What’s in a woman’s name?

Abstract: Women’s rights remain unfulfilled as long as they’re expected to take their husbands’ names upon marriage…

Women’s Day has come and gone, but the rest of the month remains dedicated to women, so expect the continued lauding of women leaders, and the debating of issues around gender equality. However, during this time an elephant will remain in the room, seemingly unnoticed, sitting patiently in the corner, quietly knitting away.

I never studied Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but I am familiar with one of its most powerful lines, uttered, importantly, by Juliet; and no, it’s not the one you’re thinking of. It’s this one: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In a nutshell Juliet predates women’s liberation ideology by declaring that the cultural importance attached to a name is artificial, especially one determined by marriage.

I will challenge the expected charge of Eurocentrism with the promise that there’s a reason for quoting one of the English language’s most famous sons.

This is the month when various organisations will use the media to bring to the public’s attention advances they have made in promoting women within their ranks. It is also the month when the social, cultural, economic and political achievements of women will be celebrated, such as finally being at the helm of the African Union. It is also, hopefully, a month when great strides will be made to ensure that women are regarded, logically, as equal to men.

All this will be done while the women in question, if married, will quietly herald their husband’s surname. And that’s the elephant in the room.

She’s a quiet elephant because she knows her place and doesn’t want to rock convention. What no one seems to have told her though is that it’s a convention embedded in cultural norms and outdated religious ideology, and is not shared with the rest of the world. Perhaps if she knew the truth, she would rise up, and, like those brave women who marched on the Union Buildings in 1956, make her voice heard.

So why doesn’t she? It’s easy to think that it’s a rule that a woman should take her husband’s surname when she is married. Interestingly, South African law is not prescriptive on this in any way. According to the Births and Deaths Registration Act (Act 51 of 1992, as amended), anyone can change their name, as long as it is recorded. Granted, there are various hoops and hurdles to be jumped, but the process is as painless as any other visit to the Department of Home Affairs.

Where women who are married are concerned, the process is, to a degree, simply streamlined – again, as streamlined as any other visit to the Department of Home Affairs. The reason being is that the purpose for the name change doesn’t require any manner of investigation.

The important point here is that when a woman marries in South Africa, she doesn’t legally have to change her name.

So why do South African women change their names when they get married? The simple reason: because it’s expected of them, and that expectation is rooted in part in patriarchy – the social system that deems the male as the primary authority figure – which is endemic to many traditional Africa cultures, and still shapes social, economic and political adjudications.

But there’s another, more covert contributor: the country’s dominant religion – Christianity.

The New Testament is littered with phrases and commandments that declare the man as head of a household; that a wife is subservient to her husband; and that this relationship comes into effect when she takes his surname. Women are told to ‘submit’ themselves to their husbands and to ‘obey’ them at all times.

This is not surprising, given that such texts were written only by men, and at a time when women were regarded as either wives, concubines or whores; but never equal to men. It’s a mindset that remained ingrained into European civil and common law, underpinning the social status of women, until only relatively recently; and South African law is based on a combination of European common law and Roman Dutch Law.

What’s interesting is that whereas legal structures around women’s rights have developed towards a measure of logical normality, certain elements of religious ideology seem reluctant to evolve.

The rest of the world, has, nevertheless, moved on, and embraced a more egalitarian mindset. In many countries, such as Italy (where Shakespeare’s famous play is set), Korea, France, Iran, Malaysia and Greece, a married woman retains her birth surname; in others, such as Russia, the Netherlands, Hungary and Germany, a married couple can choose either surname as their shared surname; and convention in a number of Portuguese and Spanish-speaking countries, is that the surname shared by a married couple is a combination of both their birth surnames.

In South Africa, it seems we have inherited the worst of both: the residue of outdated Christian, colonial ideology and the still simmering patriarchical convention of many traditional African cultures. The result is the popular custom that married women accept their husband’s surnames, and the expected associated conventions, and that a wry smiled is accorded to any woman who dares defy this by keeping her birth name – in whatever form – once she says, “I do”.

Perhaps this month the elephant in the room will start stirring, and let’s hope her name is Juliet.

Originally published in the Sunday Tribune, 12th August 2012