What’s in a woman’s name? Patriarchal social rules.

Whats it like to be an Indian woman who hasnt changed her surname after marriageImage for representation
Features Women's issues Thursday, September 22, 2016 - 16:49

Pune-based journalist Chaitra* was once presumed to be a sex worker. She and her husband were checking into a hotel in Mumbai, and the staff became suspicious. They refused to believe that she and her husband were married because they have different second names. “They asked us for our IDs and even when we pointed out that our residential address was the same, asked us to produce a marriage certificate,” she says.  

And they ask you what’s in a name.

Communities have their own rules for the change of a woman’s name after the wedding. In most upper caste Hindu communities, women change their second names after they get married; it could be a surname or the husband’s first name. In some caste groups, even first names are changed. Traditions among Muslims and Christians vary. Common to all however, is that the children get their fathers’ names.

For every busybody who wants to know why she didn’t change her name after she got married, Kolkata-based Ananya Barua has an answer. “I never did it because I’m still the same person.”

No law requires Indian women to change their names after they get married, but social convention is a law unto itself, manifesting in people demanding proof of marriage, proof commitment, proof of fidelity and sincerity from a woman who does not change her name after her wedding.

There is also the matter of convenience. Ananya simply did not want to negotiate the bureaucratic red tape to get her name changed, either to her husband’s or to add her husband’s name to her own. “Many women change their names like this on social media. Most of my certificates and degrees are still in my maiden name. I didn’t because I didn’t want to have to explain every time someone asked,” she says.  

But the questions never go away. Writing for Vagabomb, Sukhmani Waraich lists out some of the most ridiculous things that women who don’t change their surnames after marriage are asked:

“Your kids won’t see you as one family.”

“Your brother is there to carry your family name. Why do you have to bother?”

“Don’t you want to be part of the family?”

“Are you even committed to the marriage or are you just preparing for divorce?”

When Bengaluru-based Chandrima Pal decided she wasn’t going to change her name after her wedding 15 years ago, neither her family nor her husband’s objected. For her, the questions came from rather unexpected quarters some years later. All of five then, her daughter wanted to know why, in a family of Roys, she was a Pal? “Just goes on to show how conditioning begins at a very early age,” remarks Chandrima.

Every day, in little things, Chandrima is reminded that society isn’t going to easily digest the fact that she chose to keep her name. While continuing her education after her wedding, Chandrima’s peers would mockingly call her a ‘great feminist’ for not taking her husband’s surname. “Now, people just call me Mrs Roy in offices and even at my daughter’s school. I let that pass but all my documentation is in my own name. People still comment on that,” Chandrima says.

While Chaitra's daughter, Akshita C Nikesh*, carries her mother's name in her middle name, Ananya and Chandrima decided to give their children their fathers’ surnames. “Maybe it will be easier for the next generation. Right now, sadly, I think the society isn’t really ready for a child to take her/his mother’s name or no surname at all,” Ananya says.

Chaitra however, disagrees. "When her teachers would call her 'Akshita Nikesh', my daughter insisted that they add my name too because "mothers are also important". We can teach our kids to think either way," she says. 


(*Name changed to protect privacy)

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