Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

What’s in a woman’s [sur]name?

(Credit: Flickr/Charles Fettinger)

Last year I visited the bank to do some admin and I was informed that my surname on their system differed to that which was in my ID. I was enraged. It was a few months after my partner and I had gotten married. We had gone to the Randburg Home Affairs office and with the help of an affable marriage officer we were married in 10 minutes. During the proceedings, the marriage officer filled in the form and asked the regular questions. The entire time I was plucking up the courage to inform him that I wanted to keep my surname.

Fortunately for me, it was one of the questions he asked.
“Are you keeping your surname?”
I said yes.

I think he may have looked at my partner for a reaction but there was none because this was a given for my partner too. On the marriage certificate there’s a section for husband and wife. Under the wife’s details there’s a section for maiden surname and present surname. On my certificate these two are the same. So I thought it was a done deal.

So you can imagine my shock and fury when the bank informed me that there was something wrong with my details: my ID didn’t match their details.

Now – almost a year later – while standing in the queue at the voting station, I discovered that even the IEC knew that my surname had changed (they still let me vote, much to my surprise).

I haven’t been back to any Home Affairs office since last year and I have no desire to do so. But unfortunately it seems to me that I may have to. I find it almost humiliating that I have made the choice to keep my surname only to find that some civil servant can change it on my behalf because of the expectation that I should take my husband’s surname. I know this is not an error because it is standard practice that when a woman gets married her surname is automatically changed at Home Affairs.

I thought I had ticked the box by explicitly informing the marriage officer that I wished to keep my surname. Given the number of women whom I have heard complain about this automatic change at the Department of Home Affairs, one would think that it would have died away but it hasn’t. I think that a few women choose to keep their surnames and the majority are happy (genuinely so) to have the automatic change. So what’s the problem here?

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. I realise there are many women who find nothing odd about taking on another person’s surname in the name of culture and religion. And that’s fine if it’s their choice.

But when a woman indicates that she would like to keep her surname (and is then constantly quizzed for doing so —true story) and has to explain her decision while the man doesn’t have the same experience: that’s sexism. I am having a different public experience than the one my partner is having – I know he hasn’t been asked about his surname since he got married because it doesn’t matter for men.

I’ve been wary of writing about this experience because it feels like I’m just another raging feminist who finds fault in everything. 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.

If I look at this issue from the perspective of the institution of marriage, then I realise that perhaps my frustrations are in the wrong place. If marriage is an institution governed by both the state, religious institutions and the family then the rules of engagement are different. If my partner and I had decided to have a traditional African wedding my name would have changed, but because African traditional rituals have been marred by colonialism the surname becomes significant as well. And if we had had a church wedding than the same rules are applied. But we didn’t go for either of these options (and I doubt we will at this stage) because we wanted to avoid these entanglements. And I thought I had escaped the greatest entanglement of all by stating that I want to keep my surname. Beyond the paperwork that comes with getting married, I find the prospect that there are different assumptions for men and women the most disempowering aspect of all. I feel like the state sees me as a child and they have the right to make this decision for me in spite of the fact that I told an official I wanted to keep my surname.

I will probably have to go to Home Affairs and rectify their mistake. I will have to go and explain myself to them and convince them of my decision. I’m surprised there aren’t enough women making a fuss about this at a time where we are told we are equal to men. Whenever the issue of my surname comes up I am always reminded of Magoleng wa Selepe’s poem My name. The context might be different to the speaker in the poem who is lamenting her name being changed from Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqibisa to Maria because it’s easier to pronounce for the “burly bureaucrat” in the poem, but I fear that women’s identities are still easily dismissed in the process of assuming we will take our husbands’ surnames.

*Image credit: Flickr/Charles Fettinger

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    • Le Beau Harper

      Wow, and again: wow!

      Amidst your frustrating experience, which you relate so poignantly, I note that you do not mention how your husband is reacting to all this – is he equally outraged at seeing you being told you have to carry his surname? If yes, how supportive has he been (or is he currently) of your decision to challenge this? If not, how do you understand his non-committal stance on the matter?
      If he remains unfazed, maybe your answer lies there in front of you – you do not have to battle figuring it all out…
      I personally would never speak for him (or any other man, for that matter), but the day I marry I would prefer my wife to take my surname as her husband (not because of the nasty reasons you list, but because of the pride derived from the milestone that getting married or marrying someone accords to one’s family, community and society at large – something you say you would support). Equally, I would like to marry someone (one day) who also shares my sentiment on the matter…

      Good luck with the Home Affairs visits…!

    • Fiona Paumgarten

      Hi Athambile. Great to read your post and well done for writing it. I started writing something similar after my surname experiences, but I ran out of steam. I had a very similar experience. I learnt that my surname had changed when I smsed the IEC to confirm where I was registered to vote (about a year after we married). I had also been very clear with our marriage officer that I wanted to keep my surname. And I’m also fortunate enough to have an open-minded husband who is happy with me keeping my maiden name…my birth name. But it was changed. I went to Home Affairs…several times. Let’s just say that there was some shouting…and a small mushroom cloud of fury when I was told that I would need a “letter of permission from my husband” in order to change it back again. Anyway, on my 3rd trip and a wait of 6 hours (with affidavits and a pile of certified documents), someone finally took 2 minutes of their time to change it back again. I’m not really sure where to check if this change has actually taken place…I have nightmares that the bureaucrat forgot to press the “save” button and I’ll have to start the process all over again. When I voted, the IEC still had my married name but as with your experience, they still allowed me to vote. I don’t know if it’s something I’m overly sensitive too but I feel I face some level of gender discrimination on a regular basis. To have this discrimination institutionalized through Home Affairs really upset me. What I’m also not sure about is how same-sex marriages work because the form so clearly differentiates between “husband” and “wife” rather than partner A & B? It highlighted that whilst our constitution is so incredibly progressive, this hasn’t necessarily translated into changes at the level of Home Affairs and others. All the best with Home Affairs. I hope the process goes more smoothly than mine!