How To Identify Identity

Surnames and Gender Equality


The question of surnames is one of the many problems of women. It, however, does not appear to be either an immediate problem or something that oppresses women. Some time or the other, we need to discuss this issue. Why not now?

Certain questions invariably arise in regard to identifying human beings: (1) Is the given name of a person enough to identify that person or should there be another name along with it? (2) What has been the system of identifying people in the present day society? (3) What will be the proper way of identifying people?

1)     To identify a person merely a given name is not enough. There ought to be 'surname' in addition to the given name. Whether we call it 'surname' or 'family name', each person's name must include a surname and a given name. If the name of a person does not include the two aspects, it is not possible to identify a particular person as distinct from among many individuals who have the same given name.

Here, we are concerned with the identification of humans socially. Hence there should be a means to identify each person individually. It must include a surname and a given name to each individual. In the case of certain individuals, others may recognize them even if they don't use surnames but this is not a general rule that applies to all. Let us consider such names as Venkayya and Subbamma. These are the actual/given names of those individuals. There is no mention of their surnames here. But there will be a hundred Venkayyas and a hundred Subbammas. Then how do we refer to a particular Venkayya and a particular Subbamma? These names must accompany other symbols like 'Dudala' Venkayya, 'Totala' Venkayya, 'Malladi' Subbamma, 'Nakkala' Subbamma. Otherwise it is difficult to make distinctions between different Venkayyas and Subbammas.

2)    In the contemporary society, the surnames of the children come from the father irrespective of the country, language, social status. There may be some variations within this system. In some regions, the surname of the father will be the surname of his children while in other regions father's actual/given name will be his children's surname. In yet other regions the names of both the father and grandfather together will be the surname of the children. Sometimes the paternal ancestral native place will be part of the surname. Whereas, nowhere do we find any surname that identifies children through their mother. There may be conventions among certain primitive tribes which indicate identification through mother. Barring such remote exceptions, surnames throughout the world indicate identification through father.

In the case of male members the surname which they acquire through their father would never change in their life. A man's surname would not change even when a wife enters his life or even when one wife passes away and another enters or even when he has four wives simultaneously. But in the case of women, their paternal surname will make a way to the surname or actual name of their husbands and their surnames thus change.

The surname of a man is connected with the father throughout his life and has nothing to do with his mother or wife. Whereas the surname of a woman is initially connected with her father and not connected with her mother. Later on with the surname of her husband: if the husband changes she will get the surname of that new/second husband.

The essence of the matter is identification of women through men only. This amounts to treating women socially inferior and unequal with men. This has cropped up from male domination which was originally born out of system of private property. Aspects such as property, its inheritance make women unequal with men and hence children will be identified through the fathers.

3)    Well, then, what is the proper way of having surnames? We cannot, however, suggest a solution which insists that surnames should come from mother's side and not from father's side. Then the problem will assume another form. Then, the father will be deprived of the position which the mother acquires. Hence a proper solution will be that which assigns equal importance to both mother and father. We have to find a solution from the perspective of gender equality. It follows that the surname of children must include reference to both mother and father and such reference must apply to both male and female children through their life without any change. This is the 'correct' solution.

Reference to both mother and father in the surname of their children is possible only by means of the actual/given names of the parents. Such a surname will begin with mother's name and this does not require much explanation. It is obvious that the child is connected physically with the mother compared to father in terms of birth and lactation period. This point does not require further explanation.

For example, mother's name is 'Vimala'. Father's name is 'Butchibabu'. Their surnames are irrelevant here. We want only their actual names. They have a son 'Ravi' and a daughter 'Shashi'. Ravi's full name will be 'Vimala Butchibabu Ravi'. This means, this Ravi is the kid of Vimala and Butchibabu. V B Ravi. 'Vimala Butchibabu' is the surname and Ravi is the actual/given name. What if either the mother or the father has a very long name? Let us say Butchibabu's actual name is 'Veera Venkata Satya Bhaskara Vara Prasada Butchibabu (as it happens in the case of Telugu people in certain areas). Then, it is enough if they take 'Butchibabu' since the remaining words are adjectives of 'Butchibabu'. Therefore, however, long the actual names of the parents, children can have a surname consisting of important portions only.

