By Bandana Upadhya
Marriage has uncovered – with full force – personal vulnerabilities that I had not anticipated. At each step I have been overwhelmed with an intense need to question and subsequently reorganise my sense of personal identity. At the very core of this struggle has been the question of whether or not to adopt my husband’s surname.
My husband has the nicest surname. By nice I mean, it is easy to pronounce and sounds rather good next to my first name. Moreover, I have not always been a fan of my own family name. As a young child in Nepal, I was often teased about the way it sounds; it is a typical Brahmin surname and can be broken down to expose a mildly rude word, both of which attracted negative attention that I did not enjoy. Since moving to the UK, my surname has often generated awkward silences (the person about to pronounce it suddenly appears very worried), polite questioning (“sorry, how do you say your surname?”), misspelling and mispronouncing. I don’t get angry at these people; I feel sorry for them. It gets more difficult when there are issues with your first name as well. Every time I am about to introduce myself, I feel a little anxious about how I should say ‘Bandana’. So, I desperately looked forward to the opportunity to at least change my surname and was planning to do it as soon as I got married. In my mind, replacing my surname would not change who I believed myself to be.
Then the Kanyadaan (giving away the bride) happened. My parents were giving me away (via my right hand) to my husband. They were seeking religious and societal permission to submit over my responsibility and finally allow me to be an adult. It was meant to be liberating and an overdue step into independence. Instead, I was filled with the agonising realisation that it was not my hand that was that was being passed from one man to another, it was my ownership. I watched with eyes filled with tears of disappointment, protest and sorrow. It was this moment that triggered an influx of doubt and dilemma about the decision to change my surname. The idea of changing my surname started to feel deeply uncomfortable. I worried that if I change my surname I will lose my self. I became consumed with a fear that by giving up my surname, I will forever lose a place in my original family.
Since getting married, I have felt less of my parent’s daughter. Well, I am still their daughter, but something has definitely changed. It is hard to explain what it is. Perhaps they feel they have no rights over me, or that they cannot expect anything from me. They remind me every so often (not harshly, but rather dutifully) that I belong to my husband’s family now. Apparently after marriage, it is not only my address, but also my loyalties and priorities that have to change. This is how my culture works. The truth is I don’t know where I belong anymore. I have not really integrated into my husband’s family either. I feel lost somewhere in transition, or as though I am orbiting along the boundaries of the two families. I want to be committed to my husband, but I do not identify with his family name. With his name, I would be representing his family’s history, their reputation and their ideologies, which feels unfamiliar and frightening. With his name, I feel I would be a stranger to myself.
What I haven’t yet admitted is that my husband does not want me to change my surname. He has a mother who proudly and (probably) defiantly kept her maternal surname after marriage. His position should make mine easier, but it doesn’t. Unfortunately my internal conflict will not resolve so easily. I worry about what will happen when we have children. I imagine they will take his name and that won’t feel too good either. I am worried about being left out. I am worried about appearing to lack a sense of commitment and duty. I know that this is the (inevitable) influence of a lifetime of societal and cultural brainwashing. I also know that I am lucky enough to be living in a time and place where I could (with a little fight) reject and shift the traditional or cultural norm. I do not want to take this freedom for granted. I believe it is my individual right to make my own decisions (no matter the reasons), but for this I have to be willing to take full responsibility and pride in that decision.
I have been married for seven and a half months now and everyday I have wondered what I should do about my surname. I tell myself to wait until the decision feels comfortable and easy. I tell myself to take as much time as I need to. Most of all I tell myself that regardless of the choice I make, at the end of it all, I will own my name.