By Antara Dev Sen
Nov 26, 2011
Last month I was peeved by a headline: “Divorced wife may retain husband’s name,” it said, or words to that effect. Oh thank you very much, milord and master! She “may” retain her surname, may she? How very kind of you. Telling people what they may call themselves. Hah! You may call yourself a buffoon, darling.
But then a headline last week made this silly condescension seem positively heroic. “Divorced wife may not use husband’s name: Supreme Court”, it said, or words to that effect. Wait. Was the country’s highest court, the ultimate rights guru, quietly stripping women of their fundamental rights? Can you force an adult citizen to change her name at the whim of her ex-husband? Your name is your basic identity. It’s about who you are. Should others — especially those raring to deprive you — be allowed to change it? Sounds utterly preposterous. But society defines your identity, and then leaves you to figure out who you are, or want to be, or have become. So you change your name when your identity goes through what seems to be a fundamental and permanent change. Like when conventional women in a patriarchal society in India get married. They drop their maiden name and take on their husband’s surname. They undergo a complete change — some in Sindoor, some sporting wedding rings, some in Thaali or Mangalsutra, some with head modestly covered.
The married woman starts life afresh. She has a new look, new address, new relatives, new roles, new parents and new siblings — at least “in law” if not in sentiment.
She has a new Gotra — that curious Hindu clan identity. Of course convention would demand that she have a new name to match her new married identity.
But once that happens, it is her legal name. Understandably, there is no law specifying that she can use her married surname only as long as she is married. An identity can take on new dimensions, but it cannot be clinically reversed.
The convention of taking on the husband’s name is so ingrained in Indian society (except in Sikhism, Islam and matrilineal families) that there is no real choice for the young woman at that point. Not complying may seem like a rejection of the husband’s family. (“She does not want to fit in!”) Even women from privileged backgrounds generally go through the customary name change.
As the woman settles down in her new name, her personal identity grows and is consolidated in that name. So after divorce, whether she retains that name or not is entirely up to her. She is not the starry-eyed girl entering marriage, she is a disillusioned woman, maybe a mother, an older, more mature individual being displaced from the home she has built and nurtured. She is expected to survive on her own now, and bring up her kids. Whether she changes her name or not must also be left to her.
But didn’t the law declare last month that a wife may retain her married name after divorce? Oh that’s simple. The ex-husband had not objected. The silly old passport office had. And the law said there was no problem since the ex-husband didn’t mind. He decides.
However, in last week’s case, the ex-husband, a police officer, had objected. The ex-wife caused embarrassment to his family, he said, and used his police links to her advantage. Oh dear, nodded the law, how shameful! “By using the ex-husband’s name or surname, there is always a possibility of people being misled that she is still the wife, when in fact she is not,” ruled Mumbai’s family court (emphasis mine). This ruling was upheld by the Bombay high court and now the Supreme Court.
I have several problems with this. First, if the police officer husband sticks to official rules and does not misuse it, then no family member — real or fake — would be able to take undue advantage. Second, it is so easy to claim that your ex-wife is bringing shame upon your family in our patriarchal society perpetually frowning on divorced women. Using this as a precedent may be disastrous for women.
Third, there are laws about misrepresentation. Use those. What if your brother had misused the family name or brought shame to it, would you ask him to change his name? No. Because he is a man, his personal identity is protected by society. A woman on the other hand is “owned” by the husband or father, and can be made to change her label and identity at will. This is not about misrepresentation. It’s about ownership.
There are quite a few Manmohan Singhs. Only one is the Prime Minister. But would the rest be asked to change their name because any one of them may misbehave and bring shame upon India or try to misuse their name to personal advantage since “there is always a possibility of people being misled?”
The law must not act on possibilities — it needs facts and deeds. There are legal ways to stop misrepresentation and punish the guilty. Forcing people to change their name to pre-empt misuse is absurd.
As it is, a name change has practical problems — like you have to change it everywhere, in all official documents. You even need a new signature. But there are deeper issues that hit the core of your identity. A divorced woman is not easily accepted by Indian society even now. Making her also change her name is yet another way of using patriarchal power to further control a woman’s personal life. It is like traditional strictures on widows. It stinks of discrimination and treating women as property. It says: I am throwing you out; you don’t belong in my life anymore — so take my tag off, woman, and go stick your father’s tag on your head.
And what about the children? Are they going to be happier and better adjusted if forced to declare their broken home constantly?
Would it help a child struggling to cope with new realities, a new address and new lifestyle to also have a newly named mother? Would it help him in school and with friends? Would the added complication of having a different surname from her children help the mother?
One way of wielding final control over a woman is to cast her out of the family, and deprive her as much as possible. Divorced women are routinely deprived of alimony, property, even child custody. The law must not support this sexist violence by depriving her of her identity as well.
The writer is editor of The Little Magazine.
Source: The Asian Age, New Delhi