Whose name am I?! Musings on patriarchal naming practices.

I need to change my Virginia license to New York. Why is this interesting or relevant? I hear you say. Well, I have long wanted to claim a certain middle name, and the renewal of official documents and identifications presents such an opportunity.

OK, so what?! I still hear you say. Is this a feminist blog or what?!

Yes. Hang on.

My last name — AbiRafeh — is my father’s last name. I think this is true for most of us. What’s more, in Lebanon, where I was born, your de facto middle name is your father’s first name. So you are: (first name) (father’s first name) (father’s last name). And you’re required to fill out your father’s name on every official form.

Where’s my mother!? I kept asking. Doesn’t matter, I was told.

I love my father, but surely I could do something to bring my mother’s name into my own? And so this quest was born. While it is primarily about patriarchal naming practices, it’s also political in more layered ways. My mother is Palestinian. I’d like some of that identity in my name as well. The patriarchy has denied my mother in two ways: negating her role in the process (of me!) and also erasing her country of origin.

So, here was my plan: I’d add my mother’s maiden name as my legal middle name. Problem solved! Or so I thought. This would (should!?) satisfy my principles as a feminist and as a half-Palestinian. Well, not so simple. My mother’s maiden name is her father’s name. So, that’s still a patriarchal line…

And now I have to decide: Where do I draw the line?!

(Meanwhile, I also hate the word “maiden,” which means girl, maid, servant, or — unsurprisingly — virgin.)

So here I am, reflecting on patriarchal naming and family lines and identities and feminisms and trying to unravel it all — ideally before I go to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and commit to one name or another!

There’s a lot of politics around name-changing. See for instance the hoopla around J. Lo morphing into J. Aff (or whatever). Everyone’s got an opinion on this, it seems.

Meanwhile, most women still take on their husband’s names upon marriage — 70% in the US and nearly 90% in the UK. In the US, the first woman who refused to take her husband’s last name was Lucy Stone — in 1855! Later, she was denied the right to vote. In 1975, only 3 percent of American women kept their names, with some states requiring this by law, also in order to vote. Why?

There’s a long-held belief that women become their husband’s “possessions” after marriage. Patriarchal power persists. There’s also practicality. And the appearance of unity. And the kids. And ownership. And identity. You get it…

And, this is linked to other patriarchal traditions, like the father “giving away” the bride — handing over the goods from one dude to another. Where’s mom there?!

And, we still view the act of not changing our names as “rebellious,” so there’s a perception that a supposed “good family” will all share the same last name. Sure, things are changing. Slowly. But we’re overwhelmingly patriarchal. Yes, everywhere.

Even in progressive countries like Norway, with its commitment to gender equality, most women still take on their husband’s names. Iceland is an interesting case. When I was there, I could not figure out why all the women had the same -dóttir suffix in their last names. (OK, this was probably obvious, but it took me a second!)

The suffix -dóttir literally means “daughter of,” so, as a girl, your last name is (dad’s first name)-dóttir. “Gunnarsdóttir,” for instance, literally means “daughter of Gunnar.” And a boy is Gunnarson.

Iceland isn’t the only place that uses patronymic last names, meaning names derived from the father (or a male ancestor). Arab countries do something similar. Boys are often called bin- or ibn-(father’s name), meaning “son of”-(father’s name). And girls are bint-(father’s name). And so on.

Matronymics are not used in Arabic. Or in most cultures, in fact. Some matrilineal communities in South and North-East India name children after the mother, but this isn’t particularly widespread around the world.

Patrilineal naming practices prevail because, well, patriarchy prevails. We still think of the man as the head of the family, the traditional breadwinner, and so the family is the “responsibility” — or, property — of the man. We assume that taking on the father’s name will provide children with security and a sense of belonging in life. A legacy.

It’s just… how things are.

This is “culture” and “tradition” — two words that are often used to thwart women’s rights. Our accepted system insists that the male line is the only line. Women are therefore compelled to drop their last names (read: their father’s last names) because it would create chaos! (Please read the overwhelming sarcasm here).

Guess who loses? Mom. Guess who is erased? Mom.

Kids complicate matters. Women who don’t share their children’s last names can have trouble when it comes to travel or making decisions on behalf of the children. And same-sex couples or mixed couples need the same name to create the family unity required for legal documents and so on.

But let’s look at some of the good stuff for a sec. Most Muslim women keep their own names after marriage, a sign of respect for their family roots. In Greece, feminist advocacy resulted in changed legislation in 1983 that requires women to keep their maiden names. Same thing in the Netherlands. In France, a 2013 law allows women and men to choose to take each other’s name for social purposes, but they cannot legally change the name they were given at birth. In Spain, as of 1981, once they turn 18, children can decide which name they’d like to come first — mom or dad. In South Korea, women keep their maiden names, and although they can take on their husband’s names, most women opt not to.

In Latin America, many have two last names — dad and mom. In recent years, some parents have opted to alter the order of last names, but paternal last names usually precede maternal last names. Combining names is one way to signify the unity of two families and the formation of a new one. In Mexico, the first child to be given a maternal last name was in 2017. And only in recent years have couples started combining their names in the US. We’re evolving. Again — ever so slow.

In Italy, women retain their maiden names by law. But a woman may include her husband’s name following hers — if she chooses to do so. Italy went a step further this year, with the Constitutional Court ruling that a baby should be assigned the names of both parents or be given a new, unrelated name. The Court said that retaining only the father’s last name is “discriminatory and harmful to the identity” of a child.

Maybe new names, and new ways of understanding the politics of naming, are possible. Hybridizing and hyphenating are on the rise. Many of us view the act of not taking a man’s name as an assertion of our feminist principles. But we’re still preserving a patriarchal line.

(And why do naming practices from The Handmaid’s Tale come to mind?! Lest we forget this all-too-realistic horror, handmaids are given names that tie them to the men they serve. So, our main character, Offred, is literally Of-Fred.)

It might be difficult — and insufficient — to preserve our ancestor’s names, but surely a more equitable system is possible. Finding equal importance in each other’s names and legacies sets a good precedent for what a marriage and a life should look like, feminist author and activist Alya Mooro says. Understanding, unpacking, thinking through, and remaking traditions is really the only way we’re going to bring about change.

The thing is, we don’t often think of these things, and so we don’t often have these conversations. We just take on what is passed down to us. So here I am, quite literally asking who I am, and trying to figure out who I want to be. At the DMV.



Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!