Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gender and Identity: Women Changing their Surname after Marrige

I firmly believe in choice. So when I encounter women who have chosen to change their last names because they simply wanted to (there can be many reasons, although perhaps not as compelling to me or you as to them), I don’t pity them for falling into the trap of patriarchy, which pushes them to give up their identity and be identified solely by their husbands. When I watch a marriage ceremony being conducted by some preacher, he goes, “I now pronounce you Mr. and Mrs. John Doe!” I’m like, what the hell – the woman’s identity doesn’t exist anymore! Heck, the woman doesn’t exist anymore.

I admit – it’s equally patriarchal that her surname is her father’s last name in the first place. However, there are ways around this. Not all women’s last names are taken from their father’s only. In Mexico (and I believe parts of Latin and Central America, too?), for example, when the woman gets married, she retains her last name. And the children’s last name = the father’s + the mother’s, hyphenated. (The father’s name still comes first, though. I mean, duh.)

So, basically, I’m trying to understand why women change or should change or have to change their last names.  Lemme tell you a funny story. Some years ago, I worked at a clinic and had to deal with patients’ files. One day, I couldn’t find a patient’s file so I asked my co-worker where it could possibly be. She looked with me first and then remembered: “Ohhh yeah! He changed his last name, stupid him. He got married and changed his last name to his wife’s. That’s so dumb.” I know this lady so I didn’t wanna have a discussion with her about this, but I couldn’t help asking, “Do you think it’s also dumb when a woman changes her last name after she gets married?”
Her: “No, of course not. We change our last names because we love our husbands.”
Me: “And our husbands don’t love us, so that’s why they don’t change their last names to ours?”
Her: “You’re such a feminist. It’s just tradition. Nothing wrong with that.”
Me: “Perhaps. But why should be anything wrong with a man’s choice to change his last name to his wife’s?”
Her: “Do you know what hell you have to go through to change your last name?”
Me: “But that hell is for both women and men, right? I mean, men go through the same hell that women go through when we change our last names to our husband’s. Or do only men who change their last names to their wives' go through the hell, but since women do it so much and so many women do it, it's not hell for them? Besides, what makes one acceptable and nice but the other unacceptable and stupid?”
Her: “You’re truly a feminist. I don’t wanna argue about this. Besides, if only he knew what I have to go through now, changing his name in our records.”
Me: …

So! That’s what you get for asking why women change their last names :D If you love your husband, you’ll change your last name; if you don’t, you won’t. But he loves you regardless of whether or not he changes his last name to yours :S Ohhh how biased we are when it comes to measuring the love we have for our spouses …!

A Twitter buddy of mine has argued that changing a woman’s surname assures her children that she and her husband (their father) are married. This makes no sense at all. 1) If a name must be changed to prove a marriage, then who decides that it’s going to be the woman who’ll have to change? And 2) Are there no other ways to prove their marriage to their kids?

Also, in some societies, like the Pukhtun, a person’s surname is her/his tribe/clan name. Now, although inter-tribal marriages are traditionally uncommon (but perhaps not anymore, especially for Pashtuns in the west), let’s say that a Yusufzai woman marries a Durrani man. If this woman changes her last name, she changes her affiliation with her tribe – which is actually silly because by doing this, she changes her “blood,” if you get what I mean. So it’s particularly in such cases that changing surname does not make any sense and has no valid reason. Heck, it makes no sense in any other case, either.

This reminds me of another funny incidence with a friend. When she changed her last name to a Pukhtun tribe’s name, I asked if she belonged to that tribe. She goes, “Yes – through my mom’s side ;) You know how we feminists do it ;)!” (Her parents are from different tribes.) So, for a long time, her last name on Facebook was her mother’s tribal name. Then when she got married to someone whose tribe is the same as her father’s, she started going by her father’s/husband’s last name :D Of course, I’m sure she must have her own reasons for that, but I still find the contradiction between her first and latter statements/initiatives so amusing.  Perhaps it’s like what my co-worker said, “We change our last names cuz we love our husbands.” But our husbands don’t show us that they love us by doing something like this, yeah?
What I cannot understand for the life of me is this: I know of women who have been divorced and remarried at least four times. And each time, they’ve changed their last names to theirs husband’s and changed it back to their original. WHY?!?! Do you not get the point?!?! :|

As for me, you guessed it – I am not going to be changing my last name when I get married. It won’t mean I don’t love my husband. It’ll simply mean that
1) I find nothing wrong with my current last name
2) my last name belongs to my father, who has made so many scarifies for me to have a good life, and to whom I basically owe my life. I find no reason to end ties with him through a name, which is more than just a name; it’s an identity.
3) I’m challenging the traditional practice of changing surnames. Why is it the woman who has to do it but not the woman? Who decides this and on what grounds?
4) I'm veeery creative when it comes to expressing love, and I know that there are millions of ways to show your husband (or wife) that you love them -- and changing last name to his ain't one of them.

