Should you take his surname?

2012-02-19 18:25

The societal expectation and questionable construct that has normalized the taking of the man’s surname within marriage, is an extension of ideas, which continue to privilege one half of humanity. Marriage became politicized in so far as the roles ascribed to each sex within the marriage were the launching pad for so-called ‘predestined’ and ‘natural’ societal roles ascribed to each sex.

In Western society, the taking of the man’s surname is about one millennium old, but was implicit before this in biblical readings. In most Latin American countries, children adopt the surnames of both parents though giving some supremacy to the patrilineal line by using it as the official surname. Women keep their maiden names and adopt their husband’s name as a second surname. The woman in this case is officially known by both surnames. The man loses and gains nothing.

Within the Nguni tradition, ilobola through cattle is given from the man’s family to the woman’s as a way to build a relationship between the two families but also symbolizes a transfer of children to the husband’s family.

The privileging of the man’s name, grounds the woman’s identity within that of her husband’s. Society has maintained a supposedly natural dichotomy pinning 'maleness' as the antithesis of 'femaleness' and in so doing building a superiority of one term against the other. This has fed into the institution of marriage and as such created a system of built-in dominance. Surely the redefinition of male and female roles within society must redefine the archaic tradition of automatically assuming the man’s surname and, in so doing, water down this resultant inequality. Further, given that same-sex marriages are legalized in our country, this tradition does not answer for nor does it accommodate gay couples who wish to marry.

The essential point here is that women and men need not have their lives led by tacit acceptance of ‘norms’ which are built to exclude or acquire a higher place to one partner relative to the other. There needs to be recognition of the priorities and responsibilities held by both partners within the union of marriage. It may not be so simple as keeping your maiden name as this name too carries with it the dominance of a patrimonial history.

Perhaps what needs to change is the attitude and connotations which taking the name is fraught with. Women and men, together, should be able to decide whether names are taken, exchanged or dropped. This process should be free of knee-jerk reactions giving primacy to previous systems of dominance and should comprise of an egalitarian balance of power in making such a decision.

Sure, discarding patrilineal names in themselves may not be the sole answer to changing skewed gender relations but such patrilineal names do play a role in ensuring the importance of ‘maleness’ as opposed to that of ‘femaleness’ as they have been historically categorized and constituted.

The question which remains, however, is how readily men and women are prepared to challenge this 'ideal'. The success of this challenge which would inject a sense of equality into the sanctity of marriage, needs both men and women to obliterate the normality of this construct.

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