You've Come Only a Little Way, Baby

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When my girlfriends in the U.S. got pregnant and began picking baby names, we discussed whether French names were too pretentious, Indian ones too trendy, and whether originality mattered more than pronounceability. In Tehran, such conversations all lead back to one central question: is the name you like on the banned baby name list? I didn't even know such a list existed until two months into my pregnancy, when I began throwing out suggestions like Priya and Lara, and my husband laughed at me.

TIME's Tehran correspondent examines what daily life is really like in Iran

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Apparently, foreign names are so utterly out of the question that most people don't even bother trying to bribe the guy at the government records office, where you register your child's birth. Like me, not everyone is aware of this in advance. An unsuspecting friend of mine tried to register his newborn daughter as Juliette Farah, and was told this was "impossible." After a frustrating back and forth during which only the word "impossible" was repeated, he finally told the clerk that "Juliette was Imam Reza's mother." This mocking invocation of a Shi`ite religious figure was not appreciated, and my friend was asked to leave the building (his daughter ended up simply as "Farah").

The tradition of banning names dates to the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in the early 1980s, when Iran's fundamentalist leaders sought to purge the country of both Western culture and its own Persian, pre-Islamic past. Religious extremists consider it unfortunate that Iranians used to be Zoroastrians, or that the ancient Persian empire achieved its greatest triumphs before Islam's arrival. To that end, they compiled a long list of forbidden names that included Zoroastrians gods and goddesses, commanders of ancient Persian armies, and other such tainted, best-forgotten figures. You were free to call your eight children (the government was also promoting massive procreation to fuel the Islamic Revolution) by Ali, Hossein, Zahra, and the like. Indeed, Arabic names, except for a handful of Sunni villains, were fine. Persian ones, despite originating from the language actually spoken in Iran, had to be checked against the official list. Along the way, other politically inconvenient realities were fought on the baby name terrain. Wishing to quell an uprising by ethnically Kurdish Iranians in the north, the government banned Kurdish names. A Kurdish couple I know managed one for their baby, but only by showing up at the registry office with a giant box of pastry and a stack of cash for the name clerk.

These days the government has mellowed somewhat when it comes to names. Foreign ones are still out, but in recent years a number of previously banned Persians names have been restored to the official list. Every few years there's a sudden profusion of now antique-sounding names like Aryo and Armiti, as eager parents follow the de-banning closely. After all, what's cooler than a formerly banned name? I don't know yet if the name I've picked is banned or not. There's reason to suggest it is, but similar names are now common and so maybe it will be okay. I could drop by the registry office and check, but I worry if my baby's name is on the banned list they'll remember me two months from now and it will be harder to offer a bribe, which of course requires discretion. The other option is to choose an acceptable back-up name, but somehow this feels like I'm giving in. It seems ironic that my own name, which became wildly popular on the eve of the Islamic Revolution, means freedom. Because that's exactly what I don't have in naming my child.