Women the world over have started hanging on to their maiden names post-wedlock. Most of them often hyphenate their maiden names with their husband’s family name. Aishwarya Rai has become Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit has suffixed a little ‘Nene’ to her name. I am not accrediting the emerging trend to the women of Bollywood, but they are the most obvious examples that come to my mind. The celebrity status of these women ensures that they have a mass appeal which creates a domino effect upon the society that looks up to them.
The practice of hyphenation is certainly being heralded as progressive, egalitarian, and representative of a breed of modern women with strong identities which they are not reluctant to flaunt. Looks like the patriarchal society has finally given married women the luxury to hold on to the name they’ve always identified with. The practice works somewhat like this – when Ms. X and Mr. Y get married, Ms. X can simply add on her husband’s name to her maiden name. Everyone is pleased with the effect and the apparent equality of it all. In fact, it is so equitable that Ms. X morphs her name into Mrs. X-Y, but Mr. Y continues to remain Mr. Y. We don’t see him becoming Mr. Y-X, and we certainly don’t see Mr. Abhishek Bachchan lovingly add ‘Rai’ to his name. It’s hard to miss the irony in the equation here – while marriage is the union of two people who want to spend the rest of their lives together, only one of them represents this union in nomenclature. I’d be erring if I don’t mention that there are examples of marriages where both the wife and the husband proceed with their names remaining unchanged. No one gets into the mess of hyphenating or suffixing. This seems like a clean and practical solution to the patriarchal bias towards the man’s family name.
Coming back to Ms. X and Mr. Y, they continue to live happily (married) ever after. Let’s assume Ms. X and Mr. Y have a child. Their dear friend patriarchy is only too eager to be a part of the child’s naming ceremony. The child is automatically given his father’s family name and becomes Jr. Y. Whatever happened to the family name of Ms. X, the mother of the child, who is as equally involved (if not more) in parenting the child as the father is? In a marriage where both the parents don’t have a homogenous last name, would it be fair to instinctively ignore the mother’s maiden name and give the child the father’s name? Clearly not. Our so-called liberal thinking tends to stop at the point of marriage, and falls short of looking into the future. While step 1 is successfully completed, the progress is scuttled right there and does not proceed to step 2. We may have a few Eric Claptons in the world, who proudly hang on to their mother’s maiden name, but they are certainly outnumbered by the rest of us who perpetuate patriarchy.
Patriarchal traditions carry on unquestioned for generations because people are afraid of change. Humans would rather maintain status quo, even if they are aware that it is not the fairest situation, than be revolutionary. We are afraid to question existing norms and justify our fears under the excuse that if it’s been done for so many generations, it has to be the right method. Then there are those who would love to see an equal world for women and men, but will not themselves pioneer the change. A system, and more importantly a society, can change only if every individual decides to take a step towards making it happen. I have already taken my first step, and proudly suffix both my mother’s and father’s family names to my first name. My next step is to spread awareness in whichever practical manner I can.
I want to simply get people thinking about these issues. By putting forward my thoughts, I don’t aim to influence or coerce people into believing that my way of thinking is the right way or that every woman should hang on to her maiden name and replicate it in her child’s name. As much as I am of the opinion that this is the way for me to be, I must clarify that I am as open and respectful to the next woman who chooses to adopt her husband’s name or let go of her maiden name.
My problem is not with women taking their husband’s names, and we can see that some of the most educated and modern women like Amal Clooney (previously known as Amal Alamuddin) are choosing to do so too. My problem only lies with the patriarchal norm of imposing the husband’s name on the wife and the father’s name on the child. If this weren’t an imposition and the woman was given the freedom to take her pick, then the system would have been fairer.
Husband’s name or maiden name, mother’s name or father’s name, family name or random name, an individual’s name is something very personal, and best left to the individual’s preference rather than to the society’s diktats.
This article was originally published on the author’s personal blog.