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What’s in a Name? Only Patriarchal Control

Women in rural Odisha reflect on what the compulsion to change one’s surname after marriage means for their identity.

In rural Odisha, Madhusudha Pradhan feels that women are not allowed to have separate identities. “As long as she is in the father’s house she carried his surname. After marriage, once she enters her marital home she loses her identity,” she tells Community Correspondent Anupama Sathy. She also feels this is an unfair custom “We want that no girl should have to change her identity and also that she gets to keep her surname.”

In April this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that women need not change their surnames after marriage in the passports. Many women pointed out this announcement was superfluous as there were no such existing requirements. However, this started important conversations around the change of surnames. As Sakhi Nitin Anita and Mukta Gundi show in their article the struggle in everyday lives of women, even in states like Maharashtra which has legal provisions to address bureaucratic harassment of women over choosing to keep maiden surnames for themselves or their children, is very much the norm.

In June, Video Volunteers held a week-long campaign on patriarchy and the way surnames imply ownership of women: from the father to the husband. Kamla Bhasin, feminist author and activist, weighed in on the debate telling us how patriarchy denies women their own identity:

We followed up with an hour-long twitter conversation and women had harrowing tales to recount from bureaucratic hassles to social censure and shockingly, even sexual harassment.

Others had more amusing stories to share. Living in a female-only household, Sangeeta Rane was used to seeing officials feeling harrowed that three women from the same family had three different surnames. Journalist Nidhi Jamwal faced a lot of pressure from relatives and society who insisted that not changing her surnames would affect her husband’s well-being!

The conversation was an eye-opener in many ways: the persistent myth that urban India is ‘liberal’ ‘equal’ ‘post-feminist’ was bust wide open. The women in Anupama’s village have the same concerns and want the same changes. And the ability to resist social pressure and not conform to unequal diktats of patriarchy are not just up to empowered ‘badass’ individual women. But as Shilpa Phadke points out, it is also very much a function of privilege.

Rakhmupriya Senapati poignantly tells Anupama, “A woman is identified as a man’s wife. If women had their own identities, these problems would not exist.” But these realisations are the basis of the everyday struggles of women that, we hope, will collectively change the future for the next generation of girls.

Article by Madhura Chakraborty

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