File photo: Pillay says her husband was also more comfortable with not registering to avoid the perception that he had married her for money.

Why does the patriarchal practice persist of a woman changing her surname when she marries, asks Omeshnie Naidoo.

What's in a name? For most of us it is our first form of identity, so why, then, do women – in this age of freedom of choice and empowerment – so readily abandon their birth names, without question, to take on that of their husband’s after marriage?

Although women have stood up against and broken many gender stereotypes over the decades, many still believe they have to change their surnames when they marry.

The reality, however, is women have a choice – more than one, in fact. Changing her surname to that of her husband’s after marriage is no longer a given, at least not in the eyes of the law. Women can choose instead to opt for a double-barrelled surname or not change their names at all.

So why does the patriarchal practice persist?

Hayley Barnard, a newlywed we approached for comment, says she simply preferred her husband Michael’s surname, but she says she “always knew” she would one day change her surname.

“My husband is also a bit old-fashioned and I think taking his name was what we both had expected and wanted.”

Christina Pillay was married 15 years ago according to Hindu rites and is among few women who have chosen not to change their surnames. She says from the outset she and her husband had agreed to be equal partners. As a student activist and then a lecturer, Pillay says she constantly questioned whether she wanted to or needed to register her marriage.

“I felt that my customary Hindu vows in front of friends and family meant far more to me than a certificate which was a token of validation of this union.

“I must admit that I also considered it a schlep to change my surname, seeing I was the coauthor of textbooks, a national examinations moderator and I owned assets in my maiden name. At the time, I also owned my family home and I guess I did not want my parents to feel insecure about possibly losing their home to my husband upon demise.”

Pillay says her husband was also more comfortable with not registering to avoid the perception that he had married her for money. “The issue of different surnames has a lighter side – when my husband is referred to as Mr Pillay he proceeds to firmly assert that he is my husband, but he is also Mr Kanniah,” Pillay says.

“It is only when I became a mom that I contemplated an antinuptial contract of sorts, while at the same time retaining my surname. I used to wonder if my kids would hold it against me that they were ‘illegitimate’. 

"However, I am blessed to have two beautiful children who understand my reasons for not registering my marriage. The have quite a giggle when their teachers assume their parents are divorced and politely inquire if they live with both the parents in the same home."

She says, “Renegotiate your identity if you must, but do not lose yourself or your soul to, or for, anyone else. If a marriage certificate, a contract or a surname defines you, then make it an issue, otherwise remain true to yourself and what you believe. Remain grounded and do things because you want to, not because you have to.”

Canadian writer Max Fawcett says there is a kind of violence inherent in the tradition of transmitting surnames.

“These patriarchal cultural conventions set out to annihilate a woman’s previous family history through the act of marriage.” As someone raised among feminists, Fawcett says the situation requires a more pragmatic approach.

“Wouldn’t a surname based on a mutually agreed upon set of criteria, be they historical, lyrical or even rhythmical, be preferable to passively accepting one determined by a patriarchal cultural convention?”

Indeed, in some parts of the world not eclipsed by western ideology, men do take the surnames of their wives as a norm. In South India, in the states such as Kerala, matrilineality still exists as the family lineage is traced through the mother. In systems such as these women enjoyed liberty, respect, prestige and power.

In Spanish culture there has long been a tradition of blending the familial names and creating a hybrid for a couple’s children. And Chinese and Korean cultures allow married women to keep their surnames.