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 our identities – as temporary, something which will soon be appended by our 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 addendum.
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 fiance 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.
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 favoring 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 you can dismantle this specific tradition is when you voluntarily choose your own name, either when you 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 imperiled 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. Some day, in the future, it will no longer be necessary to justify our choices, either in the name of Feminism or Love. For me, both aren’t mutually exclusive constructs.