Few months back, American model and author Chrissy Teigen, who although married chooses to use her maiden name, retorted to a tweet which had been making rounds since last summer.
“I’d really like to hear the reasoning behind women who won’t take their husband’s last name,”
the original tweet had read, prompting the 32-year-old model to reply first by saying that, “my husband didn’t even take his last name?”, referring to the stage name her husband, John Legend,prefers instead of his surname. But the real answer came moments later.
“You’ll never understand the simple reason of ‘because I don’t want to’?”,
was Teigen’s tweet.
The twitter storm in a teacup reflected a woman’s struggle to maintain her identity and overcome age old traditions in the 21st century. Since a long time, women the world over have adopted the practice of giving up their maiden name –name given at birth, to carry a married name, either the first name or the surname of her husband. In the past, a woman in England would assume her husband’s family name, usually compelled to do so under coverture law – a legal doctrine whereby, upon marriage, a woman’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband. However, such laws were challenged in the West by feminist and suffrage movements.
In the 19th century, American suffragist and abolitionist Lucy Stone made a national issue of a married woman’s right to keep her own surname. More than a century later, in 1921 The Lucy Stone League challenged in federal court any government edict that would not recognise a married woman by the name she chose to use. A number of cases as late as until the 1970s have been fought in US courts over a woman’s right to vote, hold a passport and purchase property using her birth name instead of husband’s name and after bitter rows, women indeed, emerged victorious. However, the tussle remains even today.
In 2011, a survey in the United States found that two-thirds of people believed women should taking husband’s name, in part because of the naming of future children. Another survey polling 19,000 women married in 2010 had found only 8 percent maintained their maiden name. Despite no legal binding and increased freedom to take major decisions, women in the West are still either sentimental or cultural about their names.
The tradition essentially having its roots in legalities has become a cultural compulsion also in the East. In fact women are frowned upon if they refuse to change their names. In Pakistan, it is mostly considered a norm and understood that a woman would switch to her husband’s or her husband’s family surname after her wedding. Since women have been nurtured on the belief that their ‘real’ home is the one where she lives after getting married and that she becomes the responsibility, if not the property of her husband, it is expected that she would carry on his name. Some, however, have started questioning the practice.
Rabia Sadaf, a freelancer based in Karachi chose not to change her name after getting married. But despite 5 years into marriage and being a mother, her decision remains shaky.
“I am still doubtful of my own intention of not changing my name in spite of my husband’s displeasure and uncontrollable anger. But yes few ahadith (sayings by Prophet Muhammad pbuh) made me do so,”
‘I am still doubtful because convincing the man is the hardest part. There’s always an emotional string attached in this relation”,
As per Islamic traditions, a person’s name is always linked to his or her father’s name. This is the reason the companions of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) continued to associate their names with their fathers’, even after converting to Islam. It is pertinent to note that even Muhammad (pbuh)’s wives never linked their names to the Prophet. Their names were connected to their fathers with the help of binte, meaning ‘daughter of’ in Arabic. Some Muslims believe so strictly in the tradition of maintaining one’s lineage name after marriage that they consider it haram (unlawful) to change names, after marriage or for any other reason.
So if there is no binding in Islam for a woman to change her name after marriage, where did the tradition emerge in Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim majority country? The answer lies probably in the fact that we still remain under the influence of the British, being a colonial state in the past.
The other influence which may have rubbed off is from Hinduism, the dominant religion in pre-partition subcontinent. In India today, no law requires women to change their names after they get married, but social convention is a law unto itself. In most upper caste Hindu communities, women change their second names after they get married. In some caste groups, even first names are changed.
But now even in India, research reveals that debates are stirring as to why there is a need for a woman to change her name? Following modern trends and an increase in literacy as well as awareness of rights, more women in the country are entering mainstream and are career oriented. Naturally, they have also become more independent, personally as well as financially. They feel that since they want to be more in control of their own a life, changing their identity does not make any sense.
Here, the opinion of mostly educated women in India’s next neighbour, Pakistan seems to match. Sadaf Shahzad, a Lahore based content writer has no plans of changing her name after getting married. “This is just one of those things women are told they should do, so they do it which I think is really unwise,” says Sadaf. “I most certainly would feel a loss of identity. Most people are not in love before marriage. So basically it’s presented as a compulsion”.
Those who agree with Shahzad believe that if names of women are changed when married, their identity changes completely. To them, it means wiping off your previous identity and completely subsuming yourself in one chosen by your husband and his family. Keeping back their father’s name also secures an emotional attachment to their family of origin. They also do not like to get into the hassle of unnecessary and timely paperwork which is involved in changing names in all official documents.
Those who advocate in favour, believe that changing names to that of her husband secures a woman in many legal situations, such as inheritance. Contrary to common practice, many think that it is actually a legal requirement. In conservative setups, proclaiming not to change her name is avoided by girls, no matter how much a desire there is for it, for fear of losing a prospective proposal or annoying the would-be-in laws. Also, some women find the act rather romantic, showing attachment and love by taking husband’s name.
Whatever the case, the argument boils down to the same conclusion: why isn’t this choice left to be made at the discretion of the woman herself? Parents’ pressure, peer pressure, husband and –in law’s pressure result in either a half hearted decision or an unnecessarily rebellious attitude.
More importantly, why force a decision which has no roots in religion, not even in the law? Following custom simply because ‘it’s the way of the family’ is not reason enough. If a woman chooses to maintain her identity,and is not taking husband’s name; she should be allowed to do so. And if she chooses, willingly, to submit to that of her life partner, her decision should be honoured. If a woman has no choice over her identity, what could be worse?
The article is contributed by Shabana Mahfooz; A Broadcast Journalist and freelance writer. She writes on issues related to women, religion, society and current affairs.