As everyone will have their parents' names as their surname, in every family, mother, father and their children do have different surnames. Unless they are children of the same parents, no two individuals will have the same surname, except in those contexts where one set of parents have the same names as another set of parents. In this 'new' system of surnames, girls won't change their surnames as in the past and hence there won't be any connection between their surnames and the entry of husband into their life. In this system, both men and women will have only one surname individually throughout their life. The tradition of surnames whereby children are identified through their father and wives through their husband will thus be changed and the new system will establish gender equality at least in this aspect of identifying individuals. This alternative system of surnames appears to be one hundred percent correct and no other alternative will be better than this, when seen from the perspective of gender equality. No problem will have more than one 'correct' solution. Hence the entire world has to adopt such a correct system ultimately. When we say 'correct solution', we mean from the perspective of equality in general and gender equality in this particular context.

The problem of surname system as far as our knowledge goes, has not been resolved even in those countries where attempts to achieve 'socialism' were made. The change in such countries, it appears, occurred to the point where married women do not change their maiden surnames. Again, what is the source of the maiden surnames of a girl? It is from the father's side. Even if a girl does not change the maiden surname after her marriage, there won't be gender equality. The idea of a proper change in the surname system which also includes mother's identity has not taken place in any of these countries.

Few more points related to the question of surnames remain for discussion from the perspective of gender equality. For example, the actual name of a Tamilian who wrote stories in Telugu with the pen name 'Sarada' is Natarajan. His mother's name is Bhagirathi. Father's name: Subrahma-nyam. According to Tamil tradition, children acquire father's given name as their surname instead of the father's surname. Thus the full name of Natarajan is 'Subrahmanyam Natarajan' (S Natarajan). According to the suggested new surname system his full name will be 'Bhagirathi Subrahma-nyam Natarajan'. (B S Natarajan).

As per the Tamil tradition, the surname precedes the actual name. For instance, let us say a woman named Bhagirathi will have her husband's actual name as her surname after her marriage. Let us say her husband's name is Subrahmanyam. Then her full name will be S Bhagirathi. But some women keep that surname after their name: Bhagirathi Subrahmanyam. This is not an old tradition but new tradition borrowed from the west or other parts of India. Such a shift indicates that the woman in question is not only carrying the burden of her old tradition but also carrying burden of others' tradition as well. Some Telugu women, under the influence of English/western tradition, follow more vulgar method. As per the Telugu tradition a woman gets her husband's surname (which in turn his father's surname) as her surname. For example, wife's name is, let us say, Savitri. Husband's name is Rama-murthy. Husband's surname is, let us say, Jonnala. If Savitri says, 'my full name is Jonnala Savitri', we don't find anything unnatural other than the tradition. If she says, 'my name is Savitri Jonnala', it will be unnatural to Telugu language usage. But if she says, her name is, 'Jonnala Savitri Ramamurthy', it will be unnatural to Telugu way of surnames. Some highly educated women, who are not satisfied with their subservience to the surname of their husbands, would also like to exhibit the actual names of their husbands.

When we speak of the full name of a person, it should include a surname and an actual name. No Telugu man includes the actual name of his father along with his father's surname. But, fathers and husbands enter into the names of some educated Telugu women. We find this disease among those women whose tradition is similar to that of Telugu. Husbands of such wives applaud this shameless practice of their wives. They feel happy that their wives are excessively and exceptionally obedient by unnecessarily carrying their names also.

In some clubs of educated women, we never hear a single female name. All are Mrs. Mrs Reddy, Mrs Sastry, Mrs Sharma, Mrs Verma, Mrs Rao, Mrs Hegde, Mrs..., Mrs...—all women over there play the role of Mrs only but not as independent individuals.

