Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fatima and Fatou-Problematic Names In The USA?

Written by Azizi Powell

I'm a big fan of African Americans giving traditional African and Arabic names to their children or creating a name that "sounds" African. But there are some African/Arabic sounding names that I think it's better to avoid just because of the negative associations that their sounds are likely to have in the United States and in other Western nations. One example is the name "Tamu", a Swahili female which means "sweetness". In the 1970s there was a Black doll that was marketed named "Tamu", but that doll didn't sell well. I've always maintained that part of the reason why so few Black mamas who were desparately seeking Black dolls for their daughters didn't embrace that doll was that she had a very short fro. The problem with that is that a big part of the play activities that little girls-including little Black girls-look forward to doing with dolls is styling their hair. And you can't style a short afro. The other major problem with the name "Tamu" (tah-moo)is how it sounds. No one wants their child to have a name that ends in the sound a cow makes.

The Arabic name "Fatima" and its variant forms "Fatimah", "Fatma" are other female names that have a positive meaning in other nations but might be best not given to American girls. "Fatima" literally means "weaned" (a baby girl who is no longer breast feed). That name has a very positive significance among Muslims because it was the name of a favorite daughter of the Prophet Mohammed. But among Americans, the first part of the name Fatima, Fatimah, Fatma sounds the same as the word "fat"*. In my opinion, giving your child a name that sounds like "fat" is setting her up a life of teasing and taunting.

*I know two African American women who adopted the name "Fatimah" as adults. It happens that both of these woman are converted Muslims. However, many Americans who have an Arabic name aren't Muslim.

Although the traditional way Arabic speakers pronounced/pronounce Fatima (Fatimah) is FAH-mah, following American pronunciation customs, that name is usually pronounced "fah-TEE-mah".

"Fatou", (fah-too) "Fatu" (fah-too), "Fatoumata" [unsure about the traditional pronunciation] and "Fanta" (fahn-tah?) are West African forms of the Arabic female name "Fatima"-West African culture has been influenced by Arabic culture since the 11th century AD. Of those names, "Fanta" is the only one that doesn't have that "fat" beginning element. Even though "Fanta" is a brand name of a carbonated soft drink, I don't think that has any built in problems for American females. Of course, it's just my opinion that those names are problematic in the United States (and in other "Western" nations). I won't get upset if you don't agree. However, as I write for each name entry on my Cocojams Names & Nicknames pages, if Fatima, Fatou, or other variants of those names is your name, I hope that you wear your name proudly.
This page on my Cocojams website Names And Nicknames has more comments about those two names.

Here's a YouTube video (sound clip) of a delightful children's song by Sengalese singer Toure Kunda entitled "Fatou Yo" (My Name Is Fatou")

AFRICA Music /Best of all time : TOURE KUNDA: Fatou Yo

WitnessTheDevine, Uploaded on Jul 16, 2011

This is an african song , a little all , Almost every generation in Senegal loved it .....Every generation sang it , ,, and it still rocks ......
Here's a summary of that song from Best Children's Music

"Toure Kunda (TOUR-ray KOON-dah) / Senegal / Fatou Yo (I Am Fatou) sung in Mandingo. Fatou is a little girl who lives in Senegal, a country in Africa. She likes to dance with the other boys and girls in her village, and dreams about singing with baby elephants and giraffes. The song is a sikko (SEE-koh), a dance where people get in a line and hold their hands towards the sky or hold the waist of the person in front of them. Senegal is a country in Western Africa that borders the Atlantic Ocean. There are many different tribes and ethnic groups, each with a unique culture. Languages spoken include Wolof, Fulani, Serer and Mandingo, but the common language is French because Senegal used to be a colony of France."
According to this page on Lyrics Vip Fatou Yo 's lyrics are

Mandango [sic]*:
Fatou yo su diadialano
Fatou Faye Faye Fatou
Fatou klema oundio
Fatou yo si diadialano
Boutou mbele Boutou mbele
O mami sera
O mami casse
Ja cana canfa boulodi
Foyer zorola sodiaye
Sodia sodia ina gambia
Coco inako soyango

I am Fatou, the pretty Fatou
Oh Fatou
Like all the children of the world
I am lucky to have this pretty name
I am happy and will surely grow up
I will grow up like everybody else
Like the little elephants and the little
Giraffes that I will always love
They will all sing with me and with you
Sing with me
Fatou saye!
Saye Fatou!
*"Mandango" is probably a typo for "Mandingo". A more appropriate term is "Mandinka" or "Malinke". Click here for a Wikipedia article on the Mandinka People

Here's a video of Senegalese vocalist Fatoumata Diawara's song "Bissa" from her 2011 CD entitled "Fatou" :

Uploaded by worldcircuitltd on Aug 10, 2011

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  1. Note: The following comments are from a facebook friend of my who gave me permission to repost them on this page along with her name.

