Why is it that the burden of name change is laid on the shoulders of women alone, when they get married or divorced?

Last month, divorced women in India must have been startled to read a news item in a leading English language daily newspaper. It stated that the Bombay High Court had ruled that divorced women could not use their former husbands' surnames. The “ruling”, apparently, was in response to an appeal filed by a woman against a judgment in the Family Court in a case filed by her former husband. The judge had restrained the woman from using her former husband's name stating, “By using the ex-husband's name, or surname, there is always a possibility of people being misled that she is still the wife, when in fact she is not.”

The item caught my eye and I decided to check with a well-known lawyer whether there was any provision in law under which a court could give such a ruling. Did it in fact apply to all divorced women, as the story seemed to suggest, or was it just a judgment in a particular case? I was told that in fact the court had not given a “ruling” and that a single judge had merely upheld the judgment of the lower court in this particular matter. This did not mean that it applied to all divorced women. In fact, she pointed out, there could be no such ruling as people were entitled to take a name of their choice and could at anytime change their names simply by filing an affidavit.

Questioning a convention

The story, despite its inaccuracy, has triggered off a debate on whether women should change their names when they get married, and whether they should revert to their maiden names when they get divorced.

Last year, before the general election, actor Sanjay Dutt kicked off a similar controversy when he suggested that married women should adopt their husbands' surnames. He was clearly peeved that his sister, Congress MP Priya Dutt, continued to use her maiden name — which also established that her father was Sunil Dutt — instead of her married name. He was clearly not so worried about her violating a tradition as the political advantage she gained from maintaining her maiden name.

In India, not only are women automatically expected to adopt their husband's surname when they get married, but in some communities, as in Maharashtra, they are also expected to change their first names. As a result, once married, their identity changes completely. It is almost as if getting married also means wiping off your previous identity and completely subsuming yourself in one chosen by your husband and his family.

Politics of identity

Although the overwhelming majority of Indian women automatically follow the custom of adopting their husband's surname, increasingly some of them are asking why this should be so. What does the institution of marriage have to do with your name? Are you any less married if you adhere to the name you were given by your parents? Are you any less your husband's wife if your surname is that of your father? Is not love and understanding more important than unquestioned tradition? Should the choice not be left to the woman rather than being an imposition, one that she might not want?

Professional women, for instance, who marry after they have already established themselves, much prefer to stick to their maiden names. On the other hand, there are many women who marry young and get established in their professions after marriage. As a result, their professional identity is based on their married name, that is, if they have chosen to take their husband's surname. If such women get divorced, what sense does it make for them to revert to their maiden names? In other words, the issue is not so much whether women take their husband's surnames or not after marriage but that they should have the freedom to decide.

And why is it that the burden of name change is put on the shoulders of women alone? After women get married, if they choose or are compelled to adopt their husband's surname, they have to change all their names on their passports, bank accounts, driving licence, etc. It is not surprising then that only around two per cent of divorced women revert to their maiden names after divorce. This is not because they want to misuse their former position as being married to a particular person, or to appear to be married to him, but because it is just too much trouble. And in any case, they also want to remain connected to their children who have the same surname.

Perhaps in the long term, it would be simpler for women to hold on to their maiden names whether they marry or not, and whether they get divorced or remain married. This is not such a radical suggestion as it might sound. Even in very conservative societies, such as Iran for instance, women do not change their names when they get married.

Markers of belonging

In the past, the issue of surnames has often been subject of debate in many social movements. In the 1970s for instance, many young people who were part of the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan, chose to drop their surnames because they felt that these identified them as belonging to a particular caste. As one of their principal struggles was against the institution of caste, they felt they should start the trend of dropping surnames altogether. When they got married, their names remained unchanged. Neither the man nor the woman had to worry about a surname. In South India in any case the issue of surnames often does not arise as people use initials.

Surnames are just an instrument for ascertaining family lineage in a patriarchal society. In modern societies, where marriages are registered and courts rule on divorces, why should the last name of a woman matter on issues of succession? Fortunately, some of the bureaucratic hurdles before married women maintaining their maiden names are now being removed and it is a little easier to get a passport, for instance, with your maiden name even if you are married. Schools in Maharashtra now accept the mother's name as the guardian of a child, something they did not do earlier where only the father's name could be entered.

Such changes in rules are important. But the controversy over surnames essentially illustrates the mindset that lays down that a woman's own identity must be submerged in that of her husband's once she marries. Women, married or unmarried, divorced or widowed, are equal human beings, with the same rights as men. Surely this should be reflected in the institution of marriage.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com