Women’s rights should never be based on a silly name game

No man should enter this arena lightly. But I wanted to know. Why do so many divorced women retain their husband’s surname? The floodgates opened.

Fortunately, none of the Facebook and Twitter respondents came at the questioner, though one did make the point that we should not blame women “again” for a societal problem.

I learnt a lot from the responses to what clearly is a many-layered problem.

The most common response was “the children”.

Where divorces happen and the children are still young, changing the surname of the child to the mother’s, or having two biological parents with different surnames creates confusion.

So, said many women, we keep the name “for the sake of the children”.

And where the husband goes off or re-marries and makes another life, the irritation of his name remaining behind with subsequent children “is a bonus”, said one woman.

What was disturbing, though, was the second most common explanation – Home Affairs.

“Try to change your name, Jon,” said a family friend. What followed were horror stories telling how incredibly difficult it is to change your surname after a divorce in South Africa.

A light-hearted friend, recently divorced, imagined applying for a change of surname only to get back from Home Affairs documents rendering her names as Matric Exemption along with a Nigerian husband she had never met.

Even in cases where women married and insisted on separate names ahead of a marriage, officialdom balked and assigned the husband’s name.

It was tiring and frustrating to these women that the bureaucracy simply would not fall in line with the times, let alone be responsive to women’s expectations.

Surely this was a human rights issue and not only a women’s issue? I could not help thinking where is the Women’s League fighting for the transformation of anti-women practices in home affairs rather than spending their time opportunistically in the right courtrooms with a celebrity case, defending indefensible leaders or making self-defeating declarations that “the country is right for a woman president” when it always was.

This abuse of women’s rights remains largely ignored in a context where bureaucracy and politics meet unhindered to reinforce the dominance of men.

If you put a question like this on your social media you should expect some smart Alec to pose “the real question” – which in this case is, why do women change their surnames to begin with?

Good question, but the answer is probably a little more complex than the feminist one-up(wo)manship on offer.

For many women at the time, I suspect there was the desire to enjoin the husband under a common name, a sign of devotion rather than domination. It would be an insult to generations of women, including our mothers, to suggest some kind of mindless subjugation or false consciousness that made them unwitting slaves of domestic overlords. Where I grew up that kind of suggestion would have my mother’s generation of women bending over in laughter.

In the same vein, some women claimed to actually like their husband’s surname better than their own; it was a choice rather than an imposition. It gave children a singular identity and the family a common name.

And, as several women responded, it just made things so much easier when you wanted to open or close a bank account or get a new ID document.

That said, times have changed and it shows in the double-barreled names of a new generation or the choice to retain the family name on each side of the marital partnership. I can imagine some men finding that difficult and insisting on traditions handed down by their fathers. They need a solid education or a progressive klap.

None of these positive changes in the attitudes and aspirations of a new generation of women (and men, I hope) to hold onto their names even as they devote themselves to their partners will mean much if the systems of administration from government departments to private banking are left untransformed by rules and routines that still privilege men in our society.

That is what I was taught and learnt from women in posing that single question.

Male privilege is not simply unequal pay for women or crude remarks about women; it is something ingrained in the very ways in which our society is administered even though, on paper, we are supposed to be equal.

We can equalise pay and punish verbal abuse when it comes to women in South African society. But who pays the penalty for administrative injustice?

Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US

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