What’s in a Name?

As the bearer of a rather uncommon name and an even rarer surname, people would often ask how I came to have such a unique name. To this, I would respond, “My family rather liked the eponymous actress,” and leave it at that.

However, one day, I asked my parents the same question. I still remember how my mother hesitated for a moment before answering, “Well it was your father’s decision. He named your sister too.”

There was something in that pause.

“What about you?” I wondered.

Irritated, she said, “What about me? You have a name and it’s not bad. More importantly, it’s official, so deal with it.”

My father shrugged in response. Clearly, the question had never occurred to him.

A name. A small but important marker of identity. For most Indian women, it is a badge of ownership – first of her father, then of her husband. I wonder why even educated Indian families don’t hesitate before asking their daughters and daughters-in-law to change their surnames after marriage. My own mother and grandmother had to change their surnames after getting married; the question of asking the bride her opinion was thought to be downright ridiculous. She married into another family, didn’t she? What business does she have keeping her old name?

The same, of course, doesn’t hold true for men. Ask a man if he would bear his wife’s name or surname and he would either be vaguely confused or act as if the mere thought is a threat to his masculinity. Apropos society, letting go of our birth names is just another adjustment women must make. Woe betide the woman who dares to keep her name and stand up to all entreaties to the contrary. At best, whispers follow her deriding her arrogance; at worst she is accused of breaking the family with her “modern” ways, or having the upper hand in the marriage. Many men are by and large insecure in this regard. The weight of custom also proves to be too heavy for most women.

The progressive West doesn’t fare too well in this regard either. In a study documented in 2018, a fair number of men felt that their wives taking their last names was important to them.

Patriarchy has been consistent in the devaluation of women – right from the ancient Roman practice of a husband calling his wife by the feminine form of his name. Women are quite simply seen as invisible and thus unimportant. It is not surprising then, that Turkish women gained the right of keeping their birth surnames only in 2015. The Chinese, ever so diligent about names and their meanings, attribute qualities of courage, strength, and intelligence to boys while meanings of girl names are often restricted to flowers, beauty, or daintiness.

Far from being a harmless tradition, these norms have unmistakable sexist overtones while continuing to affirm male authority and ownership of women. There are other hurdles for a married woman who insists on using her birth name. For instance, a joint purchase of goods by such a couple creates suspicion among some about the very validity of the marriage between the two.

While it is heartening to see a growing number of women use their birth names or hyphenated surnames, we have a long way to go. Keeping your own name seems like such a small issue in light of ‘real’ feminist issues like domestic violence or dowry deaths. It is, however, significant when it comes to the importance of a women asserting herself, and challenging male authority and society – one step at a time.

Ila Railkar is an MBBS graduate and works as a doctor at Nair hospital, Mumbai. She is a hoarder of books and a lover of history. She can be reached on Instagram at @languagesarelyf.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty