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Identity Crisis: Should a woman change her surname after marriage?

My earliest memories of when I started identifying with my name go way back to whenever somebody asked me my name as a kid. I’d say the whole excruciatingly long name that I have, surname and all, “Farahnaz Badruddin Zahidi”. That name told me who I was! I adored labeling my school books. Once I became a journalist, I took pride, and still do, in seeing my name as a byline with my articles.

Though the man I married gave me my space and was not threatened by me preserving my identity, it was my own choice to include his name with my name.

But years later, I wonder why I decided to change my surname in the first place when there was no coercion. Simply because I was conditioned to do so as in our society, a woman’s surname changes! As a writer, very consciously,  my paternal family name remains my identity. This is who I am, and I cannot pull the plug on that.

I never gave it much thought. I may never have thought about this carefully if, during a casual chit chat, a young, educated man wouldn’t have flown off the handle when his wife merely suggested that she would have loved to retain her father’s name as her surname.

The discussions that ensued revealed interesting results.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim, renowned journalist, says, “I never gave it a thought at the time I was getting married. But today, practically I think it is a better idea to retain your father’s name as your surname as what if a woman’s marriage does not work out? There is increasing awareness about this as well as many other issues; women are re-thinking. Personally, as long as I am given respect as a wife, and space as an individual, it does not matter to me.”

The sense of personal identity and uniqueness that a name gives us is at the heart of why names interest us and why they are important to us as individuals. Freud recognized that the relationship between name and identity is so strong that the misrepresentation of a name amounts to a misrepresentation of the person. Freud saw psychological meaning in the accidental distortion of a person’s name. While the sudden change in surname is not the distortion of a name, many women confess that it initially takes years to get used to a new surname.

When asked why women changed their surnames on getting married, the common answers were:

  • Cultural norms
  • Never thought about it
  • Fear of upsetting husband or in-laws
  • Never thought there was another way around
  • Romantic ideas. Some women felt they “had been waiting all their lives to get married and change their surname”
  • Legal reasons, as it can be complicated if your kids bear their dad’s (and in many cases, their grand dad’s name!) as their surname on their passport and you don’t have the same surname
  • If In-laws are a more socially elite family, it lends pride to the woman to link that name with her name
  • The name simply “sounded better” with the husband’s name

A study conducted by the University of Florida reveals that, “Adopting a husband’s last name remains an entrenched tradition that is on the upswing, despite a temporary blip in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s where many young women tended to want to hold on to their birth names.” This was said by UF linguistics professor Diana Boxer, who led a series of studies. “I think it reflects how men’s power continues to influence American society despite the fact that women have made great advances economically and socially. People say ‘It’s only a name, what’s in a name?’ Well, we think there’s a lot in a name,” she said. “Linguistic symbols tell us how people are treated in society.”

The practice of women automatically taking their husband’s surnames was first challenged in the West in mid-19th century by abolitionist Lucy Stone. From then on, women who retained their birth names after marriage came to be called “Lucy Stoners,” with negative connotations. “In a 1997 study of more than 10,000 Midwesterners, men thought women who kept their surnames were more likely to work outside the home, less likely to enjoy cooking, less likely to attend church and – this is the clincher – less likely to make good wives,” Boxer said.

Many cultures are more accepting. In rural Pakistan, women retain their birth names unless they need to request a government document, while in Norway children automatically receive the mother’s name unless a couple tells authorities otherwise.

Cross cultural perspectives differ on this issue. But what about religious viewpoints? Historically, it is a proven fact that the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) as well as his daughters, retained their father’s names. According to many Islamic scholars, in Islamic sharee’ah it is not permissible for a woman to change her surname because it is forbidden for anyone to claim to belong to anyone other than his or her father. (Ref: Islam Q&A, Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid). Chapter 33, verse 5 of the Quran points in this direction too.

Ayesha Amin Usman is one of the growing number of women who have “2” surnames, says, “I feel the surname is important regardless of gender. The husband is never asked to change his surname upon marriage and neither should the girl, particularly since our religion does not oblige us to do so. I am fortunate that Usman left the decision to me. Retaining one’s surname is a way of honoring one’s own lineage. Adding my husband’s name as a suffix was my way of accepting a new person, a new family and a new home. For me it is about a sense of belonging to both the new and old. Retaining my family name also helped in avoiding confusions across professional and social networks.”

Trying to get an opinion from both the Yin and the Yang, we asked Ayesha’s husband Usman, who says, “I left it totally up to my wife to continue with whatever name she chose. Unlike many men in our society I don’t feel the need to impose a sense of belonging or dominance upon the wife by forcing her to adopt the husband’s name. She is the one whose life changes drastically and it should be up to her to figure out the name equation – add, subtract or multiply.”

However not everyone felt that way. Khurram Ahmed Amin, 40, felt that, “till she gets married, a girl has enjoyed her father’s name as her surname. After that, it’s the husband’s turn.”

Moving across this age board, we questioned Iqra Moazzam, a teenager and my daughter, who has obvious clarity about the issue. “You should retain your own name, and that’s what I would do. At the most, add your husband’s name as a suffix, but retain your original surname too.”

Certain questions remain so pivotal that we need to, at times, take a step back and think beyond the done thing. Once we re-think, any decision we take about the “self” without pressure will be the correct one, and our surname is one of those decisions.

This was originally published in Dawn Sunday magazine.