Feminism and Marital Name 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.”

Indian bride

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.”

road less traveled

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.

Follow me on Twitter @culture_curate | About Nilofar Ansher

This post appears in UltraViolet. Do check out their blog.

Another version of this post first appears on The Feminist Wire. Go the TFW’s webpage.

Also read: Women Aren’t Perfect (And We Shouldn’t Expect Them to Be)

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4 thoughts on “Feminism and Marital Name Change

  1. Brilliant is what I call this and Bold is what your ability to come forward. I changed my name upon marriage not because I was very fussed about it, but because I felt as a mother ( I became one in less than a year after marriage) it was important for my children to haves he same identity as myself. Whilst I truly felt the urge to keep my maiden name, I realised that changing my name did not make me any less a member of my natal family. Feminism is a choice, keeping or changing marital names is also a choice. What feminism has thought me in particular is the power to choose.

  2. I see improvement! :p This piece is certainly short compared to the older ones. Nonetheless, a valid point. Expectations and judgements are two invisible yet prominent elements that none of the societies or social theories can do away with. Did you know, in Nair community in Kerala, children used to take their mother’s surname? The explanation given was that the true bloodline could be only ascertained throught the mother, as a child’s birth has many witnesses. However, this practise has stopped since the last two or, perhaps, three generations even in Kerala.

    • Hey Rashmi,

      Yes, the Malayali society is known for its erstwhile egalitarian codes of tradition. However, championing the matrilineal legacy also doesn’t solve the issue – if we are looking at this as a problem that needs solving that is – because, it once again leads to one group having clout over another (women over men). But I guess this isn’t a black and white issue, or a simple one where the injustice is reversed solely by allowing women to keep their maiden names.

      I was thinking of the reservation system in our country and how that was instituted to reduce inequities between historically under-privileged (and oppressed) classes. The aim was to do away with the system once sufficient percentage of the community gains benefits through education and employment. Perhaps, a similar approach could help improve the status of women? The Maharashtra government, in fact, has drafted a bill that allows married women to retain their maiden names (The Hindu, March 9, 2013). This might help those women come from traditional background and who think about empowerment in terms of retaining their names. But the flipside is this: would they even take recourse to the law for such an issue, if they come from such a conservative background, either at their natal or at their marital homes?

      That’s why my suggestion that everyone should be allowed to choose their own names and come up with newer legal frameworks for defining marriage and family. Right now it’s our common last name that keeps us all together, right and names are what constitute the basic component of identity. What would happen if each one of us decides to mark her own identity 🙂

  3. Really interesting perspective, and excellent post. I think your situation is different though– you seem to have married a man who also sees you as an equal/partner. He didn’t ask you or force you to change your last name, it was something you chose for yourself. Sadly, I don’t think this is the situation for a lot of women who do end up changing their last names or hyphenating. It’s something their husbands have asked them to do, or something their families have expected them to do. How do we separate folks like you, who pride themselves on choice, from those who are forced/expected to change their last names? It all becomes one story at the end of the day, doesn’t it? From an outsiders perspective it’s very easy to say “that woman changed her last name because that’s what women do.” I agree with you, it is about choice. However, when it comes to making a statement about women’s rights keeping your maiden name is the loudest/most visible signal to those around you. If society did actually see women as equals, choice/empowerment would be enough.

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