African names, Anglo-Saxon names, Arabic names, Avestan names, famous namesakes, hebrew names, Hindi names, Indian names, Iranian names, name history, name meaning, Nigerian names, Persian names, UK name popularity, unisex names, US name popularity, Yoruba names
Even though this blog discusses baby names, real life babies, names of famous people, and names of famous people’s babies, this is the first time I have looked at the name of a real life famous baby. Unfortunately, when a baby is able to grab the headlines in their own right, it is nearly always a tragic story, and this is no exception.
The baby girl known as “Asha” was born in Australia at the start of 2015 to refugees who had arrived by boat: her parents are Nepalese Christians. Under Australia’s Migration Act, any person who arrives by boat without papers is declared an “unauthorised maritime arrival” (UMA) and is transferred to an offshore processing centre. These are not pleasant places, and the waiting times for processing can be extremely long.
You would think that anybody born in Australia would be an Australian citizen by birth, but that changed in 2014 when the Migration Act was amended retrospectively to say that any child born in Australia to a UMA is also a UMA.
In June last year baby Asha became the first Australian-born child to be transferred to a detention centre on Nauru with her parents. Although a thriving baby when she arrived, she had a less than ideal life sleeping on a wet mattress in a leaky tent in the middle of a phosphate mine surrounded by rats and mosquitoes. Her parents quickly became suicidal, and her mother unable to feed her. Asha’s health deteriorated.
Doctors and nurses at the detention centre said that it amounted to child abuse: the government decided to do something about that by changing the Border Force Act to say that any health worker who spoke up about the dangerous conditions on Nauru could be imprisoned for two years. A social media campaign started to Bring Back Asha, and the other babies kept in detention.
On Australia Day this year, baby Asha was taken to Brisbane’s Lady Cilento Hospital to be treated for burns, having been accidentally scalded with hot water. Even after she had been effectively treated and her condition stabilised, doctors refused to release her from hospital, as they feared that sending her back to Nauru would be detrimental to her physical and mental health. Hundreds rallied outside the hospital in support of staff, with Let Asha Stay banners.
The Immigration Minister suggested that Asha had been burned on purpose so that she could come to Australia for treatment. There was no evidence to support this, and it is unclear how it would have made a difference anyway: if a baby is hurt deliberately, it needs the same health care as if it had been hurt by accident.
The stand off between the Federal Government and doctors continued. After almost a month in hospital, baby Asha and her parents were released into community detention instead of being sent back to Nauru. The Immigration Minister insists this is not a back-flip on policy, but exactly what would have happened all along, and that the baby and parents will eventually be returned to Nauru.
The location of baby Asha and her family is currently secret, and their fate is unclear. The other babies and children on Nauru remain in detention, their situation unchanged. It is not really a happy ending to the story.
But at least we know now that Australians are ready to stand up for children against their government, because there was widespread community support for the hospital staff and for the protesters. That is the ray of light in an otherwise very dark chapter.
Asha is a Hindi name for girls, from the Sanskrit word āśā, meaning “hope”. A famous namesake from India is Asha Bhosle, who has done playback singing for thousands of Bollywood movies; she is immortalised in the song Brimful of Asha, by British band Cornershop, and still touring the world as a concert singer.
The name Asha is also used in East Africa, an apparent form of the Arabic name Aisha, translated as “life, alive, she who lives”. The name is commonly used among Muslims, because Aisha was the name of the prophet Muhammad’s third wife. A famous namesake is Asha Abdalla, a Somali politician and activist who has been recognised globally for her efforts towards promoting peace and women’s rights.
Another African connection is the award-winning Nigerian-French singer-songwriter Aṣa, her name pronounced the same way as Asha. Born Bukola Elemide, she took her stage name from the Yoruba word for “hawk”: I have seen her name transliterated as Asha, even on official merchandise. Like Asha Bhosle, she has performed in Australia.
There is a male association for the name Asha as well. In Zoroastrianism, Asha Vahishta is a deity of Truth and Righteousness. Asha is translated as meaning “truth” in the Avestan language, but it also means “existing”, in the sense of bringing something into being. Asha can also be translated as “natural order, acting correctly, righteous”, in the sense of cosmic harmony under natural law.
Asha is strongly connected with divine fire, and this is not only the spark of life which brings creation into being, but also a fire which can pass judgement, finding out the truth, and burning away the lie. Fire protects Asha Vahishta, and in later times he is identified as a god of the household hearth. It is interesting for an Anglophone that Asha is connected with fire, which produces ash. Asha is used as a male name in Iran, but is more common as a name element.
Despite all these origins for the name, Asha has been used in the English-speaking world since the 18th century, given to both sexes. It might have been used as a variant spelling of the biblical name Asher, or seen as a specifically feminine spelling. (Asher is translated as “happy, lucky”, but you can read more about its etymology in the entry for this name).
Asha also makes sense as a name to an English-speaking person because of the word ash. This can mean the residue of a fire, and ashes are often seen as holy and protective. The other meaning of ash is an ash tree, which has the same etymology as ashes – ash trees were also seen as protective and healthy.
Although ash trees do make excellent firewood, the Old English word for ash and spear were the same, aesc. Aesc was a popular element in Anglo-Saxon names, and both men and women were called Aesca (said Asha). Even today, popular names such as Ashley (“ash meadow”) and Ashton (“ash town”) are derived from the ash tree, so Asha does not feel alien to us.
Asha is a fairly common name for girls in Australia, and has become conflated with the name Asher, which is used for girls as well as boys here, thanks to actress Asher Keddie. If Asha and Asher were combined together, the name would be in the Top 100, or only just outside it.
In the UK, the name Asha is #940 for girls, and falling in popularity from a peak of #313 in 2003 (Asha has rarely been given to boys, and Asher only occasionally given to girls in Britain). In the US in 2014, 200 girls were given the name Asha, and 74 called Asher (no boys are registered as having the name Asha, while Asher is a Top 100 name for boys).
Asha is an attractive name that has a long history, but feels contemporary. Simple to spell and pronounce, it works multiculturally without seeming particularly exotic. One of its most appealing attributes must be the multiplicity of meanings, all of which are positive. Although common in Australia compared to other English-speaking countries, it could very well be confused with Asher.
I hope the baby Asha story does not put parents off the name: not only is Asha just a name used by the press to protect her identity, but the meaning of “hope” seems so apt. Hope not only for Asha, but for all babies who need our care and compassion.
Asha received an outstanding approval rating of 90%, making it the most popular of all the Famous Names for 2016. People saw the name Asha as pretty or beautiful (23%), working well multiculturally while still fitting in (23%), strong and independent (22%), and having many positive meanings (17%). However, 4% thought it would be too easily confused with the name Asher. Only one person thought the name would be connected with the Baby Asha case, and nobody thought it would be confused with names like Ashley and Ashlyn.
(Photo of protesters supporting Asha from SBS).