April 15, 2013

Post-marital names: to change or not to change?

Choosing to take on your husband’s name after marriage doesn’t bode well for a budding feminist, at least that’s the impression I get from the heated debates that have been criss-crossing the web diaries of feminist writers in the quarter that just went by. On the one hand, we have feminist debates that focus on identity politics. In ‘Why should married women change their names? Let man change theirs,’ The Guardian writer Jill Filipovic writes about how societal expectations for a woman to change her last name post marriage play into patriarchal injunctions against women’s selfhood: “The cultural assumption that women will change their names upon marriage – the assumption that we'll even think about it, and be in a position where we make a "choice" of whether to keep our names or take our husbands' – cannot be without consequence.” Identity is also something that drove Claudia Maittlen-Harris to stick to her maiden name. She writes in The Huffington Post: I couldn't part with the identity and history I have attached to my name, and I couldn't part with who I believe I am with this name. Jonathan Jackson (nee Jonathan Jones Camery-Hogatt Jackson) reflects on the backlash he received on his decision to go against tradition. He writes in The Huffington Post: “Our society needs an overhaul, and this last name choice won't make a huge difference by itself. We know that. It's quiet. It's subtle. But it still undermines small power asymmetries. In that sense, our last name has the potential to stand for something much, much bigger: it symbolizes our relationship with society itself.” The kick-off point for my own exploration of why I gave up being a Miss Haja to become a Ms. Ansher began with three of my good friends getting married recently: forget hyphenating their last names, the thought of giving up their surnames didn’t even enter their minds. While one of them is an avowed feminist, the other two aren’t. For them, the question of taking on their husband’s family name was a moot point; why should marriage preclude women from holding on to their individual identities, and not place any such expectations on married men? The narrative of associating our names with identity runs strongly through all the articles I mention above. Filipovic even mentions how patriarchy conditions women to treat their names – and therefore their identities – as temporary, something which will soon be appended by their true, permanent and real names. This is something I understand and can trace to my own childhood spent day-dreaming with cousins about the possible romantic surnames that we would all have, post-marriage. In the Tamil Muslim community I come from, married women take on their spouse’s first name post-marriage – and not the surname, family, village, or clan name as is the case with the country’s multitude of ethnicities. So, for us, it was doubly exciting to contemplate getting married to a Salman, or a Zubair or an Armaan, and not bother too much about the Khan, Syed or Mohammed addendums. What I was very clear about was not adding the prefix of Mrs. to my name. To me, this more than anything else placed more emphasis on a woman’s marital status and projected her as a wife first, and a woman later. In the lead up to the wedding, my fiancé was least concerned about what name I would take up post-marriage. It was I who had to bring up the topic. With three months to go for D-Day, I went ahead and signed up for new Facebook and Google accounts, shutting down my old ones and generally making a fuss about the impending nomenclature change. My friends thought it was an excellent way to announce my new status in life and none of them questioned why I chose to drop my father’s name. What I didn’t anticipate was that in the course of my marriage, I would also grow to recognize and embrace the feminist in me, and this certainly made things uncomfortable for the smug Ms. in me. I questioned the implicit social expectation that required women to disassociate their married selves from their maiden lives. The reason why this act of rechristening holds so much power is because we invest so much of our emotions, memories, selfhood, and character in the names chosen by our parents. I also began to understand the agony of some of my other girl friends who wanted to stick to their maiden names, but couldn’t.

