Sundeep Bhutoria

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ess bee

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

What's in a name? A lot!

I visited the Québec province of Canada recently. Québec, which is three times the size of France and shares borders with the United States on the south east, is perhaps the only Francophone region in the North American continent.
The predominantly French-speaking population has French as the only official language at the provincial level. The resource-rich region's seasons are as distinct as its culture and language - mild spring, hot summer, colourful chilly autumn and a freezing white winter all wrapped in snow.
Another unique feature about Québec it that is one of the few regions of the world where women, by law, can keep their maiden name after marriage. I wonder why the so-called “progressive” countries which advocate gender equality or equal rights for women are actually laggards when it comes to implementing a law that would women to retain (or not change) their maiden surname after marriage.
The logic is simple. Why change your surname which is given to you by birth just for the sake of marriage? Why an important institution like marriage should be so biased against one gender? Why not let women have the liberty to die with the surname she was given at birth?
The story of equal rights in our society should begin with basic issues of mutual respect. I feel changing somebody’s surname because of marriage amounts to disrespecting that person. How would the males feel if their surname is changed! I know the very thought of this is painful for most men. So think about the feelings of women. For the sake of identity it may be optional for women to use her husband’s surname but only if she wishes to do so.
This is where Québec comes in. Until 1981, the custom in Québec was similar to France. Women would traditionally go by their husband's surname in daily life, but their maiden name remained their legal name. All this changed after the passage of a 1981 provincial law, intended to promote gender equality as outlined in the Québec Charter or Rights which ordained that no change may be made to a person's name without the authorization of the registrar of civil status or the authorization of the court.
The law called for newlyweds who wished to change their names upon marriage must therefore go through the same procedure as those changing their names for other reasons. Only the registrar of civil status may authorize a name changes and for specific reasons like: The name the person generally uses does not correspond to the name on their birth certificate; where the name is of foreign origin or too difficult to pronounce or write in its original form or; where the name invites ridicule or has become infamous.
This law did not allow a woman to immediately legally change her name upon marriage, as marriage is not listed among the reasons for a name change. However, she could use her husband's name socially and may eventually apply to change it under the "general use" clause.
In India, women usually adopt the husband's surname or the family name as their own after marriage and in some orthodox families a bride may have to change her full name and as desired by the in-laws. But there are some notable exceptions in India's matrilineal societies like the Nairs of Kerala where women retain their maiden names after marriage and even the children take her family name, rather than their father's.
For many of an Indian woman's official documents, the husband's name or father's name has to be mentioned as a legal guardian (applying for a passport, bank account, etc.,). This is irrespective of whether the woman is considered a minor or an adult.
Another example is Meghalaya where it is common practice for women not to change their names after marriage. Everyone is known by the birth name for life. The birth first name is the name the parents choose for their child and the last name is, by default, the mother's last name.
Many of our Indian laws are antiquated and in conflict with the true spirit of gender equality as enshrined in out Constitution. I think it is high time India should do what Québec did in 1981 – change the law and give little more respect to the women.
ess bee

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