What’s In A (Sur)Name?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

On Jimmy Fallon’s show, this global star defined herself as ‘traditional’, in the sense that she saw it fit to add her husband’s surname to her own name, as he ‘gets added to who she is’.

Have you ever thought about why women add their husbands’ family names to their own? Not remove their own maiden name, but add the second surname. It is empowering. They are not letting go of their identity, they’re ‘adding their husbands’ to theirs’. It is a choice they make, and a choice to be proud of.

But while modern women might think they’re making a choice when they add the husband’s surname to their own instead of changing it altogether- are they really?

The idea that women leave their own homes to go and settle with the husband’s family has always been repulsive to me. Culturally in India, and many other parts of the world following the patrilocal family structure, the woman after marriage goes and lives in the man’s house. This basic notion has led to women being treated as property and traded like cattle, often being valued for their household management skills so as to contribute and ‘take care of the family’. No, not her own parents, those she will leave behind- but her in-laws, who she is expected to devote her life to. And once a woman is married and living with a new family, of course, she is expected to take up that family name and abolish her own.

So when women now, instead of completely changing their last name, add their husband’s to it, think they’re making a choice to acknowledge the addition of a man in their lives whilst retaining identity. But is this essentially a choice they’ve made on their own? Or have they been conditioned by society to think this is an option at all?

Do men ever grapple with this ‘choice’- to change a surname or not? Or to add another last name, that of their partner’s? No. The battle for the maiden name is women’s alone. The way our world functions, a man’s surname stays till he dies. A woman’s, till she gets married, or dies, whichever is first.

This ‘choice’ of adding a surname to the maiden name is essentially the ‘privilege’ of a modern woman.

But my quarrel is not with the women who decide to add a last name to their own surnames- it is with the society that made these rules for women. The idea that women go from the father’s house to the husband’s house, foregoing the maiden name for the husband’s name is how generations have lived, it is ‘tradition’.

Tradition has defined that when a man and a woman come together in marriage, it is the woman who changes her name. It is not enough that she is leaving her own home, a tradition which in itself is questionable, she must also change her surname and in some cultures face flak if she doesn’t.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

The woman’s identity is supposed to reflect the household she belongs to, the family she married into because she is not supposed to carry on her maiden name- she will bear children to help continue the lineage of her husband’s, and now her, family.

The logic I’ve heard most commonly to defend this twisted convention of women changing surnames is ‘to define the family’, and that it is easier for the children to adapt if the parents have the same surname. The family name. This basically implies that to ‘seem like a family’, a married couple must share a surname (that of the husband), which effectively means that the woman foregoes her own.

Even the titles ‘Miss’, ‘Mrs’, or ‘Ms’ used for women are meant to define their social status- whether unmarried, married, divorced, or widowed- but men retain the title of ‘Mr’ regardless of their social relation to women.

The preservation of these gender-normative roles is how marriages have been defined through the ages. But my freedom comes with the idea of keeping and using my name, which I dislike referring to as a ‘maiden name’ because this comes with an assumption that as a woman, my name will change at some point in my life.

All my life’s work has been about me and my identity, and I would change that for nothing.

No, becoming a ‘Mrs. *insert husband name*’ is not the goal of my life, as much the world thinks women enjoy being addressed this way.

The identity of women is no identity at all, and changing surnames is ‘tradition’. But do all traditions need to be preserved?

Journalist @ NDTV. Feminist. Dog parent. Bibliophile. Will choose ginger tea over humans.

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