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What’s in a surname?

If Sonam Kapoor wants to adopt the Ahuja surname, it is nobody’s business but her own

brunch Updated: May 20, 2018 14:08 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times
The last thing women need is to have the burden of prescriptive feminism placed on their already overburdened shoulders
The last thing women need is to have the burden of prescriptive feminism placed on their already overburdened shoulders (Photo: Getty Images)

Why did Sonam Kapoor change her name to Sonam Kapoor Ahuja after she got married?

There is only one correct answer to that question: because she wanted to. She wants to be known as Sonam Kapoor Ahuja from now on. And it is not our business to second-guess her or to offer helpful (I jest, of course) commentary on how her decision is a strike against gender equality and an obsequious nod to the patriarchy. Nor do we need fulminating think pieces on how this one decision to take her husband’s name and add it to her own somehow disqualifies Sonam from being a feminist – and is, in fact, a betrayal of the feminist causes she espoused all along.

The name that we describe as Sonam’s own, the one she gave up in favour of her husband’s, is also the gift of another man: her father

For one thing, the name that we describe as Sonam’s own, the one she gave up in favour of her husband’s, is also the gift of another man: her father, Anil Kapoor. So, how would keeping it strike a blow against the patriarchy, when the name – quite literally – was bestowed upon her by the patriarch?

Can you see the logic in that convoluted piece of reasoning? No, me neither.

Whether you stick with the surname of your father or take your husband’s, it is still a man’s name you are sticking next to your own. So, why should one be a feminist choice and the other a kick in the rear of the feminist movement?

The short answer is that none of this matters – or more correctly, none of this should matter. If we all agree – and I hope we do – that feminism is about the freedom to make your own life decisions, to choose freely how you want to live your life, and yes, to make up your own mind how you wish to be styled, then every woman is entitled to make the choice that feels right for her. And even if you don’t agree with that choice, it is not for you or anyone else to shame her for it. That is not how a sisterhood works.

In fact, we have quite enough on our plates without having a heavily annotated to-do and please-don’t list thrust down our throats as well.

And frankly, when you think about it, how is this prescriptive feminism any different from the demands that the patriarchy places upon us? Just as it was disempowering when women were forced to take on the names of their husband the moment they married, it is equally infantilising to insist that they must stick with their birth names even if they don’t want to – on pain of having their feminist credentials cancelled by the Surname Police.

In that sense, there is no difference between the patriarchy and prescriptive feminism. Both of them want to dictate how we should live our lives, how we should behave, what we should and should not do, to fall within accepted parameters of approved behaviour. So, why should we seek to cast off the bonds of one only to accept the constraints of the other?

If you ask me, we should refuse to acquiesce to the demands of both and live our lives just as we want to. And call ourselves whatever we damn well please. If we want to stick with our maiden names (as they are still rather quaintly called) then we should do so. If we want to be known by our married names, then we are free to do. In neither case, do we owe any explanations or justifications to anyone else.

There may be a dozen different reasons why women choose to stick with their father’s surname: they like the way it sounds; they already have a flourishing career in which they are known by that name; they don’t want to change their bylines or brand names; they don’t want the whole palaver of changing passports, Aadhar cards, bank accounts, Pan numbers and what have you.

And there are plenty of different reasons why women choose to adopt the surname of their husband. They may do it in the first initial flush of romantic love. Once they have children they may want the whole family unit to have the same name (this is also for practical reasons, as any woman who has gone through passport control with a young child who has a different surname than her own can tell you). Some of them may drop their own surnames altogether. Others may chose to hyphenate them with their husband’s.

It really depends on the woman in question and what she thinks works best for her. And that is exactly how it should be.

Which is why I refuse to join the Brigade of Outraged Feminists attacking Sonam Kapoor Ahuja with brickbats and pitchforks because she chose to change her name. She could style herself as Princess Consuela Bananahammock for all I care. It’s her life. It’s her decision. It’s her choice. It’s her name. And it is nobody’s business but her own.

Journalist and author Seema Goswami has been a columnist with HT Brunch since 2004. Her new book 10 Race Course Road is currently topping the charts.Spectator appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, May 20, 2018

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