Please, Just Call Me Ify

I have a confession to make.

I really do not like to be called “Sister Ify.” There, I said it. It was only after my conversion to Islam that I began to enter the world of using the “Sister” or “Brother” honorific before the first name of other Muslims.

I would locate my culture as being primarily American, as I was born and raised in a small college town in upstate NY. Most of the color in our town was provided by the children of immigrant professors and black kids bussed in from the city to diversify the middle and high schools. However, in my house and among my relatives and the friends of my parents, the culture was distinctly Igbo Nigerian.

For the most part, in both cultures, there is no honorific or commonly used title/name for people within the same peer group. Although, Igbos love titles and frequently use them to show honor and distinction. Even if one does not have a title, they are prone to using their professional title Dr., Engineer, Esq. or they’ll just make one up. My dad is a professor so some people call him Prof, he has a Ph.D so many call him Dr. Okoye, and he has an Igbo honorific title, which roughly translates into “the one who sits astride the elephant.” Titles can also be purchased but that’s another post.

Among my siblings, if we ever call each other names like “brother” or “sister” or “lil’ sis” it’s always in a mocking and highly affected tone and manner. I know using “brother” or “sister” is more common among African Americans especially in the South, perhaps, influenced by the culture of the black church. I know a sister (this generic usage of the term is okay with me) that will also refer to her children as “brother” or “sister” as in “Sister, is your homework done, yet?” And some of my West African friends will refer to other older African women as “Sis so-and-so.” Older African men are referred as Mr. [insert first name].

For people considerably older than me, it depends on our relationship and the situation, only now more complicated by the addition of Islam and coming into contact with even more diverse cultural habits. For the African friends of my parents that I grew up with, I’ll may refer to them as Aunt or Uncle so-and-so because that’s how they were introduced to me as a child. As I got older and I learned that there may not have been any real familial relationship, I often switched to calling them Mr. or Mrs. [insert last name]. This also goes for the parents of my friends as I’ve never felt comfortable calling them by their first names. Even if they ask me to call them by their first name, I try to avoid using their name but if pressed will probably revert to Mr. or Mrs. [insert last name]. Only more recently, since I’ve officially moved to the South (Maryland), did I pick up from some African Americans, the usage of Mr. or Ms. (always Ms. never Mrs.)[insert first name] as in Ms. Pat or Mr. Al, generally only used for other older African Americans.

Now, when it comes to Muslims, it becomes a bit more complicated. For those I consider within my peer group, I see no reason to use the terms  “brother” or “sister” in front of their first names. Some see it as an additional layer of modesty, I think for the most it’s simply pretentious and a symptom of the difficulty our community has with effectively coming to terms with the realities of gender interaction. Notice, that the same people offering the modesty excuse do not use the same terminology with their non-Muslim peers.

If I specifically know someone would prefer to be called “sister” or “brother” I’ll use that out of respect for them when writing or speaking to them. For older Muslims, those who I would consider to be in my parents peer group, I may refer them using the “brother” or “sister” or “aunty” or “uncle” title because I’m somewhat uncomfortable calling them by their first name. Generally, at work or school, I will not use any honorific. However, I once worked with a Liberian woman close to my grandmother’s age, so I called her Aunty [insert first name].

I feel the use of  the terms “brother” or “sister” and kunyas (Abu or Umm) are simply not part of my cultural upbringing and it’s not really a cultural habit I’d like to assume. I’m Ify and I don’t mind if people, younger or older than me, call me that.

Nneka, one of my older sisters (blood relation, immediate family) spent some time working as a travel nurse in Dallas, Texas and found the use of titles or lack thereof, to be exceedingly patronizing. I remember her telling me that she did not like how the physicians referred to the nurses by their first names but then the nurses deferentially referred to the physicians as Dr. so and so. Nneka, of course, called the doctors by their first names just as they called her by her first name even after some nurses tried to “correct” her.

A couple of years ago, I stayed with a desi family in NYC for two weekends during an AlMaghrib class and they were accustomed to using the terms bhai, baji, apa (Urdu words for your siblings). The youngest daughter was maybe 2 or 3 years old and only spoke Urdu so her sisters (my peers) explained to her who I was and told her to call me apa or apaji or something like that. And she was kind of shy but when I returned back to Maryland, my friends told me that their little sister had asked them the following Monday, “Are you going to school with apa (referring to me) today,” which I thought was pretty sweet that she remembered me using the words in Urdu.

Third post in the Post a Week 2011 series, now I’m all caught up and back on schedule.

From the Storehouse:

What’s in a Name?

I’ve Reverted

Finding Ify and Leaving Muslim Apple Behind

Convert Name Change Back

Who is Ify Okoye?

Criticism: Muslim Storekeeper & Robber Convert

Conversion and Name Changing at Gun Point – Valid?


  1. I get it 🙂
    You pointing it out made me realize that it is a cultural thing- this is a part of desi culture that I love. I would call someone older baji/apa out of love or respect. Since you are younger than me, you would just be Ify, so it all works out.

