What’s In A Surname? More Than You Think!

Posted on March 20, 2013 in Society, Staff Picks

By Sakhi Nitin-Anita:

The views I express in this article run the risk of sounding aggressive, extremist, and drenched in the most dreaded of all feminist perspectives — radical feminism. The reason I called ‘rad fem’ the ‘most dreaded’ is because even people doing gender justice work refuse to identify with this branch of feminism, and no wonder it is considered synonymous with words such as ‘feminazi’, ‘militant feminism’, ‘men-hating women’ and so on. Which, I must say, is completely and utterly rubbish. Academic radical feminism essentially seeks to get to the root cause of oppression in order to dismantle it, and believe that this root cause is sexism, from which other forms of oppression such as racism were copied. But certain right-wing ideologists have convinced the world (including those with egalitarian views on gender and sexual politics) that radical feminism is opposed to men and seeks to create an inversion of gender power relations in which women will persecute and dominate over men. Hence, radical feminism has become a ‘snarl word’ for any individual who espouses anarchist, leftist or even egalitarian positions on gender issues.


Although I would very much like to, my article is not to defend against feminism in any of its radical or conservative ‘white, middle-class’ variants. I am simply going to put forth my comments and critiques on certain life ‘choices’ that are made by today’s apparently ‘empowered’ and ‘educated’ women. Since I live in India, I will obviously focus on the context of the Indian woman. I write this not only to critically analyze current norms and populist trends, but also to put forth an argument in favour of practices I consider being the most egalitarian.

We live in a society today that is ‘civilized’, but I have my doubts. Primarily because this so-called civilized society that we are part of, is based on certain fundamentally oppressive systems. There is huge debate on how these systems came into place, ranging from theological justifications, Marxist perspectives to evolutionary explanations. Let us, for now, assume that these systems were designed to bring a sense of order and regularity into the processes of human beings relating to one another in all aspects of life — be that work or leisure. Unfortunately, due to the human race’s volatile relationship with power, over time these systems and divisions turned hierarchical and oppressive — favouring and privileging one particular human group over another.

We can confirm this malady through a simple diagnosis — Are the various groups created by these systems relating to one another as inferior or superior in nature simply based on their collective identities? If this is the case, then we have no difficulty in asserting that we are a fundamentally flawed race that believes in subjugating, persecuting, enslaving, brutalizing, and massacring its own as the ultimate purpose of existence. (As for the horrors it has unleashed on other beings and Nature itself, let us not talk about those. I tend to think there is no argument; no scope for improvement left along those lines, except maybe to feel deep, heartfelt remorse at our moment of death as we look back at the pain this one human life has brought to Nature.)

Having determined thus, let us move on to a system which, as a proud radical feminist, I have no qualms about declaring as the “root of all evil”. A system that denigrates one half on the human race as the ‘Other’ just because of the differences in the reproductive functioning of their bodies. A system known in short as ‘patriarchy’ (pitr-sattah) or the ‘patriarchal system’ (purush-pradhan sanskriti) in which males who become ‘men’ are given the ultimate power over the rest of the company. I use the term ‘males who become men’ because according to patriarchal hierarchy, any person with a body that doesn’t have the phallus, along with any male who doesn’t display the normative masculinity, or who prefers other men, or who wants to be identified with other genders, is consigned to a rank lower than the ‘masculine’, ‘authoritarian’, ‘phallic’ or ‘patriarch’ male.

Let us not get into speculation about the origin of patriarchy, or even the reasons it has stuck around for ages. There is plenty of material available on that — from religious discourses to ideological debates. Let us instead talk about how patriarchy, in its current form, operates in the lives of human beings, especially the manner in which it permeates the most intimate and vulnerable of human relationships — family and sexuality.

Sociological theory states that the twin institutions of marriage and the family function in order to fulfil certain basic human needs. The need for companionship, sexual expression, sharing of economic and other resources, bearing offspring and socializing them are some of the needs fulfilled in a marriage/family. At a glance, these needs are not explicitly linked to patriarchy. But if we dig a little deeper and unearth the very foundations of these institutions, we will find patriarchal undercurrents flowing deep below the surface and nourishing them.

When we are born, one of the fundamental identities given to us along with our sex, parentage, religion, and caste, is a name. The name, like the rest of our ‘ascribed’ identities, isn’t chosen by us. Who chooses it then and how is it chosen? In some parts of India, a syllable is drawn up based on position of the planets and stars at the time of our birth, and a name beginning with that syllable is decided. Usually, the parents or the father’s family choose the name. Why not the mother’s? In India, most cultures (save for a few matrilineal societies in the North-East and down-South) are patrilineal. So, when a male child is born into this world, carrying genetic identities from two principle sets of ancestry in his DNA, he will only be identified with his father’s family. He will be ascribed the religious and caste identities of his father’s family and be expected to carry his father’s surname forward. (A female child, however, is ‘paraya dhan’ or ‘another’s wealth’; she too, will take her father’s name on birth, only to lose it and be merged into her husband’s upon marriage. One of the main reasons why sons are preferred over daughters across all the religious, caste and class spectrum of our country is because of this very fundamental patrilineal norm that gives a only the male child the right to ‘belong’ to his father’s family.)

But are we not born with one half of our DNA coming from our mother? Are we not born from her womb, because of the labour she undergoes during the ‘miracle’ of birth? Are we not raised on her breast, sucking the milk that her body produces? In that case, why are our mothers, and their ancestries, invisible from our most primary identity, the name?