In fact, it is an utter insult for women to carry the surname of their husbands as ordained by tradition (that is, doing something which no man does.) It is a different issue whether or not people rectify themselves based on the truth that reveals itself in a debate. Truth does not depend on whether all people accept it or not. A discussion is a discussion. It does not give any scope to hesitations. The discussion that initiated criticism of women's stupidity will not leave male arrogance untouched. It won't stop giving up the surnames and names of the husbands from the names of women. Such a debate will question thus, "Oh, sons and men who have not recognized the identity of your mother for the past several millennia! What are you going to do about your surnames? Do you have the sense of fairness to reject the system of surnames that you acquire from your fathers and include the names of your mothers also in your surnames? Do you have the capacity to rectify now the mistake which you committed when you were ignorant?"

Ownership or effective control over property by fathers, the desires of sons for inheritance, male chauvinism, lack of self-respect among women and such other aspects have been rooted deeply in the society. Hence we cannot expect any desired change immediately. Yet one has to take a progressive step someday. We have some suggestions to those men and women who desire gender equality. Practice these if possible, otherwise read and put them aside. (1) Women who are unnecessarily carrying their husbands' names at the end of their names may at once abandon them. (2) Women may remove the surname of their husband and go back to their maiden surnames. Though father is also a man, slavery to the father is less cumbersome than the slavery to the husband. Women originally came into relation with their fathers mainly through 'nature' while their relation with the husbands is social in nature. A woman may change her husband but the father remains a father forever. In view of this, having father's surname is less erroneous than having husband's surname. [I too committed the same mistake which all women generally do. However, I rectified my mistake by giving up the surname of that person.] (3) Those women who get married can retain their maiden surnames. (4) Both men and women (these women are either married or unmarried) can start giving up their old surname and have new surname that include the actual names of their mother and father. They can do so as per existing legal procedure. (5) Even if parents do not change their surnames now, they can start following the new surname system in case of their children. They can adopt it at the time of sending them to the school or later. They have to change those surnames through Government Gazette. If fathers do not agree, women can insist on this new system. (6) Women's organizations may lay down a condition that their members must not put the names of their fathers or husbands. (7) Suppose a wife and a husband got separated and the children are living with the mother (or with the father). The new system of the surnames applies to them as it is. Even if parents do not live together, the combination of their actual names will be the surnames of the children. But some grown up children may not like to include their father's name in their surname due to their specific experiences with their fathers. (For instance, one of my readers by name Beeram Janardhan Reddy initially gave up the caste suffix 'Reddy' from his name and replaced his father's surname Beeram by his mother's actual name Amrutha (Amrutha Janardhan, who subsequently joined CPI-ML, People's War, was tortured by the then Andhra Pradesh Police and shot dead in a fake encounter on 24-10-2003). My two sons also gave up the surname 'Muppala' and took only my name 'Ranga' as their new surname legally. (8) We have to think about the surname of the orphan children whose parentage is not known. However, their surnames should not appear strikingly different from other children whose parents are known. Of course we imagine in the higher form of future society, there won't be a category of orphan children. But, in the present day society, there may be cases where children are born as a result of sexual assault or deception of women by men, it is not necessary to include the name of the biological father even if his name is known to the mother. In such situations as these, the seventh point does not apply. (9) Changing one's surname has nothing to do with one's age. Will it not be a wonderful thing if an 80-year old person, when she writes a letter to a friend signs the letter with the new surname? (10) Even if you can't change your old surname, think for a while and imagine how your surname would be! What do you lose if you think from a gender-equality perspective?

Finally, don't worry even if you can't do any one of these things. In the future, many people who are more enthusiastic and more rational in their thinking and practice will emerge. A generation ago, no one was debating this issue of surname system. Today we are debating this issue. There will be people in future who will implement the new system. Let us leave the joy of revolutionary transformation to the future generations. ooo

[This is a drastically abridged translation of the Telugu essay originally serialized in a Telugu daily, ‘Andhra Jyothy’ in its Sunday supplement for four weeks at the end of 1987. Translation: B R Bapuji]

Autumn Number, Vol. 48, No. 14 - 17, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015