I have always believed that names contain power. They have a unique strength and character as it identifies an individual. Having used it since the day one is born, it is intrinsically linked to one’s own personal identity. It is as familiar to us as our own faces and hands and feet. So why then, [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Changing your name after marriage


I have always believed that names contain power. They have a unique strength and character as it identifies an individual. Having used it since the day one is born, it is intrinsically linked to one’s own personal identity. It is as familiar to us as our own faces and hands and feet. So why then, do we feel the necessity to change our surnames even before the ink is dry on the marriage contract?

According to Insha Farid writing for the Kashmir Observer, “When a woman gets married, she gives up a lot of old habits and adopts a lot of new ones. Marriage, for a woman, means becoming a part of a new family and giving up her previous one. It means changing everything, including her name, in our society. A name which is not only her identity but a big part of who she is. Though our religion doesn’t make it obligatory for a woman to take her husband’s name, this practice has been going on in our society for decades. As voices for women empowerment grow stronger, people have begun to question this practice. Women are now demanding their right to retain their maiden names as they feel that their names symbolise their lineage. Many argue that it goes against the principle of equality.”

Justin McCurry writing for The Guardian from Tokyo, stated that in December 2015, Japan’s Supreme Court upheld the rule that married couples must have the same surname. They ruled that a 19th-century law forcing married couples to use the same surname does not violate the constitution.The same-name ruling came, as a response to a lawsuit by five women who argued that the requirement, as stipulated in the 1896 Civil Code, violates married couples’ civil rights.While the law does not stipulate which name married couples should adopt, in practice women take their husband’s name in 96% of cases – a reflection, critics say of Japan’s male-dominated society. This landmark Court decision was a setback for campaigners who argued that the 19th-century law violated their civil rights and in practice forced women to take their husband’s name.One of the plaintiffs, Kaori Oguni, said before the ruling: “By losing your surname…you’re being made light of, you’re not respected…It’s as if part of yourself vanishes…The system is one that says, basically, if you’re not willing to change (your name), you shouldn’t be getting married.”

McCurry observed that the attempt to have the law deemed unconstitutional encountered opposition from conservative politicians and commentators, who argued that allowing couples to have different surnames would damage the traditional family unit.The law reflects the traditional view that marriages in Japan are unions between families, not individuals. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), when the law was introduced, it was common for a woman to leave her family to become part of her husband’s family.“Names are the best way to bind families,” Masaomi Takanori, a constitutional scholar, told NHK public television in the run-up to the verdict. “Allowing different surnames risks destroying social stability, the maintenance of public order and the basis for social welfare.” In practice however, many women continue to use their maiden names at work and their legal, married surname in official documents. They include the internal affairs minister, Sanae Takaichi. According to McCurry, Japan is thought to be one of only a few industrialised countries where it is illegal for married couples to have different surnames. Interestingly, the UN committee on the elimination of discrimination against women, has also called on Japan to revise the laws.

Fascinatingly, in contrast, Jacob Koffler, reported for Times Magazine in 2015, that in Quebec, all women have been keeping their maiden names since 1981, whether they want to or not. Provincial law in Quebec forbids a woman from taking her husband’s surname after marriage. In Greece, a similar law requiring all women keep their maiden name was enacted in 1983 during a wave of feminist legislation.The tradition goes back even further in France, which has had a law on the books since 1789 requiring that people not use a name besides the one given on their birth certificate. Today, women cannot legally change their surname after marriage. Italian women have more options. Although they cannot legally change their surname, which has been true since 1975, they have the option of tacking their husband’s surname onto their surname. In the Netherlands, women are always identified in documents by their maiden name and can only take their husband’s name under special circumstances. Belgian law requires that one’s surname does not change after marriage.Custom dictates that women keep their surnames in many Spanish-speaking countries as well, including Spain and Chile. Closer to home, in Malaysia and Korea, it is local custom for women to keep their maiden names, and although there is no law stating that they cannot take their husband’s surname, it is a relatively foreign concept.

I for one made a personal choice to retain my maiden name as an Artist on the professional performing circuit, whilst hyphenating my husband’s surname on after it, for everything else. There was no request or pressure of any sort from my husband that I do one or the other – or even change it completely – and it was simply a personal choice, based on several factors. The most important being that I wanted to bear the name of our own independent family, whilst still keeping my own.

Interestingly, when I was getting a new national ID card to reflect my ‘new’ double barrelled surname, I distinctly remember being told by a male official there, that it was better if I chose either the name of my father or my husband. (Interesting choice of words I thought, as until that moment I’d always thought of the name I was born with as my own…) I pointed out that our former Head of State had done so decades before and so surely there was no justification to disallow this particular request.

It was an irrefutable argument, which meant I was then ‘allowed’ to officially adopt the long-fandangled name which I felt reflected my own personal and professional identity best. A decision driven by practicality, which has resulted in being very impractical when it comes to the practical aspect of filling forms and such, as my surname now requires 23 spaces (not forgetting one for the hyphen of course) and Airline operators constantly asking me for ‘just’ my surname, with me repeating that that indeed is what it is…! However, in the end, it has resulted in a sense of personal satisfaction, by retaining my identity as an individual and also adopting one which identifies me as part of my family. It may seem ridiculous to another – but in the end, does that really matter? Surely it is more important that the result has delivered a sense of strength – which a name is supposed to do – and also an unshakeable sense of identity to an individual…and best of all, that it is ultimately one borne of personal choice…?

All comments, suggestions and contributions are most welcome. Confidentiality guaranteed.

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