The name-changing marriage tradition continues unabated, while protagonists say it symbolizes unity between couples with antagonists holding the paradoxical view that women who take up their husband’s surnames give up their identity and at the same time gives the impression that women are inferior to men.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let us put our hands together for the newlyweds, I now present you Mr and Mrs…”. These are the words pronounced during weddings. For some people this statement might not register any significance while for others, it is imprinted in their minds as it marks their first steps into a marital journey and signifies new beginnings, a new life, a new responsibility and marriage. It is regarded as traditional for wives to take her husband’s name after marriage – hence the statement Mr and Mrs. Many a bride practices for months as she envisages signing her new surname.
Under common law, according to the English system, women after marriage were and still are required to adopt their husband’s surname. Their previous surnames would then become their maiden names.
The number of women keeping their maiden names after marriage peaked in the 1990s, when about 23 percent of married women decided to buck the name-taking tradition, according to a 2009 study published in the journal Social Behavior and Personality. The same research found that the number decreased to about 18 percent in the 2000s, although it’s worth noting that a woman’s age when she ties the knot seems to make a big difference; women who get married when they’re 35 to 39 years old are 6.4 times more likely to keep their names than women who put a ring on it between the ages of 20 and 24, according to a 2010 study published in Names: A Journal of Onomastics.
Our identity forms over a lifetime and is based on different parts of ourselves, including our culture, race, ethnicity, values, spirituality, sexuality, and gender. A person’s identity is what makes them a unique individual—and our names are part of that.
According to Rev Lukas Katenda, changing a woman’s surname to that of her husband is not an African custom, that is if history is anything to go by.
“You were your father’s child so there was no way you were going to change your name even if you were married. But for some reasons I think it is more western that people become part of the new family and they think it is appropriate to use one surname,” he says.
He said people mostly want to be one family and the fact that the couple has become one flesh gives impetus for one surname in the modern world. “The principle might be that it is said that we are one flesh, we are one family and we have everything under one surname.”
However, he has noted that the Marriage Act of 1961 which stipulates that one’s surname automatically becomes a maiden name upon marriage has created a problem because when it comes to divorce some people retain their ex-husband’s surname.
Losing an Identity
Very often people have deep connections to their surnames, hence some feel dumping their maiden surnames is synonymous with giving up their identity. This of course speaks in part to the marriage itself, but in which ways does that particular surname represent you other than your affiliation with a man?
Katenda says “for some their surname is their identity which makes their father a very important figure in their lives.”
However, he notes that one only loses their identity if they use the husband’s surname on a regular basis and for that reason believes that people should keep their surnames. “It is far more acceptable for the family to be united under one surname. Most women who have changed their surnames are not forced to change, the church also does not compel a woman entering the holy matrimony to do so. In my case, I do not even discuss the matter when solemnizing marriages or during the pre-marriage counselling sessions because that decision lies solely with the couple,” he explained.
“I think people must have a choice. Those who think it is not right to change to their husband’s surname should not be forced, and those who think it is appropriate to do so should be allowed to out of their free will. It must also not be seen as a way of subjugating women, it must be a way of being united under one family, one surname and these people must be in serious loving relationship,” said the reverend.
Katenda said the practice of changing surnames is also affected by the community in which the marriage takes place.
“It also depends on where you are. If you are in town people might be inclined to know that you are married and you use the surname of your husband. But in the villages people don’t really care. People are more interested in knowing your parents than knowing your husband in terms of surnames,” he said.
From a psychological perspective, Dr. Shaun Whittaker believes the decision whether to change a surname or not is a personal choice, adding that “women have the right to affirm their own identity by keeping their own surnames.”
“Many women choose to do that out of choice. From a feminist perspective it is the right thing to do and it also makes a statement that relationships must be equal,” says Whittaker.
Change, blend or keep the same surname
After marriage, some people choose to hyphenate or blend their surnames with their spouses’ surnames. For instance, Ngamane Karuaihe-Upi and his wife Umbi Karuaihe-Upi have chosen to both share their surnames. “We chose to have double-barreled surnames, because we are free to do so. My wife is my equal so our last names carry both of us. I do not believe that a woman must give up her family name just because she got married,” explained Ngamane who has been married to his wife for the past 16 years.
Some women choose to take their husband’s names legally after marriage simply by signing on the marriage certificate. However, for one to choose to legally change their names means they may be required to also make similar changes on all their official documents thereafter. Its noteworthy though that the swearing of an affidavit should take care of that.
Not all women have embraced this age-old practice of changing surnames though. The uncertainties of marriage and the need to maintain one’s identity prompted some women to maintain their surnames. Ally Angula who is married to Manna Matswetu says that culturally there was no basis to adopt her husband’s surname.
“It was not an important conversation, the important conversation was two people making the decision to get married,” she said. She further points out that two generations back-none of her grandparents changed their surnames-hence she did not deem it important to change her surname as well.
“Surname changing becomes a couple’s choice and the importance will be driven by the two people who are making the decision,” she asserted.
A person’s name is their identity therefore deciding to change the woman’s surname is solely the couple’s choice. A woman may choose to change her surname to her husband’s, have a double barreled name or incline to their maiden name.