Why would I ever change my name?15 min read

Of all the things I thought I’d change when I moved to Switzerland and got married, my name was not one of them.

Is my name not good enough?

Fourteen years ago when I got married, I was given a choice to change my name which I declined. I did not once regret it. In fact I think it the most important trivial detail I unknowingly paid attention to.

It was May 2004, during my visit to Switzerland to finalize the civil marriage process at the registry office in Pfaeffikon, and the gentleman who was marrying us asked me before we started whether I wanted to change my name. I asked him very naively, “Change it to what?” and my husband-to-be at the time explained to me that the man was asking me whether I will keep my maiden name or take his.

I was so astonished at the prospect of changing my name that I answered him too quickly with a simple, brief but clear “No” shaking my head too, as if to confirm it. I was shocked then, because I had truly never contemplated the idea of changing my name. It was so alien to me (this practice is unknown in Egypt), that I did not really grasp the enormous symbolic implications it carried. All I knew was the certainty of my keeping my name as I answered and adding only in my head certainly not. I thought to myself, why would I do that? Give up my name and take my husband’s? That is not changing my name! That is replacing my family name by my husband’s family name. I then added, regretfully not-indignantly-enough, that I won’t change my name and I will keep my family name as is. My shock and indignance quickly evaporated in the midst of all the excitement that followed and I did not think of that moment for quite some time.

For years afterwards, misunderstandings arose and my name was often overlooked… ignored…assumed to be of my husband’s on several occasions, without me making much of it. I was too busy adapting to my new life with little children in a new country, so I brushed it away.

I did not know back then that I will feel so strongly more than a decade later, that women still need to be set free – emancipated – even in that part of the world. Only recently did I find myself pondering over this moment. I became quite obsessed with this subject around 5 years ago because of countless situations where I attended functions with my husband and found my name tag stating my last name wrong (people automatically assumed my name based on my husband’s name).

The offence was gradually building up and on a few occasions, I said, “BECAUSE. IT. IS. NOT. MY. NAME!!” the zillionth time someone asked me why did I cross out the last name they gave me on the name tag.

I gather it started becoming that annoying when other indicators of my secondary position to my husband’s came to hit me in the face at some point in my life. Perhaps because I was in a phase of my life where I became sensitive to it. I was realizing how much of my individual aspirations I put aside to accommodate forming a family. And that many other women did the same. I thought to myself, well at least I kept my name.

At times I grumbled to myself, that when they ask you this, they should at least say it as it is: Would you like to replace your family name with your husband’s family name? Or Would you like now to make the official exchange of your identity as a person to become a new person with an identity that is defined by your husband and his family and by severing your family from your new identity as well? Oh and then add, because you are the woman. I mean, at least be honest about it!

I started my ponderings. Who am I by the way? Does a name point to identity? And if your name says who you are, why change it when you get married? Or do you change who you are when you get married? Does where you come from also change?

Many people told me that I am making far too much of it. That it does not matter that much. Others told me that a new name represents a new identity which I have chosen when I decided to marry and start a family -a nucleus family that consists of my husband, my children and myself.

I started asking women I knew about their name situation. Among the expats I knew, things were pretty mixed. Most American women had taken their husbands’ names but many kept their maiden names as part of their last names. So their last names were two parts. Most of the Indian women I knew, had kept their names. One told me that her in-laws accepted it – although reluctantly – but better than her own parents who were more concerned because they had a son and they were not amused at the idea that his wife would not take his name. Their name. Two German women told me that they wanted to keep their maiden names but their husbands were offended so they decided to change them to avoid the crisis. (One of them a medical doctor who was extensively published with her maiden name -which I still prefer to refer to as her real name.) One French woman had a similar story. She wanted to keep her name, but her husband was also offended and accused her of not finding his name good enough.

I asked many many Swiss women and a few other German women who told me that they actually made the decision knowingly and willingly to take their husband’s name – despite some of their friends who had not. They attributed their decision to wanting to have the same family name as their children. When I brought up the subject with an Egyptian friend of mine living here married to a Swiss man (who kept her name), she told me that in her Swiss circle of friends, many women were not married to their longtime partners. They chose not to get married. I inferred it was not directly related to the name- but in the rejection of the whole need to institutionalise their longterm relationship- which in my mind was somehow related to the institution of marriage being old fashioned and privileging men over women in various ways – as by the name. So many progressive women made the decision to be less and less defined and constricted by the institutional dimension of their longterm relationship but wanted to start a family nevertheless.