By the way, Islam actually encourages women to keep their family name because it’s a way to maintain ties with their family. Many Muslim women in the Arab world (and the rest of the Middle East) don’t change their last names. I’m not sure if there reason has to do with the hadith we find on the matter, or if it’s just because they know what changing the name signifies.


  1. I agreed what you wrote. In my case it was my wife who did so I never asked her. But when I hear Bilawal bhato Zardari it just wired isn't it

  2. No one ever "asks" a woman to change her last name when she gets married. She does it because it's tradition. Everyone else (okay, a large percentage of women) do it, so it only makes sense that she do it, too.

    Bilawal Bhutoo Zardari ... haha. Naa, I don't think it's weird; we're just not used to someone having two last names like that, that's all.

    1. I agree with you! When a woman marries, she usually adopts the surname of her husband and uses her father's surname (her maiden surname) as her middle name and drops her mother's maiden name (her former middle name). Some women may decline to adopt their husband's surname and continue to use their maiden names for professional or personal reasons.

  3. You writing after a long time..! Good to read ur blog after such a long time!

  4. Yeah, Sepo! I'd closed my blog temporarily, and it feels good to be writing in it a gain :D

  5. There's no doubt that the practice of wives changing their surnames stems from global patriarchy, if we stick to Pakhtun tradition though, the bride is essentially being given to the other tribe she leaves her own tribe's house/village/whatever and goes to live with her husband's family this is why she changes her name. Another reason she changes her name is to show her solidarity or her allegiance to the family she has married into to her children who are by virtue of being born members of their father's tribe not their mother's (regardless of whether or not their genetic material is fifty fifty). I suppose the only conclusion I can reach is that Pakhtun society is one of the most patriarchal systems on the planet, the fact that women change their surnames is a reflection of this, simply refusing to change your own surname may satisfy your own will not to conform with the patriarchy but it will not stop it from existing.

    I can understand where your concern comes from, as I male I am unable to fathom changing my tribal name and I suppose I shouldn't expect to women to either, what I would object to though is the notion that the children should have both family names incorporated into their surnames (this happens quite a bit in Europe and America and you end up with strange hybrid names). Having said this if the children take the father's surname, the patriarchy continues does it not?

    In the end modern feminism has a number of flaws to it desiring equality in everything. I admire Wollstonecraft but I view modern day feminists with suspicion. I also see no way around the physical differences between man and woman, both sexes are different and to treat them as equals in all aspects is to ignore blatant reality. For example one of the problems women face is being paid less, although this is no longer as big a problem as it used to be there hasn't been much progress on this front recently, this is because domestic labour is unrecognized and the demand curve for women contracts because of the fact that they are liable to a) become pregnant and take a long time off b) become pregnant give birth and never return to work at all. Without any real way to counteract this problem, wages start to stagnate and employers tend to hire men. (No amount of state subsidies can fully counteract this)

    Capitalism encourages specialization , it is no accident that men are still breadwinners and women stay at home to raise children, a lot of it has to do with biological predetermination, children (especially infants) share a strong bond with their mothers (much stronger than what they share with their fathers) let's be honest this is ultimately because men do not give birth and they do not produce milk.

    I'm curious as to what you think should be done to address this, if oppression is a disease then protesting against things like changing one's surname is merely prophylaxis.

  6. Thanks for your comment, POA! And welcome to my blog!

    QUOTE: "simply refusing to change your own surname may satisfy your own will not to conform with the patriarchy but it will not stop it from existing."

    Indeed. However, I actually don't have any aims to "end" patriarchy. There are many things wrong with patriarchy, but I'm least bit interested in getting rid of it. As an individual, I don't have much of a say in it anyway. But your statement is akin to something like: One person's effort to never eat meat isn't much help to saving animals. Perhaps - but the refusal is a statement, is it not? And I think that statement is more important than its assumed rationales.

