What is in a name & identity?

I was seating in my Saturday morning class on ‘Children and the Law’ when our lecturer asked us the relationship between our patriarchal society and the naming  system of children. We were discussing the rights of children, a fundamental one being the right to name. One thing that was clear was that despite the very many ways of naming, depending on what African culture and community it is, all children bear a surname that is almost always a male name. This realization made me question the effect of this and what it means for children bearing their maternal names for surnames and the consequences for women who refuse to go by any male surname.

Most African countries are patriarchal in nature and it is for this reason that all children carry their father’s names as surnames. What happens to boys born out of wedlock and denied by their fathers? I write this as a single mother whose child does not bear his father’s name because he was uninterested and unbothered in being a father. I was lucky enough to be able to give my son my father’s name as his surname. Often we have heard of boys whose last name is feminine and they have to endure the bullying and teasing that comes along with that. Taking into consideration the fact that having a maternal surname in itself is telling of a story; it tells us of a woman who bore a son of an unbothered man. It tells of a woman who had an early pregnancy and was disowned by her family. It tells us of a woman who had to raise her children on her own. It tells us of a woman who was both mother and father to her children.

Furthermore, a man bearing his mother’s name as his surname is an automatic question of his worth, a question of his masculinity, son of a woman. Because being purely the son of a woman is “demeaning”, a “womanly product”, “lacking enough masculinity”. All this makes me wonder why a man’s worth is diminished by him bearing a woman’s name but society insists on defining women by the names of the men in their lives; a man bearing a woman’s surname is derogatory whereas a woman’s respect is increased by her bearing and using a man’s surname. An outright show of the sexism and gender inequalities we cling to in the most basic level, fiercely protecting patriarchy’s presence and position in our lives.

Further thought into this made me come to the realization of the basic treatment of women in regards to their names when it comes to matters like news reporting and information especially online: when majority of articles address women as Mr. X’s wife or this man’s daughter. Why do majority of news reporters and information sources disregard women’s name and only tie them to the men around them. I’ll give examples: “Steve Curry’s wife” “Obama’s sister” and so on. I have a big problem because the right to a name is so meaningful, important and significant. Our names are our first sense of identity, an acknowledgment of our existence and place in society. A name is the first answer to the question on who you are as a person. And I am not saying that women should not bear their fathers’ or husbands’ names, I am saying that a woman should be able to choose her identity. Feminism advocates for choice. I am saying that even when a woman decides to use a man’s name, acknowledge her humanity, her voice, her mind, her individuality.

Often I have seen women address certain newspaper headlines with anger and bitterness but it never really resonated with me until I started thinking about it hard and doing my research. What is so hard about stating a woman’s name while reporting something she said? Is she not a person with a voice worth a say without her being her man’s extension? People still refer to my mom by my surname, my father’s name; even though she has been divorced from my father for years and it angers me. Is it so hard to acknowledge her as an individual? A woman having a male surname is basically an indication of which man she belongs to such that before marriage, she is her father’s property, bearing his name, and then becomes her husband’s property. This is why people still refer to my mom by her ex husband’s name because it does not make any sense to them to acknowledge her by her own name crediting her independence.

“The issue is supporting a culture that continues to centralize men, in this case prioritizing their names, and, in the process, extending patriarchal protection in the form of comforting, conservative, traditional gender roles.”

Are the men in our life responsible for our voice, our opinions, our thoughts, our actions such that it is so hard to credit a woman by her first identity?

“I am mine before I am ever anyone else’s.” – Nayyirah Waheed.

This is one of my favourite quotes as it applies to so many aspects in life. In this context, I will use it to mean that I am mine before I am any man’s; my first and most important identity is mine, myself, my individuality. Is a woman’s existence only limited to her relationship with men and is the importance of her voice dependent on which men she ‘belongs’ to?

It must not.

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