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India’s Laws Do Not Require Women To Change Name After Marriage; Why Do Officials Insist?

Posted: December 14, 2020

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If it isn’t too much of a problem, I would like to not change name after marriage or add my husband’s or father’s name to it.

Clearly; Shakespeare wasn’t prescient enough to predict what trickery names are capable of in our country.

As I stood in a dank, dingy office last week, ready to sign off on some important paper, the gentleman across the table wagged a finger at my handiwork. ‘Please write full name.’

I was perplexed and checked the paper, knowing fully well that for all my forgetfulness, I was at least capable of remembering my name. I tried to assure him, producing all my documents with my maiden name, but he shook his head. ‘Then write your husband’s name as your middle name. And write your father’s middle name before marriage.’ No amount of arguing or explaining could alter his stance on the matter.

Now somewhere in a pan stained office, lies a weighty document signed by (Before marriage) Richa Hari Om Kumar Shrivastava / (Post marriage) Richa Anirban Mukherjee Shrivastava. Phew! (And in the process I seem to have given my husband a new surname.)

Why are we so officious about women’s names?

Why are we so obsessed with changing names and being nomenclature pedants? An exercise that was once rooted in convenience and practicalities has taken on a different, coercive hue, with societal conventions and beliefs joining the party.

While in some communities, the girl must bid farewell to her surname, in others, her entire identity undergoes an overhaul with her first name being changed as well. I still remember trying very hard to wrap my tongue around the names of some friends who acquired new names post marriage. Let’s just say a lot of wrong emails and physical deliveries were also made in the bargain.

While I’ve always been an advocate of moderation and finding a healthy balance between the old and the new, one can’t help but wonder about the mental ramifications of being made to change your identity in this way, for the sake of convention, for acceptance.

Robbing women of their right to choose

I read a poll somewhere on a website that a large percentage of Indian women did not even know that no law of our country mandates changing your name or taking your husband’s name post marriage. People prefer to have sons who will help ‘take the family name forward’ because society still makes women change their names.

Ironical isn’t it? On one hand society delineates and defines strict frameworks within which women must operate, and then labels and ostracises them for being unable to become flag bearers for their families. In some cases, religions forbid women from taking their husbands name if they are from another community, as the resulting next generation will be severed from their roots.

In all these cases, the common factor is robbing a woman of the right to choose. While there are matriarchal communities in the South and East (India), and of course the free will of the few who are disinclined to conform, these are exceptions to a transition that has now been accepted as a practice.

Do we have to change name after marriage only in India?

This obsession goes beyond our borders.

Historically, women in the US also take their husbands names though in the last few decades the tides are changing, with more women opting to keep their maiden names. Closer to home, even in Malaysia and Korea, it isn’t uncommon for women to keep their maiden names.

In the midst of this, a breath of fresh air is the knowledge that in Netherlands and especially France, it’s against the law to change your name after marriage or force a woman to do it, as it undermines gender equality and the right of choice.

Throw away this ‘need’ to change name after marriage

This isn’t a war between men vs women, because I believe there are far more important and urgent battles being fought under that endeavour. It is in fact a trivial and frivolous pursuit, bubbling at the confluence of convenience, rigidity, inertia to change and the age old ghisa pita – ‘samaaj mein aise hi chalta aa raha hai.’ (You need to do this if you want to stay in the community).

I suspect that a large percentage of (at least urban) men feel very neutral on the matter and would be happy let women have their names, their identities. What then, is stopping us from changing an archaic law that leads to delays, creates unnecessary nuisance and procedural logjams, stifles the fundamentals of the freedom to choose and rechristens people against their will?!

I would like to be able to tell my daughter that she should happily take both our names if she chooses to, without being reduced to a daughter of or the wife of on public documents.

First published here.

Image source: shutterstock

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After chasing criminals as a journalist and spending over a decade in advertising, Richa penned

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