    But let's say that, yes, the appearance does matter significantly. Then who's to say that the solution to these strange hybrid names should be choosing the father's surname over the mother's? This is actually my ultimate issue. Why is it the father's name that's given precedence over the mother's? Why's the father's name continued but not the mother's?

    QUOTE: "what I would object to though is the notion that the children should have both family names incorporated into their surnames (this happens quite a bit in Europe and America and you end up with strange hybrid names)." Why? Just 'cause of what you perceive as strange hybrid names? Again, I think the statement (i.e., not choosing only the father's name) is more important than its appearance to you or me.

    QUOTE: "In the end modern feminism has a number of flaws to it desiring equality in everything."

    I would hesitate to assume that everything Qrratu says if it has to do with women must be about feminism. I don't recall using the term feminism anywhere in my post (except when my co-worker referred to me as one). However, I've never claimed that feminism has no flaws. It's not just modern feminism that's full of flaws; all other feminisms are, too. But so is patriarchy and every other institution that's ever been in existence, no?

    QUOTE: "I admire Wollstonecraft but I view modern day feminists with suspicion."
    Great thought! I would add, though, that all ideas and all -isms should be viewed with suspicion.

    QUOTE: "I also see no way around the physical differences between man and woman, both sexes are different and to treat them as equals in all aspects is to ignore blatant reality."
    Sighs. I can't recall any feminist claiming that women and men are physically the same. The argument, on the contrary, is that our physical differences should not be used as justification for the subjugation of one gender over another. Click here to read more on my response to this point of yours: You don't have to read the post, actually; the comments are more important, I think, as the comments are as though I never wrote the post in the first place, LOL.

    QUOTE: "I'm curious as to what you think should be done to address this, if oppression is a disease then protesting against things like changing one's surname is merely prophylaxis."

    My objective is clear: question everything, especially when there is blatant bias towards one gender (or sex or faith or nation or another group of people). Moreover, I use the word "oppression" very lightly (except in jokes with close friends in private). I think this name-change issue is far, FAR from oppression, although I can fully understand why some would see it as a form of subtle oppression.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  7. P.S.
    I have said this many times elsewhere, and perhaps this is not the best place to repeat it, but I don't get the argument that "How can women and men be equal or have equal rights when they are obviously physically different?" This doesn't make sense because the question assumes that in order to be equal, you must be physically the same. Supposedly, all humans are equal; but are they all the same? No, they are not. Let's say that, okay, women and men are not equal because they're not physically (or socially or otherwise) the same. Can we use this same point to also argue that all men CANNOT be equal because all men are not the same, don't look the same, don't think the same, etc.? This might sound silly, but Chinese men look nothing like, say, white American men. Are they equal? Should they be considered equal? Should they have equal rights?

    Assuming your answer is, yes, they are equal, I must then ask: So, at what point does someone become equal to another? What characteristics must they have in common (physical or otherwise), and who decides what these characteristics must be? How do you determine if these characteristics are natural (referring specifically to many social differences between women and men, not necessarily a consequence of their physiology)?

  8. Well no my response is that there's no such thing as equality, people are born different, and they differ in numerous ways, in a capitalist society people embrace their differences and end up in with a class system (through the encouragement of specialization, the role of women in child rearing is just another manifestation of this), if you look at the example I gave you earlier about the labour demand curve for women, it contracts due to physical reasons. Summarily my point is that there can be no real equality at all and the mere notion of equality is nonsense (especially in a capitalist world).

  9. I'm not sure how I feel about this. I can't say for sure that I won't change my name, and I can't say for sure that I will. I think, no matter what, I'll keep my last name in some form, simply because it's a very unique last name, and there's less than 50 of us in Denmark. But, we don't tend to hyphenate, we tend to make it a "middle last name" instead, so the order will be first name, middle name, middle last name, last name. And as such I'd also insist on giving it to my children (my last name, is actually my dad's mother's maiden name, which he decided to take when he was a young adult, and his brothers and sisters later did the same).

    So, why take his name? Because it's easier. I know that's not a great reason, but, I sometimes think we need to pick the battles we fight, and I don't feel any less me, by tacking his last name on at the end.

    As a side note, I have a question, the Pakistani guy I dated (his family was Kashmiri if it makes a difference), told me that there, the woman took her husbands first name as her last name, and the children got their fathers first name as their last name as well?


Dare to opine :)

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