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Did older women who didn’t change their names at marriage face issues for this ‘radical act’, something that is common among younger married women?
A few weeks ago, I received a friend request from someone whose face looked familiar but with a name that definitely was not. I ignored it till a message came my way.
‘Hi dear,’ it read. ‘You probably did not recognize me with the new name I got after my marriage but I am your old friend – Anita*. (“Name changed to protect privacy.)
It turned out to be someone I had gone to college with quite a few years ago. She had changed not just her surname, but also her first name. As someone who has not changed any bit of her name despite being married for almost twelve years, I found this interesting. When I asked her what prompted her to change everything, she told me that it was tradition and that it was just easier to create government documents from scratch rather than change existing ones.
Interesting logic but did this actually hold true? Though more and more women choosing not to take on their husband’s name in today’s day and age is commonplace, was this choice by today’s older women retaining their name or surname seen as a radical act a decade or more ago? Did their choice, one that many would see as ‘unconventional’ lead to challenges and bureaucratic red tape along the way?
I spoke to several urban women from the middle and upper middle class strata of society to get their unvarnished perspective.
Dilpreet Kaur Dua, a 35-year-old content creator
“To be very honest it happened purely on an urgent basis as I ran around trying to get my passport renewed after my wedding. I included my husband’s name in it but the process for changing my last name was a cumbersome one, and I did not have the patience to do it,” says Dilpreet.
Dilpreet says she was exposed to judgement as well as commendation.
“The decision was solely mine but the taunts that followed in that oh so subtle manner were not. ‘It wasn’t like this in our time.’ ‘Kids these days you can’t say anything to them, but your sister-in-law did it so why can’t you?’ I have also heard about the other side of it – my brother’s wife uses me as an example of why she doesn’t want to change her name.”
Dilpreet says her children have not been affected by the different surnames.
“It’s a funny story because if you sit down and look at our passports as a family of four we all have 4 different last names and spellings and it makes you wonder if we belong to the same family. But I like sharing our story about the last names with all.”
Vandana Krishnan, a 36-year-old TV executive
“I chose to retain my name because that is what makes me who I am. I’ve lived with this all my life and going by another surname was not something that I felt was authentic to me,” says Vandana Krishnan.
She says she has not faced any specific challenges, however the prospect of international travel always makes her second guess herself.
“In a lighter vein, whenever we stand at immigration during our international travel I often wonder if we would be seen as one unit! There is this tiny niggle of worry about being asked to prove that I’m indeed married to this man because I’ve chosen to keep my name. Just to keep that anxiety at bay, I keep a scan of our marriage certificate on my phone.”
Vandana says that she did not face any resistance as a result of her decision. “My mother-in-law was very happy because she herself (aged 60 and who got married in the 80s in Kerala) goes by her maiden name.”
Sukanya Koderi, a 57-year-old homemaker
Sukanya Koderi, from Bangalore, never changed her name either. When asked why she says, “it was not a mandate to change the name post wedding. Also, I had all my certificates in my maiden name. If I had to change my name, I would have to undergo a long procedure which I was not inclined to.” Though Sukanya is from a generation that one generally associates with as one that would ask a married woman to take her husband’s last name, Sukanya says that she never faced any such requests.
“As a matter of fact, changing names was not a protocol/ procedure that was followed in my first circle of family and friends back then.”
Both her daughters have Sukanya’s husband’s initials in their names.
“Had I known then, I would have made sure to add my initials as well to their names,” she concludes.
Vinutha Boyapally, a 60-year-old Assistant Principal
60-year-old Assistant Principal Vinutha Boyapally echoes Sukanya’s experience. “I married after completing my bachelors degree. All my degrees had my maiden name. There was no government order which needed my name to be changed after marriage. If I wanted to change my name, I would have needed to go to the court. My husband and in-laws never insisted on changing my name. Hence it stayed the same.”
She also says she never faced any challenges adding that, “there are many other married teachers who didn’t change their names either.”
Dwiteya Backianathan, a 36-year-old IT professional
For Dwiteya Backianathan, the choice to retain her name was an intentional one. “It initially was an ego-thing. I felt like my name was tied to all MY achievements and not a part of somebody else. I also wanted to honor my father for the fantastic life he gave a ‘second girl child’ in conservative India. I know a lot of my friends back then were told to be pretty and be marriage-ready and nothing else. My father never treated me like a boy, but instead treated me like a ‘person’ who needed to learn driving, swimming, cooking, paying bills, understanding investments, and so much more as a life-skill.
As you can also tell, my name is pretty unique and I have not come across anyone with my name. It’s a great conversation starter and people remember me which works for a ‘selective’ introvert like me.”
Dwiteya says that she did not face any opposition to her decision. “I’ve known my husband all my life. It wasn’t even something we discussed. The only thing I was insistent on was having my surname as a part of my children’s identity as well. So, today, both my children have my last name as their middle name.’
She does run into the occasional bureaucratic challenge though. “I have had to correct multiple people when they call me ‘Mrs. Backianathan’. That is my mother and not me. When I got my passport renewed around my 30th birthday, the passport office told me directly that I’d need an affidavit to change my name. When I told him, I had no intentions of changing my name and that he could go ahead and renew my passport with no changes, he was appalled. He went all ‘Indian uncle’ on me and told me it would be nice to have the same surname as my husband and children and that after marriage, I had to accept everything my husband offers, including his name.