    I read your posting. I have to disagree and here's why: The name does exist in the west: Our Lady of Fatima in Spain. We just say Fateema because English pushes the accent to the second syllable.
    -Afi Scruggs; 9/8/2011


    And secondly, the pronunciation isn't "Fat-ou", it's Fah-tou, so the name doesn't sound like the word fat at all. If anything, we'd Anglicize the name by calling the person "fah-Tu" and accent the last syllable.
    -Afi Scruggs; 9/8/2011

  2. Here are my responses to Afi Scruggs' comments [posted as is under my facebook name cocojams jambalayah)

    The underlying reason for that post was to spark thought about the possible social consequences of personal names and the ways that culture influences which names people like or dislike. I'm okay with disagreements. Afi would you please post your comments on that blog or please give me permission to do so?

    I'm aware that the pronunciation that is used for Fatima in the USA isn't the traditional pronunciation used in the Middle East, Africa, and some Muslim influenced parts of Europe such as Spain. With regard to that name and Fatou, I think its easy for kids, teens, and adults who are in to teasing/taunting to grap on to the English words "fat and "fat too" even though the fa element is supposed to be pronounced fah. And the pronunication Fah-tu or fah-Tu is easy to convert into "fat too". (Btw, I think the American way of pronouncing two syllable names is to place the emphasis on the first syllable).

    Anyway, if an adult has a given name that other people don't like, they can say to hell with those people and keep on keepin on. But if they don't like their given name and/or think that their given name doesn't fit them, they can always informally or legally change their name. (That's what I did, inflormally, in part because I felt that name didn't fit me who I had become). But that's kind of hard to do as kids/teens except for nicknames.

  3. I am a white convert to Islam and have legally changed my name to Fatima. I come from Texas in an area with a very heavy Mexican and Mexican-American population, so I often hear my name pronounced in Spanish as Fátima. This Spanish pronunciation is close to the pronunciation used by South Asians, the stress is correct and only the /i/ is reduced a bit more in the South Asian version based on the Arabic spelling (my husband is Pakistan origin). I like this pronunciation better than the Arabic which has is more like Fawtma. I don't correct people when they say Fateeema. I do agree that kids/racists etc will focus on the Fat part. I had that happen to me online where someone called me 'Fats' or 'Fatty' in a retorting comment, which is really rude. So much baggage attached to all of this stuff. I love the name Fatimata/Fatoumata. I recognize it as West African, but don't know where the extra syllable or phonetic change from /i/ to /ou/ come from. In Arabic you can call Fatima Fatoum as a nickname. Anyway, interesting post, and very interesting to read about the name from a West African angle.

  4. Thanks for your comment luckyfatima! As you shared, there's a lot of baggage that comes with some names with are otherwise aesthetically pleasing and are rich in spiritual, social, and historical value.

  5. I want to emphasize that in writing this post on the names Fatou and Fatima (and their variant forms) I was not disparaging those names or the persons who are or were so named.

    As the history of the name Fatima attests, those names are quite honorable. Also, I just became acquainted with the Miss Africa USA Pagent*. The 2010 winner of that pagent was Fatoumata (Fifi) Soumah of Guinea, West Africa.
    My concern was and is that people named Fatou, Fatima, or Fatoumata are likely to be teased by Americans who are unfamiliar with those names.

    *For more information on the Africa USA pagent visit

  6. Actually Fanta is a traditional African name out of guinea and it translates to "Beautiful Day"

    1. Greetings, Fanta Ayodele.

      Thanks for sharing information about the name "Fanta". You wrote that "Fanta is a traditional African name out of guinea and it translates to "Beautiful Day". Which language is this?

      I recognize the name "Ayodele" as Yoruba. Is this your birth name and is it a last name (surname)? I ask because I wonder if Yoruba people and/or other African people you may be familiar are given traditional African birth names from more than one African ethnic group.

      I hope that you or someone else who can comment about this response to this question. I ask this with all due respect.

      Best wishes!