents of baby girls. An Egyptian goddess who appears in texts dating back to the 24th century BCE, Isis is a figure of healing and protection, her name both classic and unique. In other words, for a pretty long time — millennia, actually — Isis has been a pretty good bet as far as namesakes go. That is, until a certain terrorist group (you know the one) came to dominate the news and things started to go a bit sideways.

As ridiculous as it may seem, having the first name Isis has now become a massive burden for lots of people, most of them, though not all, women and girls.

Last year, Nutella reportedly refused to print a personalized jar label for 6-year-old Isis Rebanks, though her siblings Oliver and Zuleika had no problems. A British woman named Isis Lake says she’s had flight reservations repeatedly canceled without reason or explanation. San Francisco’s Isis Anchalee tweeted about Facebook shutting down her account (the company “thinks I’m a terrorist,” she wrote) before multiple passport screenshot submissions finally compelled company officials to unlock it again.

And as if junior high school isn’t hard enough, 14-year-old Isis Brown has the daily hassle of dealing with classmate bullies and potential future GOP presidential contenders calling her a terrorist. She finally got so fed up with the relentless teasing she made a video decrying the abuse. "I have the issue of every day when I walk into school, just wanting to stop right there in the middle of the hallway and just cry," Brown tearfully confesses in the clip.

There are, of course, other names that have also changed in the public consciousness, usually due to an association with a single famous, or infamous figure. That can be annoying but fairly innocuous if your name is Cher, Sade or Drake. Less so if you were born before World War II (or, I suppose, if your parents are assholes) and your given name is the once-popular Adolf. Since 9/11, men named Osama have endured physical and verbal abuse by the misinformed and misguided; the same sort of people who imagine a conspiracy lurking in the middle name of one Barack Hussein Obama.

I emailed Isis L. of California, who says her name came from her mom, who “liked Egyptian mythology and liked the history of Isis the Egyptian goddess.” I asked her about common annoyances, and she rolled off a litany of examples.

“People making jokes, for instance, asking if I’m the head of the terrorist group,” Isis L. wrote. “I get ignorant comments a handful of times a day during the week because I have to wear a nametag at work, so it doesn't help. My name used to be a conversation starter—people would compliment me by saying it was a beautiful name, or [they would guess] what the origin of my name was. Now, I tend to hide my nametag behind my uniform vest in order to avoid any ignorant comments that may irritate or offend me. I only state my name when asked, just because I’m tired of explaining anything about my name in regard to its origin and it being totally irrelevant to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It’s sad, because I shouldn’t have to explain myself.”

Kat Lynn, whose daughter was born in 2002, named her bundle of joy Isis because she “fell in love with the name and the goddess of motherhood and magic behind it.” She recalls that Isis was becoming more commonplace in America at the time. “Isis was 548th on the list of most popular names in the United States,” she wrote me. “It was more popular than Barbara, Paula, Deborah, and Clare.”

“Isis and I frequently get comments about her name, whether it be making a hair appointment for her and the receptionist commenting on how her name is 'unfortunate,' or substitute teachers at school asking her if she scares people when she tells them her name,” Lynn says. “In one instance, I was ridiculed in front of a large crowd by a cashier at [a popular craft store]. I gave him my email address, which contains the name Isis. He asked what Isis was and I politely explained it was the name of my 13-year-old daughter who was named after the Egyptian goddess. The cashier went on to explain to the large line of customers that Isis was actually the name of an evil terrorist group that frequently beheaded people. The area manager apologized later for the incident.”

Because of incidents like these, women named Isis have been pleading with the media to use alternate acronyms when discussing the terror group. A petition calling for news outlets to stop calling the organization ISIS has a whopping 63,000 signatures. The woman behind it also started a Twitter account where she documents and retweets messages about Isises who’ve been mistreated because of their name.

Kat Lynn suggests this whole issue could change overnight if talking heads, broadcasters, news anchors and others would just make one minor modification to their reporting. “The United States State Department uses the terms IS or ISIL,” Lynn writes. “Frequently I see major news organizations broadcast statements from the president or other U.S. officials where they will refer to the terrorist group by the term ISIL, immediately following the newscasters will continue the report using the acronym ISIS instead. Thousands of women named Isis could be spared public disparagement if the media would simply use the same acronym that officials are already using.”

It looks like those calls have been heard in some media quarters, according to a 2014 Atlantic piece:

As National Journal's Matt Berman points out, the Associated Press has moved to "Islamic State group" and the New York Times is going with IS. The U.S. government has increasingly said "ISIL"—the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Egypt's Islamic authority, Dar al-Ifta, proposed “al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria,” or QSIS, and France recently announced it would use the Arabic acronym "Daesh." ISIS really hates that word though, and according to the Washington Post, has threatened to cut out the tongue of anyone who uses it.

Lynn suggests that people, whether they know an Isis or not, should contact media whenever they hear ISIS being used and tell them to amend it to ISIL. “It would really only take one letter, and a bit of effort to help the thousands of women in the United States named Isis reclaim their name,” she says.

In the meantime, Isises are weathering the storm, dealing with minor and major daily indignities related to strangers’ reactions to their name. What they aren’t doing, though, for the most part, is changing their name. And why should they? If you like your name, you have every right to keep it. They’ve developed ways to cope.

“My daughter finds that sarcastic replies to those who try to tease her about her name usually makes people be quiet,” Lynn says. “She does not give in to others’ attempts to make her feel bad about herself. Isis wants everyone with her name to be proud of it and to always remember that is not the real name of the terrorist group.”

Isis L. echoes those sentiments. “Young girls and women named Isis must be strong and tough and not let others' ignorant and inconsiderate comments get to them,” she writes. “I know it’s difficult, but they should stand up for themselves and not let anyone bully them. It is just best for all Isis' out in the world to tell those who have something negative to say about the name Isis, that they are not interested in negative insulting remarks about their name and for Isis' to keep their heads up high.”

“I just hope it will blow over,” she adds, “but I feel the damage has been done already.”

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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