As for children, I wanted my kids to have my last name, which shocked a lot of family, but I stand by my decision. I birthed them and I want to have a role to play in their identity.”
Dwiteya is not bothered by the assumption that married women need to take their husband’s surname.
“Frankly, I don’t really give a damn about other people’s opinions. My husband, who I think is the only one qualified to comment on this, had no problems, so I didn’t think it was anyone’s business. I love my husband, I love my children, and I know that we have an authentic relationship and a beautiful life, and no surname would change that fact!”
Shivani Rawat, a 46 year-old-journalist
Shivani, who hails from New Delhi agrees with what Dwiteya said above. “I feel very strongly about a woman having to change her name post-marriage as if her whole life/identity before marriage meant nothing! It reeks of patriarchy. If the idea of a man changing his name after marriage sounds absurd, then so should be the case with the woman.
Thankfully, the world is changing and nowadays many young women prefer to add their husbands’ surnames to their maiden names. This may make their names long and unwieldy, but hey, it is all about asserting one’e identity. In the case of children’s names too, I think it would be great if their names reflect the heritage of both parents.”
She talks about how there were multiple reasons why she chose to retain her own name. “At the time of my marriage, I was a television anchor with a news and current affairs broadcaster. So, I had an identity and was known to the people by my maiden name. Secondly, I thought it was too much work changing the name on my bank account, passport, election identity card, etc. Thirdly, since my husband doesn’t use a surname, we were a bit lost as to what name I should take.”
Shivani says that she did not face a lot of bureaucratic challenges, “since we got each other’s names endorsed on our passports early. So, there have been no issues travelling abroad with our children. Interestingly, our marriage is not even registered and there has been no need to prove it anywhere, so far. The only bit of bureaucracy we came across was when my husband applied for a supplementary American Express card. The company pointed out that my surname was different! But they relented soon after.”
Denise Gatphoh, a 47-year-old homemaker
Denise Gatphoh retained her surname, as that is the norm in her part of the country.
“I belong to a matrilineal tribe in North East India. As women, we take our mothers’ surnames.” When asked if she ever faced resistance on her choice, she says, ‘‘Not really, except having to explain to some curious members of my husband’s family, from North India.’
“I have been asked a couple of times at airports in India, why my children and I do not have the same last name but my explanation has been all that has been required,” she adds.
Aruna Viswadoss, a 52 year old writer, yoga teacher, jewellery maker
52-year-old Aruna Viswadoss says, “I was about to leave India after getting married, and applying to graduate school. It didn’t feel right to change my name and navigate a new nominal identity. Moreover, my husband’s last name was his dad’s first name and mine was my dad’s first name, as is the adopted convention in some communities in India. Converting my last name to his dad’s first name was a no-no. Taking on my husband’s first name as my last name made no sense. In any way I could think of, sticking to my original last name seemed to be the only natural and sensible option.”
She says she did have to face some judgement, though. “My father-in-law made a mention once about ‘how children these days act as if they are unmarried by keeping their original surnames’, but when I explained that there may be bureaucratic problems in the US with so many changes, he said nothing. A few other people in the family and friends’ circles felt the need to delve into my rationale for not changing names. ‘The name I currently have is good enough for one lifetime!’ I responded time and time again. No major issues or resistance. Just an inner eye-rolling judgement.’
Aruna faced no challenges in the US where she and her husband have filed taxes for years as a married couple with different last names.
“However, when we lived in the Philippines for 9 years, and decided to adopt the first of our Filipino foster children, the one who is now legally our daughter, my husband and I encountered a few hiccups due to our differing last names. It meant additional paperwork, a few additional trips to India and to some government offices there.”
Jaya Narayan, a 46-year-old expressive arts therapist
Jaya Narayan says, “It was never a question in my mind. My surname (father’s name) was a significant part of my personal identity and has always been. The decision to marry was to add to my being and not a choice to take away from it.”
“There have not been any major challenges except people just assuming that my surname is the same as my husband’s. I would think it is an assumption in any patriarchal culture.”
Jaya is quite intrigued to hear that people could actually face challenges because they simply retained their name.
“In fact, I would consider it to be the opposite since all the past educational and work certificates are in the maiden surname, changing it after marriage would be a nightmare.”
Swethambari Ravishankar, a Tax Analyst and Portfolio Consultant
Swethambari Ravishankar tells me how retaining her name led to some frustrating challenges. “While applying for a birth certificate for my daughter, the clerk at the Registrar’s office did not initially accept my application as my child and I did not have the same last name. He even asked me if my child was born to my first husband and I was remarried. I had to explain to him that this was my maiden name.
While applying for a ration card, the officer in charge flat out refused to print my maiden name. According to him, ‘it was against the rules.’ In both instances, I had to first explain that I retained my maiden name by choice. I was subject to ridicule in both instances and then had to endure advice regarding the sanctity of including the husband’s name post-wedding.”
“I chose to carry my maiden name post marriage for the simple reason that my father is still my father post marriage. I was not going to ditch his name simply because I got married,” she says.
A sentiment that one hopes is echoed, as is the innate principle of letting a woman’s choice being respected, no matter what that choice is.
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Shweta Ganesh Kumar is a Novelist, Award-winning Blogger and Founder-Editor of The Times
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