I also know of a few Egyptian women living in Switzerland who made the change for practical reasons. It was too complicated with a lot of paperwork to keep two different last names and for some it was also to avoid the difficulty associated with pronouncing their Arabic last names.

I also asked men what they thought. My Swiss colleague, who is still single, told me he found it quite puzzling that a woman in this day and age gives up her name. Another told me that it is standard and not an issue- because a name does not really carry all this importance (needless to mention that he kept his name – only his wife changed hers.)

To counter my accusations of patriarchal hegemony, one person rightfully pointed out that my maiden name is in fact my father’s – so a man still.

I looked up the various historical factors to understand why it is different across parts of the world and like most cultural topics, there were different influences that shaped this norm.

Basically, in the Anglo Saxon world (that has shaped almost all regions of the world that were at all touched by the British empire), the practice is most prevalent. The point we are at now, is on a culture evolutionary path whose trajectory starting point was of women not having a last name at all. I would have been Amira of (property of) Henry Berzi and if I marry I become of someone else’s. Basically, we went from belonging to our fathers to belonging to our husbands. At some point along that path from then to recent times, the „of“ part was dropped and the name of a female’s father and/or husband became her last name (surname) –and so for some time now, women have been allowed to have last names.  If you like, you can call this PROGRESS!

In the Islamic and Arab world- it was not the same process. When I searched up the religious stand on changing names, it turns out that if a woman (or man ) changes  their family name it is equivalent to a sin and in some cases criminal- it is disowning your parents. That is why it has never taken off in most of these regions with Islamic/Arab roots.

Reactions to this loud complaint of mine took different forms and gave me different perspectives. There were three rationalizations.

Many women want to have the same name as their children. Of-course that is a reasonable point. It however overlooks the fact that it is taken as de facto that that name should be that of the man. The logic is flawed. You could instead say, I wanted to have the same name as my children, he did not want to take my name and we did not want to invent a new name so I went along with his name because I don’t care about keeping my family (parents) in my name from that moment on.  This raises another cultural question- do you consider your family your children and spouse or your parents and siblings?

For other people, it is a way in which the individual identities of the couple dissolve in the union of the two. But that still privileges the man. I don’t mind the union part if they both dissolved equally. But they don’t. A woman dissolves and he stays intact. So it is more she dissolves into his. Less a merger and more an acquisition.

And then there are the people who pointed out to me that my maiden name is in fact not mine. It is my father’s which is arguably true. My name follows a patrilineal line, but then again I did not choose my name. I was given the name as a new born without a sense of my own autonomy. While that is true, there are many ways I can think of where a father’s role and contribution to who I am and my identity far outweighs that of a man I choose to marry as an adult. It does make for a viable argument that a name is inherited. As children we are given things, like language and name. We have no power over this. But as adults, we are more autonomous. We are considered free autonomous individuals. We are given responsibility and free will to decide many things.

I asked myself, is it fair to my mother? Probably not but that’s not for me to decide when I am getting married. (Another step would be how to pass on our names to our children but that’s another topic)

I became obsessed with this topic and brought it up repeatedly. One day, I was asking,”Where are all the feminsits in this society? How come in Germany, France and Italy, all these women accept this?” I got on one man’s nerves. He said, “What exactly is your problem? It is a choice. It is not mandatory.”  Another one said, “What are you talking about? Of-course there was a change. Things changed a lot. It used to be mandatory. Now they let women choose. They can take any name they wish.” I pretended to jump up with joy now that we can choose.

A change is only a real change when it is no longer the norm- when it is not expected- when it is not ok to give up your name. But I asked myself repeatedly why does it matter so much?

I am adamant at tackling it because this practice is not confined to a moment in time, the effect of it far outlives the single incident when you relinquish what is yours to take on another’s. Because it cements that secondary role of a woman in building the  identity of a family which sets the pattern for far more important decisions. It nourishes the idea, that within the institution of marriage, your identity, your symbolic weight comes second to that of your husband’s. And that sets a pattern for the dynamics and setup that govern most of your life as a married couple and also when or if you become parents.

