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To Change Or Not To Change Surname After Marriage?

Posted: February 7, 2017
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While changing surname after marriage is a matter of choice, it is reflective of prejudices, and values deeply rooted in the patriarchal norms.

The other day I was startled to hear someone making a sexist and casteist remark to me, “Aap janam se pundit hain ya shaadi karke bani hain?” (Are you Brahmin by birth or have become one after marriage). This was during a conversation where I was expressing my love for non-vegetarian food. I was filled with fury and utter disappointment but later quipped, “Pehle aap batayein – shaadi ke pehle bhi yahi haal tha yaa shaadi ke baad badal gaye hain?” (Have you changed after marriage or were you always like this?).

My surname duped him into believing that I am vegetarian by birth. However when he observed my eating habits not matching with the family I belong to, he explored further to understand where I had picked up such different habits from!

Living in total denial, some people have still not made peace with the fact that we live in 21st century where we all are free to make choices which suit our lives better. Also, this discussion made me ponder over two things; firstly a woman is still expected to pick up her partner’s surname after marriage. Secondly, a woman also becomes cultural ambassador of the family she gets married in. The norms for men are completely eased out as they are expected to be focusing on better dimensions of their lives like career and hobbies.

The marriage certificate issued by the Government of India certifies the relationship of two people who would want to live together on their own norms. The families and traditions are nowhere in picture. The custodians of the customary laws and traditions do not like it this way as it will not fulfil the norms of familial values and rituals. The cliché which Indian women often hear is ‘you marry a family’. This old adage, which must have been quoted in good sense to create harmony in the family is a sexually skewed statement. No man ever hears that ‘he marries a family’.

With the evolution of formal laws, many of the customary redundant traditions are practised to keep the fun angle in the marriage or simply to get the family together for a function. With the court marriage (registration) being mandatory, the customary rituals have already started losing their sheen. However, custodians of traditions may not want it to be the case.

From changing surnames to pressurising the woman to become the cultural ambassador of the tradition of her husband’s family, a woman is suddenly being burdened with numerous responsibilities. So much so, that it means changing their identities, changing cities and giving up on their careers.

The increasing number of nameplates in the houses with individual names written on them is a very heartening and welcome change for me. However you do see eyebrows raised when a distant relative or a nosy neighbour visits you. For instance, when I put a nameplate with my first name and my partner’s first name at the entrance of my flat, someone doubted if I am married. They actually thought we are in a live in relationship. The law gives you the right but to make a law custom requires a very long time.

Sushma (name changed), a 32 year old working professional decided to take her husband’s name after marriage. She says that ‘not taking husband’s surname’ may have some legal implications when you want to get visas or have children. To confirm what she said, I did some research of my own. No law even mandates that children should have ‘father’s name’ as the middle name either. Father’s name and surname is used because that is the prevailing custom. You are free to use your name and maiden surname for your child.

As I am often accused of being intolerant to some non-feminist choices people make, I kept quiet in front of Sushma. However, I get utterly disappointed to see that women make certain choices due to lack of information or misleading information. If any official asks you to do so, you can ask them to give that to you in writing. If they don’t, please refrain from believing them.

With the advent of social media, the trend of adding surnames in hyphenated manner is in vogue. The time when the prospective bride starts preparation for their marriage, the details of every activity is posted in a status update. Facebook, the poor person’s PR agency, helps in reaching out to people who you might not even know! When a woman changes her surname on Facebook, she makes a formal public declaration of being unavailable for relationships and giving reassurance to husband’s family that she is happy being the part of the family. It is more like moving into husband’s household rather than starting a new household with husband which is usually the case in modern day marriages.

If you read about the roots of the custom of taking surnames, it came with the advent of the Neolithic agrarian revolution. It was during this time that human beings started having settled life centred on agriculture.  A woman would usually move to the husband’s household and become the part of the household rather than starting a new household with her husband. This was to prevent the division of landholdings amongst siblings (brothers, to be precise) to reduce the cost of cultivation.

The majority of us have us have bid goodbye to the agrarian pattern of living but the ossified cultural norm is still sticking to us. While laws are making our lives simpler, we adamantly carry on with the traditions. The result is perpetrating another redundant tradition. Why put in so much thinking if this is the way it has always been done? The answer lies in the fact that many women decided to put in thinking, and that is how lives of women got better in the 21st century.

Many people claim that marriage is about unity so having one surname is mandatory. If it is about unity why do we have such limited examples of men changing their surnames? It is only in the case of some of my friends from Germany, that I have observed that men have taken surname of women after marriage. A unity should be sought on equal partnership. As long as woman are comfortable with remaining ‘better halves’ and never ‘full individuals’ on their own, they will not be in a healthy unified institutions.

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Priya Tripathi

Priya Tripathi

Priya Tripathi identifies herself as a feminist, bibliophile, survivor and a runner. She believes her upbringing in small town in a highly patriarchal set up has been a blessing in disguise. It helped her to develop perspective on the issues and to make best use of the opportunities she got later in life. She believes women need to develop their own narrative and share their personal stories to mark their presence in the world. Writing about running, patriarchy and Child sexual abuse are cathartic experience for her.

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