Posted by: Tanmoy Chakrabarti | March 27, 2009

Surnames

One of the most reputed Economists in India once told me how he does not believe in a surname. To him, an Indian surname gives out too much of information such as region, caste etc which are not so important in order to lead a good life. He regretted that he realised this later and that is why could not drop his surname from his identity. However, he wished that time, that his new born daughter may lead her life without the additional baggage of a surname. That is why, when he was admitting his daughter to school for the first time, he did not want to disclose her surname. Many schools in Delhi refused her admission and finally the Economist could convince only one school principal about how he thinks surnames can be discriminatory. His daughter got admitted in that school.

This incident happened some eight years back and I am not in touch with the Economist, so I do not know whether life changed for her daughter without the surname attached to her name. I am not sure whether passports etc can be made without the surname. If it would have been possible, would not we have seen more people without surnames?

I would be interested to know what some of the readers feel about having surnames?

Do we really need it? And is it really discriminatory?

Further, I wonder why universally, tradition requires women to change their surnames post their marriage. I am surprised this is true all over the world.

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Responses

  1. As far as the importance of surnames is concerned, I have no opinion as I have not found it an important issue to think about. But what I have always wondered is that why women have to change their surnames after marriage. Something must have gone wrong somewhere at some point of time. I do not know whether that history has been traced or not. If it has been, I am more than eager to know what happened.

  2. At certain point in History,social beings throughout the world found problems in locating individuals.So surname came to identify individuals.It is more like naming the streets and allotting number to the Houses.People at different parts of the world used different nomenclature in developing surnames. The discrimination,if there is any, was not intended. If the system of surname were not there we would find thousands of Jacks, identified as Jack 1 to Jack 2998 etc.It would rather enhance problems.
    The reason for changing surnames for women is same.But why women? As the society remained patriarchal from time immemorial.

  3. Just a few observations:

    1. S. Chakrabarti is right in saying that surnames serve as convenient and useful identification tags,

    2. Many people in India get their surnames changed (and even suppressed) by all sorts of straight as well as devious means to take advantage of special privileges (‘reservations’) granted by law to certain ‘underprivileged’ sections of our society – or to avoid being discriminated against on the same grounds!

    3. What can women do? If they keep their old surnames even after marriage, they are still keeping a male (father’s) name, isn’t it? Some add on their husbands’ surnames to their originals, but it’s obvious that this can’t go on for too many successive generations… and there are indeed matriarchal nomenclature systems in all parts of the world, but they are slowly dying out.

    4. Some surnames can be positive embarrassments. I wonder what a Bengali called ‘Shit’ does when he goes to an English-speaking country?


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