It is certainly not just a matter of cosmetics.

Giving the option to the woman during the service shows the endurance of practices that not only normalize but enshrine the superior position of males over females within the institution of marriage.

This in turn sets a pattern of inequality that expands beyond labels and extends to infiltrate family values as well, at a time when we are presumably trying to be mindful of how we instil values of gender equality.

The Duke of Edinburgh was famously quoted as saying, “What am I? An amoeba?” upon the decision was taken that his wife will not take his name because she is going to be the queen of England. An amoeba!  That is how small and insignificant it made him feel. If anything it reveals the importance of the name. So we women are not even amoeba. He wasn’t asked to take her name – it is just that she won’t take his. And he felt like his worth was like that of a single-cell organism.

What should we do? I say a revolution! Nothing short of a revolution with all it entails.

Change needs to happen and no change ever happens because people gradually come to their senses and adopt new ways. Social and cultural change are processes that always entail resistance and aggressive controversial measures. Topics always remain controversial until they aren’t – until they become normal.

Many unjust ideas were common sense and widely accepted in the past. This was the case with ending slavery, acknowledging children out of wedlock, giving women voting rights, accepting interracial marriages, demanding gender equality and many more rights we take for-granted today.   Women were expected to stay virgins till they get married and it was always a choice to adhere to that but it took  decades of feminist movements campaigning and rebelling until this became nobody’s business and at least in those parts of the world, most women do not feel pressured about that choice except by their own desires and belief systems . The feminist movements were bold, aggressive and at the time considered quite defiant.

Like many movements, first it is a legal battle to abolish such norms and laws. This was the case with homosexuality. A homosexual relationship used to be be illegal (it still is in some parts of the world). That is the first front in the battle. Then it is loosened once the first battles are won. The idea of “the choice” fits into that secondary yet too-far-from-the-goal phase. There is choice now but taking the traditional one is massively favoured. Deviating is frowned upon. So the choice goes from ‘unheard of’ to weird. Perceived often as an unnecessary defiance- a rebellion. These women get labelled as radically feminist.

Then comes the last stage where change and progressive ideas are actively encouraged by campaign and education. This is the final and most effective work. Therefore, to those people who argue that change has happened, I say:

We can only celebrate triumph when women don’t choose it and men don’t expect it.

Then there is the whole argument about the importance of that topic to start with. What is in a name? Identity? So is your identity primarily your roots and history or your choices? And if I concede to that idea that for some people it is their choice to define a new identity, how does this reflect on men as it reflects on women?

When I thought about taking on this cause, I did so because I believe it is part of the broader challenge to emancipate women and set them free. Where I come from, women were said to be imprisoned in a harem. By men. But also by women who are resistant to change.

Fatima el Mernissi’s (a Morroccan feminist writer) grandmother’s words that “a harem is in the mind” in her book Dreams of Trespass, resonate perfectly here. My plight is reminiscent of her ideas. The real battle here is to change the patriarchal perceptions that are entrenched in our own minds- men and also women. I have met countless women who reject my complains passionately. The challenge is to set their minds free.

Most women would not consider it so because this has always been like this- so it is not that they consciously make that choice to take a secondary position. If you are a woman who grew up in a society where this is the norm, then you just do not think about it.

But what I cannot comprehend is how you can consciously choose to give up what is yours to take on another’s. I wondered long and hard where is the root of this lower self-worth?

The question should persist, why am I, as a woman, upon marriage, ‘expected’ to change my name? I use ‘expected’ deliberately, because although it is not mandatory, it is still very much the norm in many parts of the developed world as I have come to discover. The short answer to this question is, because the patriarchy is still very much alive inside our minds, as was the ‘harem’  existing in the minds of people.

That we are now given the ‘choice’ to keep our names when we get married, is a weak response to my cries for change. It does not go nearly far enough to correct for this strangely persistent and far reaching norm. We can only celebrate triumph when women stop choosing it and men stop expecting it.

Nothing short of a revolution will change that.