Surname saga: final edition (hopefully)

A few months ago I wrote a piece about discovering my surname had been changed without my permission at the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) with the title "What's in a woman's [sur]name?". The issue of women's surnames being changed after they got married, even though they had stipulated they wanted to keep their surnames, caused a bit of a stir a few days after the local elections. Many of us had dared to lean over and check our details on the voter's roll only to discover the surname was different.

A few weeks after I wrote the article I had an email conversation with someone who made me think more about the issue and the piece I wrote. It feels relevant posting this exchange because today I was at Home Affairs. I'm in the process of getting a new passport (and I decided to throw in a smart ID in there as well). If you haven't got your smart ID yet, do it. It's easy and efficient assuming you have good wifi and internet banking and a bank nearby that's working together with the DHA about processing passports and IDs within "five to ten working days".

Today I went to the bank to complete the process and was helped by a very friendly guy, Tlou. Everything was fine until I leaned over to check Tlou's computer screen hoping that I'd filled in the online form correctly. My suspicion was confirmed: I still had the surname that isn't mine as my surname and my surname as maiden surname. Of course I was ready for this given my previous encounters with my surname issue. I dramatically whipped out my marriage certificate and explained to Tlou that I wanted to keep my surname and the certificate was the proof. He was dumbfounded "Why would you want to keep your surname?". In fact he was even suspicious of whether or not I am in fact married (who would marry someone who wanted to keep their surname right?). And so began the usual conversation where a stranger quizzes me about my choices and I give the same answers I always give. Tlou was a nice guy so I was very nice to him in spite of how bizarre the conversation sounded to me: I still don't get why I have to explain this simple choice. My favourite part of the conversation was when my partner was invoked: how did he feel about me not changing my surname? My response: it wasn't an issue (true story). His response:


Eventually I was asked to fill in a form with the heading REQUEST TO USE MAIDEN NAME/PREVIOUS SURNAME (I took a picture of it as evidence). The form is like an affidavit including a section "My reason being" and a section for an explanation. There was something humiliating in this process. How it is okay for me to explain why I want to keep my surname? Surely there should be a form for people who take on other people's surname. They should be explaining why they want to take someone else's surname. I asked Tlou what I should say (he was still making calls to someone who had the power to give me back my surname). And he said this was to safe-guard DHA from an angry husband who discovered his wife had changed her surname. My response: 



He explained that my reason (I want to keep my surname) wasn't good enough. Maybe if I had a business (or something to that effect) he would understand if I wanted to keep my surname (I explained I'm a teacher). I guess he was making the argument others make about the professional brand that women want to keep and therefore decide they do not want to change their surname. We continued to have a lively conversation and he finally processed my form and my surname was returned to me. 

I left the interaction with Tlou feeling very conflicted: should I have fought against the form? I can't think of other words to describe the feeling of filling in a form explaining why I want to keep my surname. There's something bizarre about that in ways that bizarre can't fully express. Absurd perhaps. I think I may have dashed Tlou's romanticism about marriage. At some point I noticed a tinge of irritation "That means marriage is just paper work mos!". Well yes, I also signed a pre-nup. But there's more to the paperwork surely.

I'm waiting with bated breath for the arrival of my new passport and ID. Hopefully this will be the end of the surname saga. 

Below is the email exchange in response to the previous article:


DM: I am a little concerned about this name change thing being made into a ‘middle class’ concern although I see that what you were trying to do is to suggest that ‘there are bigger issues out there’.  I think that it is precisely BECAUSE your middle class positionality gives you the resources and social capital to fight this issue of people’s names being changed that your struggle is actually one of human rights: the right to retain one’s birth name even in marriage.  Although Nguni women may have a back-up in the sense that you become ‘Ma(your surname)’ it is the case especially with Basotho that your in-laws in, fact, GIVE you a new name in their family and you become incorporated into the family in that way.  It is for these reasons that I find the issue that you have raised to be a deeply important human rights complaint.

 AM: I didn't see it that way because there's no record of women complaining about the issue. I wish there were more voices. Even Home Affairs made it sound like we're in the minority and they are making it easier for the majority of women who want to change their surnames. 
DM: Well it is precisely because it is seen as a minority issue that it must be discussed. When you write "I also feel like this is an issue amongst an educated and mostly privileged group of women", This doesn’t make the problem any less significant but it feels like a middle-class concern.’ I think that what you are pointing to is that the mass of people who undergo this either never realise that they have a different choice OR they are inundated by other more urgent and life threatening issues . They do not have the socio-economic capital  (or leisure) to do something about the fact that they are being infantilised by the state in this particular way.  Precisely because they are infantilised in other, pressing ways such as social grants (basically an allowance for being poor), RDP housing etc.
It is no surprise, given the state of most women in South Africa’s lives, that this issue is under-reported.  They are too busy reporting more pressing issues.

 This, however, does not mean that this issue is not important.  As you rightly point out "The change of the surname is both a public and private symbolism that matters greatly in our society. Whether we like it or not, the expectation that a woman should take her husband’s surname stems from a sexist belief that I aver is also a result of colonialism". This means that in a society that is constantly talking about de-colonisation and ‘freedom’, there is an underlying level on which colonialism is still creeping up on us and  positioning itself as a base line to our feelings about right and wrong, how society works and how marriage is constructed.
 It is entirely likely that there are hundreds of thousands of women right now in dire socio-economic-political situations who, in their quiet moments, would like to have kept their birth names.  It is precisely the use of ‘maiden-name’ as a descriptor that makes this colonial logic so pervasive. What is a maiden?  In isiXhosa or isiZulu one would have had umemulo already to strip one of the ‘maiden’ part of one’s identity – one becomes a woman.  So…why can’t you choose your own surname? Because of this infantilising logic of the state as daddy who is an extension of daddy at home and daddy at work…
It is this level of structurally oppressive logic that requires that we dismantle it all at once.  No oppression is too small but some are more urgent, more life threatening than others.  So…if we use the rules of triage then of course we must tackle economic issues first but oppression is overlapping (intersectional) and so we cannot use triage. We cannot deal with single strands of oppression one at a time.
It is very important for us to note that even the poorest woman in the most dire conditions has the richness of internal world to also feel as you feel: humiliated, stripped, unfree. Even if she has more pressing oppressions to contend and deal with.

AM: Would you mind if I copied and pasted some of this email discussion as a follow up blog post on the issue? I know it's weird and I'll understand if you say no. It's the most valuable feedback and discussion I've received on the issue.
DM:It's not weird at all and I would be honoured. 

Comments

  1. I too had my surname taken from me unknowingly. I don't remember filling in the form filled in, but am sure I must have done. Perhaps because I am white, I didn't get so much grilling about it, and my "reason" (absurd, as you say) was accepted.
    The issue is broader than this though. I know a woman who wants to return to her birth surname, now that she is separated from her husband. Not only does she want to return to her birth surname, but to her birth first-name too. She lost that when she married and was renamed by her husband's family. She speaks isiXhosa, so it is not only the Basotho who do this. Home Affairs has made it almost impossible for her to shed the name that she no longer wants to carry as she is unable to show a document that has her original name on it.

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