Dear Prime Minister,
A few days ago, at the Indian Merchants Chambers’ Ladies Wing, you announced that from now on, women need not change their name on their passports after marriage. After being headlined across various news platforms, your statement was also brought under scrutiny from testimonies of women who reported that there was no legal requirement for a woman to change her surname after marriage in any official document, including the passport. Despite this, we thank you for raising this issue and giving it visibility, and which is also why we feel compelled to write to you in order to bring to your attention some pertinent issues surrounding women’s names.
Women, today, are refusing to relinquish their natal surnames (commonly referred as ‘maiden names’) after marriage. The reasons behind this are varied. Many young women are well into their careers before getting married and do not want to change the ‘name’ they have created for themselves. Others reject it as an antiquated custom. The lens of gender equality makes it possible to see the surname as a mark of patriarchy.
Despite there being no legal compulsions for a woman to change her surname after marriage, or even for children to be given their father’s surname, this is a widely-upheld norm in our society which colludes most painfully with bureaucratic procedures to make life difficult for women who choose not to take their husbands’ surname. It is indeed sad that, despite a Government Resolution (mandated by the state of Maharashtra: http://bit.ly/2pZNUIq) and several high court judgements supporting this right of women to choose their (and their children’s) names, it is necessary for someone of your stature to reiterate it for it to be acceptable to the bureaucracy and the general public.
Article 19 of the Constitution grants to all citizens the fundamental right to freedom, which includes, in its extensive ambit, the freedom to change one’s name. Changing one’s name requires making a notarized affidavit, publishing the name change in at least two newspapers, and in the Gazette of India. All women who take their husband’s name after marriage have to go through this process. Despite this, keeping unconventional names – even if it is a woman’s own, ‘maiden name’ – can have serious consequences because names are also powerful indicators of one’s citizenship. It is only through one’s name that one is granted citizenship and the rights that come with it.
In a Master’s research conducted by one of us on the experiences of women who had retained their surname after marriage, the participants shared that they were asked to ‘think twice’ about their decision to keep their maiden name in several government offices. This included the passport office. Women who did not take their husband’s surname after marriage were harassed by government officials while registering for almost any new legal document. They have shared experiences of being denied passports, ration cards, bank accounts, and even the right to vote, all of which was attributed to their names. Couples not having the same surname faced difficulties in registering a house on both their names and opening joint accounts in nationalised banks.
Multiple government departments deny applications with a woman’s maiden name or demand unnecessary additional documents. A woman from Nashik had to fight a prolonged battle with the health department of the Nashik Municipal Corporation for keeping her maiden name on her child’s birth certificate; as the officials kept asking her to submit affidavits stating that her husband had ‘no objection’ to this. Only when she threatened to sue for harassment did they relent. In some serious cases, women’s names were changed by the officials themselves assuming that women take their husband’s name after marriage.
The narratives reveal how women retaining maiden names are seen as thwarting the social fabric by both society as well as the state. Labelled as ‘fads’, ‘controversies’, and in some cases even illegal, such practices of refurbishing women’s selfhood are not only discouraged but result in harassment, especially by government officials.
Affected by such experiences, women often ‘choose’ to relinquish their name and their right to pass it to their children. But what about those who do not have a choice? Divorced women continue to be harangued for using their husband’s name. Single mothers and their children face difficulties in being recognised as a family unit by the state. Despite a mandate in the National Food Security Act which states that women should be given the status of family head in ration cards, a woman in Mumbai continues to struggle to get a ration card listing her, rather than her husband, as head of the household.
The harassment that women face for keeping their maiden name needs to be seen as a violation of their fundamental right. It is completely unconstitutional and needs to be named for what it really is – discrimination against women.
All citizens, especially women, should be able to keep or change our name as per their will, and a government official should not be the one to decide whether doing so is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
Mukta Gundi and Sakhi Nitin Anita