From the Chronikles: In the name of equality

By Khaled Diab

As toys with the idea of allowing mothers to pass on their surnames, is there a way to make naming practices fairer?

Wednesday 18 January 2012

According to naming practices, my name reveals a fair bit about my family history. In fact, a casual observer can trace my back three generations – not to mention the nth generation in which the original Diab lived. However, this only applies to my . My name keeps a discreet silence when it comes to my female forebears.

In Europe, middle names are generally chosen and, so, often reveal little about intermediate ancestors (unless they are the names of grandparents). Nevertheless, names here still carry the patriarchal seal of the male founder of the family.

It is still common practice, at least in Anglo-Saxon society, for women to adopt their husbands’ surnames. And a wife’s identity can be so subsumed by her husband’s that she takes on his full name, especially in official correspondences or more traditional ceremonies.

Luckily for my wife and I, given our belief in equality, this is not the practice either in Belgium or , where a woman keeps her . I don’t know if this is a sign of greater equality in this particular aspect, an accident of history, or simply reflects a different patriarchal emphasis, i.e. that of a woman’s father rather than her husband.

Nevertheless, still take on their father’s name. Of course, the practice may have originated partly for practical reasons – my wife speculates that it may have started off as a simple acknowledgement of paternity, a way for a man to say to society that I recognise this as mine, too, and the way for a woman to ensure that he does his share of the caring.

Nevertheless, I find this inherently unfair to the mother. Because I am a Diab, that means I am labelled and pigeon-holed in society’s consciousness as belonging to my father’s family but not my mother’s.

Where is the mother acknowledged in all this? Barack Obama illustrates this conundrum well. Although his father had little role in raising him, the president elect bears his name – whereas his mother and her family get little acknowledgment, in his name, for their far greater role.

Personally, I have previously toyed with the idea of taking on my mother’s , Khattab, at least informally, in order to acknowledge the greater role she has played in my upbringing and my closer affinity to her family.

Intriguingly, there is a tribe in Indonesia in which, contrary to most of humanity, children’s family names follow the matriarchal line. In fact, with a population of up to 7 million, the Minangkabau are the largest group of people to use a matronymic naming system. And it is not only names that are passed down along the mother’s line – property, too, is matrilineal. Men’s role is to handle affairs of state and religion.

It will probably surprise many to learn that the Minangkabau are ardent Muslims. However, they have striven to preserve their native matriarchal culture and strike a balance between it and Islam’s more patriarchal worldview. And this women-friendly society, which reveres the importance of learning, has not done at all badly for itself, over-represented as it is in Indonesia’s professional classes and top government offices. Unsurprisingly, the country’s first female minister was a Minang.

That said, replacing patronymic names with matronymic ones is still not an ideal solution, since they replace one inequality with another. My wife and I have mused over how children could be named in a way that would be fair to both parents. There’s the option of merging family names.

But, here in Belgium, that’s no longer possible – apparently it creates confusion regarding people’s identity – while, in Egypt, the bureaucracy is so rigid as to rule out such flexibility. Besides, given their profusion among the aristocracy, double-barrelled names carry a certain pomposity that can be lived without.

Another option is to give alternate children alternate surnames. The drawbacks are that you need to have at least two kids and, ideally, an even number of sprogs. It would also prove confusing to outsiders, particularly the authorities, in terms of ascertaining parent-child and child-child relations – which could actually be rather entertaining.

It seems there is no easy way to make naming practices egalitarian (i.e. both patronymic and matronymic) without each of us being given a name as along as the Channel Tunnel. But is showing lineage really that important, at least when we become adults? Perhaps the only truly fair solution is to let everyone invent or choose their own surname when they come of age. That way, we’ll be celebrating the individual and sending out a message that family is a private affair.

Since this article was first published, this theoretical conundrum became a practical one. When my wife was pregnant with our son, in addition to the challenge of choosing an appropriate first name for whom that sounds good and can travel, we discussed the issue of his surname. Ideally, we’d have liked to give him both our surnames, but the law does not allow this, either in Belgium or in Egypt. We also discussed the idea of giving him Katleen’s surname, but since that, too, is still not permitted, the debate was a hypothetical one. The upshot of this is that, although Iskander Diab, is a joint project, so to speak, his name only acknowledges his father.

The Belgian initiative currently being considered to strike a fairer gender balance in naming conventions should not only allow mothers to pass on their own surnames but be expanded to allow both parents to be recognised in their child’s family name. And, ideally, our should be adapted to give power to children to ultimately choose their own surnames when they come of  age. This could even become a 21st century rite of passage to adulthood, alongside drinking alcohol and driving (though not simultaneously).


This is the updated version of column which appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 16 November 2008. Read the related discussion.

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