Vera Hadzhiyska had always known the origins of her first name. As is traditional in Bulgaria, she was named after her grandmother, who passed away a year after she was born. The name was the only memento she inherited besides family photos. Yet it was only a few years ago that she discovered that her grandmother’s given name was originally Ferde. Along with 900,000 Bulgarian Muslims and Turks, her grandparents had to abandon their Muslim names in the mid-1980s, during an enforced Bulgarisation campaign known as the “Revival Process”. Vera was the Slavic name she took in its place.
Ferde — the name comes from the Arabic for “unique” — grew up in Mugla village, which is situated in the Rhodope mountains in the south of Bulgaria, home to the nation’s large Bulgarian Muslim (or Pomak as they are sometimes referred to) and Turkish minority. One day, without a word of warning, her family were forced out of their village and taken across Bulgaria to Dimcha in the north, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. It was in Dimcha that Ferde met her husband: they married and had two sons, before moving together to Plovdiv. Hadzhiyska’s father and uncle were part of the last generation to be given Muslim names at birth.
After the fall of communism, the population was allowed to change their names back. The consequences of the brutal policy, however, were already beyond repair. Hadzhiyska says that most of her cousins have grown up not knowing that their grandparents are Muslim. “They never sat us down to explain our heritage. It had always been in the background,” says the photographer, who has been exploring her family history in her work since moving to the UK. As a response to ongoing global dialogue around immigration, she traced her family’s migrations from 1940 to the present day in her graduation project Kingdom of Chamla. For an earlier project, influenced by her own relocation, she produced a series of self-portraits dressed as her mother — a visual metaphor for the photographer’s homesickness for Bulgaria.
“If you inherit another person’s name, you have a certain responsibility.” This had been Hadzhiyska’s stance well before she started working on Vera. When her mother found a yellow dress belonging to her paternal grandmother, the photographer took it as a sign that she should preserve the elder Vera’s story. On a visit to Bulgaria, she borrowed the dress to shoot another series of self-portraits, this time dressed as her grandmother. The eponymous photo project is not strictly focused on her grandmother; it uses her story to demonstrate the extent of the cultural trauma suffered by the Bulgarian Muslim population.
It shouldn’t be forgotten, of course, the extent to which women still lack agency regarding their own names today. Bulgarian children still have to adopt patronymics (Slavic middle names derived from the father). In addition, a longstanding custom in Bulgaria previously saw many women take on not just their father’s names, but also their husband’s. It reinforces the patriarchal idea that the man is the head of the family and women’s role is secondary. “My question is why?” Hadzhiyska pointedly asks. While in much of the West it has become acceptable for women to keep their surnames after marriage, this is not a given in other parts of the world. What’s in a name? A whole lot, it turns out: repressed cultures, lost heritage, and patriarchal oppression, just for starters.