    As for the ‘Sister’ business that is very western Muslim culture to me. I never heard it in Pakistan or the Arab countries that I grew up in. Ukhti, I did hear overseas but only when speaking directly to someone and when you didn’t know their name. The only people who called me Sister Hena was the MSA crowd or brothers on the masjid board. I wasn’t very practicing in college so when I did ‘revert’ back to practicing Islam, I took on the sister persona full blast -figured it went well with the brother/sister in Islam theme. Most of kids in my youth group/ weekend school just call me Hena Aunty, unless they are Arab or converts. Some people get very offended when they aren’t given a title. But I am glad you blogged about it so now we all know that you feel comfortable being called by your name.

    As I understand it having a kunya is a Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW)-that’s why I am Ummezaynub but my husband who grew up here doesn’t feel comfortable being called Abu Zaynub at all, so he can relate to your feelings.

    your sister in Islam

    1. I hope you don’t mind me calling you Hena without any additions 🙂 I’ve often heard that kunyas are sunnah, can’t remember the evidence but wondering if it’s just Arab culture?

  2. “Some see it as an additional layer of modesty, I think for the most it’s simply pretentious and a symptom of the difficulty our community has with effectively coming to terms with the realities of gender interaction.”

    Good point! 🙂 I find it awkward too, continuously having to address girls my age with ‘sister’. I was really glad when you told me once to call you just ‘Ify’! 🙂 However, with some people, calling them ‘baji’ comes quite naturally, maybe because they really do seem older than me and it’s more out of respect than compulsion then.

    With men, it adds a level of formality to address them with ‘Brother XYZ…’ , which, I must say, makes me feel more comfortable when I interact with them as opposed to calling them by their first names.

    1. Do you call your patients brother…? Before my Islam, I used brotha man as slang to refer to some people, often in jest though.

  3. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    The whole business of calling someone ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ seems to be a very modern invention — if you look at classical Islamic textbooks you’ll never find the terms used for other than actual brothers and sisters, yet nowadays we use the terms as a substitute for ‘man’ or ‘woman’ if the person concerned is of roughly the same age or younger. I don’t think the term was in common usage among Arabs either, until fairly recently.

    Many years ago, I saw a question in the British Muslim magazine, Q-News, from someone who found the custom very strange, particularly the adverts from ‘brothers’ seeking to marry ‘sisters’. The shaikh (Sayyid Mutawalli al-Darsh) actually approved of the practice, although he said it shouldn’t be used between husbands and wives due to a hadeeth. It’s one of these ideologically loaded phrases, much like ‘revert’ used instead of convert.

    Still, it has one good usage. Many years ago, I saw a poster by a college Islamic society, in which the talk was going to be given by ‘Brother Jamal’. I immediately knew that this Jamal wasn’t a scholar, and given the leanings of this particular society, that the talk was therefore best avoided.

    1. Wa salaam alaykum Yusuf,

      Q-News! Your mention of it brought back fond memories, I used to subscribe and always enjoyed receiving it in the mail.

      That’s true about the last usage, some of our local imams and du’at are referred to as brother, which is their preference and it sounds awkward in my ears to hear people from other cities call them shaykh.

  4. Salaam,

    Interesting post. I’ve never really thought about it…

    I guess one reason is because no one’s ever called me sister Chinyere. It does sound weird. Sometimes people just call me sis, and that’s cool.

    I’m not necessarily opposed to it because the black American side of my family is/was Muslim, and I grew up hearing about Brother So-in-So and Sister Whatever. Kids at the Islamic school my grandmother and aunt ran called my grandmother Sister Irene, my aunt Sister Dorene…but I think in the medical Muslim community where I am now, we don’t call people sister/brother too much unless not referring to them directly, like, “So-in-so is my brother friend.” Heh.

    So I associate the sister/brother thing with older, used-to-be-in-the-Nation black Muslims more than I do other Muslims. Hehe, I guess it’s kind of like I didn’t meet a non-black Muslim prior to the age of 11. All a very interesting matter of cultural perspective. 🙂

    It’s really cool, by the way, to find your site! I’m the only Igbo Muslim I know, so it’s cool to hear of others…

    ws, ~Chinyere

    1. Salaam alaykum Chinyere (I’ve always loved that name),

      Yes, Igbo Muslims are few and far between but I’ve met quite a few online. We should have an Igbo Muslim retreat, that would be fun. I love learning about the difference in how language is used across cultures, so fascinating.

  5. salaams:

    I don’t mind whatever honorific title is put before my name, or not—but it’s been interesting to see how that changes as one ages…i was asiila or sister asiila in my 20’s and 30’s. in my late 40’s it suddenly was “auntie,” which was just as shocking as the first time i was called “ma’am” when i was 32!

    now at 53, i’m “auntie” to men and women in their 30’s—-the age i still ‘feel’ like—and it’s actually pretty liberating. In fact, i’ve also become ‘mama’ to many a young men i’ve met on facebook. Islamically, i can now pretty much go where and talk to who i want, especially amongst the males. I’m now the age of ‘non-sexual threat.’

    mama asiila 😉

    i’m waiting next for the “mama

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