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It’s been five years since I took on a new last name. Today, despite being aware of how chauvinism and misogyny operate, I don’t feel anything less than a complete woman, or anything less than what I was before marriage. In fact, marriage has added to my journey, to my successes and to my discourse of being a feminist. I cannot exhort my husband to consider changing his name because he never asked me to change mine. And by the very same standards that chauvinism thrives on, if I expect my husband to change his last name for my sake, to prove his love, or in the name of tradition, I would be playing into the same constructs that patriarchy thrives on. I have also come to believe that our given names are not sacrosanct and christening your children brings into play the patriarchal construct of parental authority over offspring. Not choosing to take on our husband’s name, but choosing to keep our father’s surname, is what I would call ‘same difference’. The act of holding on to our maiden name doesn’t strike a blow to the bogeyman of tradition and favouring a male name as the carrier of heritage and genealogy. We invest so much of who we think we are in our given name that the only way we can dismantle this specific tradition is when we voluntarily choose our own name, either when we become a legal adult or perhaps by fomenting new traditions that allow children to christen themselves as they wish and making it legal. As Jessica Grose writes in The Slate, citing a 2004 essay written by Katie Roiphe: “Our fundamental independence is not so imperilled that we need to keep our names.” As it is, with my new found awareness of how patriarchy functions, I am still comfortable going around as Nilofar Ansher. I don’t feel subsumed or shorn of my selfhood, neither is there more emphasis on my wifehood merely because my last name is now associated with my husband’s. The sense of love that pervaded my decision does not warrant second-guessing and neither should women who choose to go my route face censure from feminists. Jen Doll, who writes in The Atlantic Wire, sums up this sentiment: “…whether or not one takes a husband's name upon marriage is no big deal, really; everyone should do what they want, and may the best name win. Judging someone for doing whatever it is they decide to do for themselves is the problem.” What is really at the bottom of this issue is the fractured idea of empowerment we each hold. To me, empowerment could be the very act of breaking away from my pre-marital family narrative and willingly taking on that of someone whom I chose to adopt as my family: my husband. In doing so, I have not given up who I am, but instead have added to the narrative of who I hope to be. Someday, in the future, it will no longer be necessary to justify our choices, either in the name of feminism or love. For me, these aren’t mutually exclusive constructs.

About: Nilofar Ansher

Nilofar Ansher is a writer, editor and researcher from India. She has a master's degree in Ancient Indian Civilization and her research interests include urban ecology, disability rights and inclusive culture, museum studies, cybersociology, cinema, folk studies, and feminism. Previously, she was the Community Manager for the 'Digital Natives with a Cause?' project, a research initiative of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, that focused on the narrative of youth, technology and politics from the framework of the Global South. Currently, she is a communications analyst with a not-for-profit agency that advocates digital inclusion for persons with disabilities. Nilofar's writings have appeared in The Feminist Wire, The Good Men Project, The State, UltraViolet, Himal South Asia, amongst others. She tweets as @culture_curate.

4 comments to Post-marital names: to change or not to change?

  • “To me, empowerment could be the very act of breaking away from my pre-marital family narrative and willingly taking on that of someone whom I chose to adopt as my family: my husband. In doing so, I have not given up who I am, but instead have added to the narrative of who I hope to be. ” That’s nice, but it does seem oddly coincidental that legions of women seem to be thinking exactly the same thing, but very few men. It would be nicer if there was a balance of men adding to the narrative of who they hope to be too. Since that doesn’t seem to be happening, women are trying to balance out the picture by retaining their own names. A woman keeping a last name that is her father’s name is not the “same difference” as taking her husband’s name, because like her husband who took his father’s name, the last names of their childhood are the ones they grew up with, the names on all their existing documents, the ones their childhood friend’s know them by. And many people do not have a strong reason to eschew that identity, until marriage comes along suggesting that women at least might have one.

    If this is about the tyranny of naming and the freedom to choose one’s own name at adulthood, then yes, people should have the freedom to do that. And they do, in fact, though doing so at marriage and adopting your husband’s name as the new identity is easier to do as it’s socially sanctioned in addition to legally so. It’s also interesting how people choosing a new identity decide the husband’s name is best fit serendipitously.

    Not adopting one’s husband’s name in places where there is a patriarchal tradition of women doing so is an important symbolic gesture and helps restore some balance to naming traditions, though maybe it doesn’t go far enough. It’s fine for individual women to make choices that suit them but why dismiss the importance of the gesture of those who choose to challenge the mainstream?

    PS: Was there any reason you chose to use Miss for your pre-married state and Ms for your post-married one? I thought the whole point of Ms was to convey neutrality with regard to marital just like Mr is for me.

    • Hi The Bride,

      I really appreciate you writing in! What you say about our surnames being part of who we are makes sense. Throughout our schooling and education, and later, our professional assignments, we are not just known by our given names, but also by our surnames. So, disassociating with our surnames post marriage appears to be a self-inflicted violence that’s almost visceral in a way. In my article, I have highlighted the point where I come to realize the validity and legitimacy of the emotional turmoil of my married girl friends, who do or don’t change their surnames. If they did, they have faced ridicule and censure from their Feminist peers. I think that’s unfair.

