What’s in a name? A lot, if its your mother’s

Blame it on the British. When India names its children, the mother’s side of the family is all but forgotten. The children are given the father’s surname. It seems like an antiquated practice today, when inter-caste, inter-regional and inter-religio us marriages are on the rise and women sometimes find themselves cast as single mothers, raising children all by themselves.

But why blame the British? Till their advent, most people did not find their surname (or last name) in their caste. When the British colonial administration began documenting land ownership and birth records, it followed the British custom of giving children their father’s surname. This remains common practice in much of the English-speaking world.

In the US, notably, only a few traditional families use the mother’s maiden name as the child’s middle name. That’s how Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America’s 32nd president, got his middle name.

In Europe and the Americas, few women change their names after they marry, so it makes profound legal sense for children to have two surnames. In India, motherhood may be celebrated but appears to have little value when it comes to legal and government records. Isn’t it time we changed? Yes, M Varaprasad, Andhra Pradesh’s education minister indicated that when he denounced “our old system (of insisting the) father’s name be included in the certificates. Why not mother? This is very unfortunate. This is very discriminatory”. His comments are significant in the very week that the southern state started to offer the option of mentioning either parent’s name on the child’s school admission form.

Aarti, a single mother, backs the minister’s point of view. “Why cannot it be the mother’s name? She’s the one taking the child to school, mostly. When it comes to government stuff like passport or visa they harass you. Why can’t they simply take the mother’s word for it? The child is with the mother and the mother is giving a passport copy,” she said to the media.

As campaigners for women’s rights pick a fight with India’s naming system, it might be useful to look at Europe and America. In Spain and Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas, children have two surnames — the first from the father, the second from the mother. Painter Pablo Ruiz Picasso used his maternal surname, Picasso, as his signature.

Isn’t it time we stopped the practice of using the surname of just one parent? How about hyphenated surnames, consisting of the last names of both mother and father, in whatever order? It would ‘legalize’ Indian motherhood.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. m s dinakar
    Oct 07, 2010 @ 13:01:42

    What’s in a name ? … more often asked than convincingly answered … is it so? … if patriarchy is to be blamed for the dad’s tag … I think … there has been quiet a few changes … as far as my knowledge goes … what name you want to call yourself is not dictated by what your parents have named you with … one can change one’s name and go with it … there is no law against it … whether you are married or single … eom.


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