Taking a name in vain

by Gautam Raja

When S. got married, he wanted his wife and he to share the same family name. But she didn’t want to change her surname, and so the husband took the wife’s name. It’s a brave move, and one I have a lot of respect for. It’s something I’d considered briefly, but didn’t go through with largely because I didn’t have the courage, but also because I wasn’t sure whether my motivation was sound. (Was I just trying to make a statement, and if so, was that reason enough?)

Post-marital name-changing—at least for women—is pretty much a non-issue these days, but strange reactions pop up in unexpected places. Before I got married, I was asked several times what my views were on wifely name changing (including the skin-crawling “Will you allow her to keep her name?”). My opinion was, while I didn’t feel strongly about it, I preferred she not change her name. Note I said “prefer”, because I was once set upon, being told that this was also male chauvinist pressure, and being the other way around didn’t make it any better.

However, we’re all allowed preferences, and even allowed to voice them. It’s if I “demanded” or “allowed” her to keep her name that we’d get back into the old trap. Anyway, my wife, L, had no intention of changing her name. In the tradition of her community, her surname is her father’s first name. And because he is no more, L’s connection to the name runs deep, knowing that she and her sister will be the last to bear it. (L is keen that our children bear my surname, though I think we should mix and match.)

To her surprise, L has been challenged a few times, always by older women—questioning the motives that led her to keep her name. Once she was told in no uncertain terms that she was choosing and “perpetuating” one patriarchal system over another, but how exactly she was supposed to work around this dilemma remained mysterious.

The point is, of course, that it doesn’t matter what system gave L her name, but that it’s hers and no one should question what she chooses to do with it: not whether she changes it, and certainly not why she keeps it. It’s been hers all her life, given to her even before she could pronounce it, by two people who loved her (irrespective of what flawed system they operated under). That she needs to answer to someone else, especially another woman, what she does with something so personal, borders on outrageous. (And that a woman’s personal choices are, yet again, being measured against some kind of ‘duty to society’ ruler.)

To try and understand though, these challenges came from women of a different generation. In their time, not changing one’s surname was a radical choice and a strong feminist statement. These days, however, the most common reason for not changing a name is simply that it’s too much trouble. There’s the paperwork, the e-mail addresses, the new signature to learn—it doesn’t seem worth the bother. The choice to keep is not noteworthy, and brides-to-be are often casually asked if they are changing their names, and there’s rarely apology, pride or explanation appended to the answer, whatever it is.

And so, with no particular agenda or sense of rebellion, L continues to keep what’s hers, and for the most part, suffers no comment. When the comment does come, it’s sad that it’s from people who should really be saying, “You go, girl!” rather than being the enemy from within.

First published in Gulf News, May 17, 2011