In the institution of family, a woman’s traditional role is to be a vehicle that carries the man’s seed forward. The man sows, and so he reaps. The woman’s body is controlled and exploited by the man, first for the gratification of his sexual needs and then ‘harvested’ to bear him offspring (preferably a son) that will carry his name forward. I find this basic disparity repugnant and frightening for two reasons. First, because the loss of one’s name — one’s primary identity — can be calamitous for anyone, and yet women are taught to accept it, even look forward to it as part of their ‘fate’. Second, because this thought will never have to be suffered by a man! If one is born a male, one can keep his name without second thoughts, without doubt for the rest of his life, regardless of the number of times he gets married. This dichotomy exists even in current times of so-called empowerment. In fact, it frightens me even more when women, in the name of ‘empowerment’, make a conscious ‘choice’ to change their surnames, or get hyphenated surnames.

I want to make a point here about choice, and whether we, as a society, are really that free to choose as we imagine ourselves to be. When I buy a pink-coloured dress for myself, am I doing that out of my own agency of liking hence choosing the colour pink, or am I doing it because I’m a victim of the image politics around me that conditions me into liking hence choosing pink? Alternatively, when I, as a ‘feminist’, consciously make an effort not to choose pink, or cosmetics, or feminine embellishments of any kind, am I doing so out of my own agency or out of a compulsion to be faithful to the ‘kitsch’ of feminism? I have reached the conclusion that nothing today is free, and choice is an illusion invented by capitalism and the advertisement industry. And if that is the case, is having the freedom to ‘choose’ really a privilege/empowerment?

In my endeavour to understand the processes behind this ‘freedom of choice’, I spoke to women who, unlike most women in India, had a choice to keep their ‘maiden’ names, but chose instead to get their spouses’ surnames, or at the most, hyphenated ones. I wish to discuss here two of the most cited reasons for name changing. First, many women said they did it because it was ‘convenient’. Which is what patriarchy is all about, isn’t it? Convenience and social acceptability to those who keep inside the laxman-rekha (moral line) of conformity. But those who step out — they will be engulfed with shame, veiled as inconvenience. As someone with no surname and three first names (my own, and each of my parents’), I know a lot about inconvenience. From schoolteachers thinking my name was Anita (my mother’s name and my last name!) to Government bureaucrats refusing to pass my legal documents, I’ve experienced it all. There was a time when I got so irritated with my name I wanted to marry a nice-surnamed chap to change it once and for all.

To be honest, I’m scared of convenience. I’m scared of the complacency it brings, of the wall of comfort it builds around us. This wall isolates us from the rest of the world, making us apathetic to the world and to the interconnectedness of everything. When I ‘choose’, again, to travel in the less-crowded, more-expensive a/c compartment of a train, I do it for my convenience, because I am privileged with money that pays for my convenience, I fail to engage with and learn from the people who don’t have the same privilege as me. I know this; I understand the irony of saying “I want to work for people” and yet, being so used to convenience, still preferring not to be with the people! I prefer, instead, to feed the system of class segregation that I’m supposed to be fighting against. I prefer, instead, feed the selfish, non-egalitarian, convenience-seeking wolf inside me.

Another set of responses that I received was that women changed their surnames because they loved their husbands, and subsuming their identities into their spouse’s was their way of showing the love. To which my question is (apart from other heavily philosophical questions such as what is love, etc.), in order to show his wife that he loved her back, the husband would have to take her surname, right? Simple logic based upon the reciprocity of love. Also, if the woman did not change her surname, would it be assumed that she did not love her husband? And conversely, since the man would obviously how-can-you-even-make-this-statement-it-is-laughable not take his wife’s surname after marriage, did it imply that he did not love her at all? The same applies for hyphenation. Why does the woman always take two surnames, but why not her husband? The best thing to do in such a situation — i.e. the “we love each other and want a common name”— would be to forego both their surnames and invent fantastic new name that rings well with both first names. But ask any man to give up his surname and watch his response, would he agree heartily? In 90% of the men I asked, it was at best, a laughable suggestion, and at worst, hurt their ‘male ego’ that I could even suggest something like that.

In India, surnames often denote caste. Hence, to give up one’s surname is to eliminate one’s caste — something that is an intolerable prospect for many people. Caste as a tool for identity and cohesion is presently so strong in our country that uprooting it is the stuff of anarcho-commie dreams. But for me, it is an unjust system of oppression that has dehumanized entire communities and robbed them of their dignity simply because of the work they do. I find it almost ironic — religious scriptures telling us that all work is God’s work, and the same religion then debasing all those who clean other people’s dirt as ‘less than human’. I refuse to be identified with any caste, and refuse to identify and pigeonhole anyone else based on their caste. I used to think that I don’t have a surname would help in not being identified with a particular caste, but I realize that caste is so deep-rooted within me that it isn’t only about the surname I wear. My caste, rather, the kitsch of the caste I was raised in, is present in every part of me — the way I pronounce my syllables, the kind of food I eat, the attire I wear, the relationship I have with shit, and the amount of security I feel within myself. How do I then get rid of this layer of caste that has embedded so subtly, so deeply, within me, without scraping away bits of myself?

In the end, I realise it boils down to me. Patriarchy and casteism are not physical structures and institutions operating from some headquarters somewhere. They are systems of understanding that have been constructed within me, the frameworks and filters of how I perceive and interact with the world and myself. They are also what make me, me! And yet they are not me. I am bigger, better than these narrow slits of perception. But I have identified that my purpose, the meaning I make of my life, is to strip away these constructs from myself, just as chemotherapy or intensive surgery attacks and slices away the cancerous growth inside a body. The process is painful — inconvenient at most and unbearable at times. But I struggle. Because I want to be healthy again.