The Battle for My Surname / by Tara Kaushal

April 2013: Why is retaining my surname after marriage such a constant fight?

I am fiercely protective of my name, and would not change it for the world. (Thanks to a bullying ex-husband, I’ve been there, done that, got the passport, thank you very much.) Nothing but ‘Tara* Kaushal’ feels like my name, not then, and even not now, in a very happy second marriage. Besides, I have a strong feminist agenda, and a whole score of reasons why I believe it was a mistake of youth to hyphenate the first time around and why I won’t do it again.

Anyway, the issue here is not why I want to retain my surname after marriage, but the fact that I do. And in the little time that I’ve been married, I have realised just how ingrained the patriarchal assumption of an automatic name-change is in our society and government systems.

My passport was a whole different level of complicated. Well after my divorce and even a few months in to my second marriage, for want of a permanent address, my passport stayed unupdated and said I was still married to my first husband, hyphenated surname et al. Now, in Maharashtra, marrying a Sahil Mane automatically makes me a Mrs Tara* Sahil Mane, adding the insult of his first name as my middle name to the injury of his surname automatically replacing mine. So, when it came time to update my passport, I visited the passport office to figure out how I could bypass this. The blank stares that greeted my preposterous request led me in to the arms of an agent.

Much research later, he said I would need an affidavit that went something like this: ‘I, Tara* <insert hyphenated surname>, upon divorce and remarriage, would not like to change my name to Tara* Sahil Mane but would like to revert to my maiden name.’ I bullied and blustered my way through the first few stages of the passport interviews, flashing my affidavit at confused officials. The last lady asked for a copy of the ad I should have placed in a national newspaper declaring my changed name, but accepted my protests that I was just choosing to retain the name on my birth certificate, why would I need an ad? It must have been a confusing, unusual case, because my passport came four months later.

Armed with this passport, getting my lost pan card reissued was simpler. A friendly, gentle Mr Deshpande with a foot in the retirement door asked if I was one of those ‘crusader types’. Though I don’t know the language, he even showed me a Marathi newspaper with an article about some feminist campaign, and insisted I take a photocopy to keep up with the actions of my comrades in arms.

The effort towards a married-with-my-original name passport has made life infinitely easier. Now, every time I have to insist on the use of my name, I simply have to whip out my passport. I even carry a copy around in my wallet (sarcasm intended). What’s scary is how often I’ve had to use this tactic. Adding my name on to Sahil’s membership at a local gymkhana is a fight I'm still fighting. Apparently, its systems are not built to accept different surnames for married couples with the same membership number. “Aapko feminism karna hai toh dono naam kyon nahi rakh lete? It will be easier,” advised this helpful clerk when I baulked at the looming battle with bureaucracy.

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Then, there are the social reactions that I and other women who have different surnames from their husbands encounter. When booking tickets on a sleeper bus to Goa, I told the agent I’d like the seats together as I would be travelling with my husband. He filled in my name, then assumed my husband’s name was Kaushal. When I said it wasn’t, his snigger said it all. (And when he realised that we don’t share a surname and he is younger, that’s it, his image of me as a lying woman of questionable character was complete.) I also deal with sniggering clerks when we try to check in to smaller hotels. The social censure doesn’t faze me; Sahil and I lived together for years before we married, and one develops a bit of a thick skin. Fortunately, he laughs off the mail addressed to ‘Mr & Mrs Kaushal’ that occasionally lands up in our letterbox, as he does friends’ teasingly calling him ‘Mr Kaushal’ when I’m hogging the limelight. These may not be easy things for a less secure man to accept.

The sign of a mature democracy is the way it treats its women. Are we cattle, to be possessed and passed on from one male to another, ensconced in a patriarchal cultural and governance system; or are we treated as individuals entitled to make our own choices? That the default is patriarchal is bad enough, it is infinitely worse that one has to struggle against so much to make customised choices against the norm. I always choose to wear the name I grew up with… Except when dealing with traffic cops, where I allow myself the small luxury of donning Sahil’s Maharashtrian surname. The battle wages.

An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in April 2013.