      What is peculiar in my situation is that I didn’t take on my husband’s family name, but his given (first) name. I felt both of us were embarking on a new journey, where we could have a common name, a united front – yes, it was all romantic and Bollywood gooey, but that’s my worldview and I am entitled to that – and I had no reservations about the decision. This is another point I have highlighted. Each one of us should have the freedom to construct our own notions of what love is. I hope you will not raise a counter-argument saying ‘these women don’t know what’s good for them!’

      Five years later, as someone who has embraced the Feminist body politic, I believe that constructs of romance, and romantic love (and what we end up doing in the name of love), more often than not, clash with the Feminist worldview. I have a problem with Feminists setting the benchmarks for acceptable Feminist behavior: No changing surnames, no praying for your husband’s health (or gasp, keeping a fast in his name), get a job outside the house, your husband should also cook or do household chores. These bullet points are not universal in their appeal.

      This debate on marital name change issue is symptomatic of a larger problem facing Feminism today: how do we separate our notions of what love is from the idea of equality and empowerment. I might allow my husband to get away with not helping me with chores, but he might not be able to escape car washing and taking the kids out to play. In the same vein, I might have to cook everyday even though I don’t like it, but no one is forcing me to enter the kitchen. However, my husband hates cooking and if I expect him to cook just to even the domestic parity ratio in the household, then I am sinking to the same Patriarchal standards that Feminists abhor and reject. Yes, this means that I have taken a decision in the name of love and this decision might clash with Feminist principles, but that’s the best part of Feminism: It gives me the freedom to choose my battles and define what is acceptable to me and what is not.

      The more important point is this: As a Feminist, I – and I am sure, you as well – believe that traditional acts add to the Patriarchal fuel that keeps our society running. Then, why ask men to follow the same standards that “we” say “they” expect us to uphold? If we believe that the narrative of changing surnames after marriage adds to us being suppressed, and to the meta-narrative of society not allowing us our individuality, should we ask men to follow in the same footsteps? Won’t we be robbing them of their identity if they end up doing what women have been expected to do for centuries? Shouldn’t these standards be dismantled altogether? It sort of seems like we are trying to get even with them for society’s transgressions. In the midst of all this, if a married woman still wants to change her surname, let that be seen as an act of free will, and not something influenced by Patriarchy. Let us acknowledge that women can make decisions for themselves, and not all of us are ignorant of how society corners us.

      Thank you for taking the time to engage with this post and sharing your thoughts. Much appreciated.

  • SheilaG

    “Not choosing to take on our husband’s name, but choosing to keep our father’s surname, is what I would call ‘same difference’. ”

    Your husband’s name is his father’s surname. Since you refer to it as ‘your husband’s name’, but your own surname as ‘our father’s surname’, do you consider that your husband ‘owns’ his father’s surname in a way that you do not ‘own’ your father’s surname?

    • Hi Sheila,

      Interesting question and I am glad you raised it because it means you have considered that empowerment or ownership is not restricted to women. That men do, frequently, question the very traditions that are supposed to favor them and perpetuate their hegemony.

      When I began writing this post, the tipping point was the State Govt of Maharashtra’s recent act passing a bill that would allow married women to retain their maiden names after marriage. And that led to several other discussions on how we favor surnames / family names, the role that traditional notions of “progeny”, “legacy” and “heritage” have played in perpetuating the practice of passing on surnames, how the Malayalam / Kerala and North East societies favor matrilineal practices (and the eventual decline of such traditions) and finally, the legal implications of living in a society where families do not share a similar name and where every member can choose to name herself as she wills.

      Naming conventions evolved for a reason, but I agree that this pattern has favored men over women. Imagining a future where surnames wouldn’t be considered so important is the first step in questioning the sense of ownership we feel towards our family names. In science fiction stories, I have read of futures where people are no longer known by their given names, but by their biometric social security card numbers, or by a random combination of letters, symbols and numbers. But we would still continue to belong to a group, to an institution, or be affiliated to some thing or someone.

      Thanks for writing in!

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