From Bangladeshi tradition, to skipping to the top of the register, to marriage, Shahnaz Ahsan traces the ongoing political challenges behind her name

“Is your dad, you know – your actual dad?” My Year 3 teacher peered over her rectangle, wire-framed glasses at me sympathetically. I had just returned a permission slip for a school trip that had been signed by my father.

I blinked confusedly, processing the question that was being posed to me. What on earth was this woman talking about?

“Yes…” I replied slowly. “And my mum is my actual mum…”

Later that evening when relaying the seemingly bizarre conversation to my older sister, she explained to me that my teacher probably asked because of the name signed on the permission slip. It wasn’t common, she explained, for children to have different surnames from their parents. My teacher probably thought our dad was our step-dad, and that our mother had changed her surname to his after they got married, and that me and my two sisters had our ‘real’ dad’s surname. I can’t quite remember the specifics of the conversation that followed, but I like to imagine that I made some kind of insightful critique about the expectation of women to mould their identities around their male relations, going from having their father’s names, to their husband’s names, with no opportunity at any point to just have their own name. But I was eight years old at the time, and probably I just said something along the lines of ‘that’s stupid’ – a fair enough statement.

After that, I took an interest in the naming patterns of our family. Like many South Asians living in the diaspora, my family was without a template as to how we should name ourselves. The notion of one definitive ‘family name’ that is inherited for generations does not traditionally exist in many South Asian cultures.

The exception can be seen in families who bear a title – such as ‘Sayed’ which is claimed to denote a direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad, or ‘Talukdar’ meaning a landowner. Over time these titles have come to take on connotations related to the Western concept of a ‘surname’ and are passed on with pride and a deeply rooted sense of continuity. The high regard for these titles-as-surnames is in no small part due to the respect or status that comes with these accolades, for instance, the historical exemption of paying taxes as a ‘Talukdar’ to the British imperial regime during the Raj. But this form of family name is rare, reserved for a privileged few. More commonly, parents would choose second names for their children, often having one name for daughters and one name for sons, and giving all of their children these names accordingly: for instance, in Bengali Muslim culture, giving all their daughters the surname of ‘Begum’ and all their sons the surname ‘Miah’.

Sabreen, Shabnam and Shahnaz Ahsan: neither Shabnam nor Shahnaz changed their names after getting married

My maternal grandparents, raising their children in Britain in the 1960s, meshed Bengali tradition and British convention in choosing names for their children. My grandmother proudly kept her own name – there is no traditional expectation that a woman would change her name after marriage – and is known as Fatima Nahar Begum. My grandfather was known as Habib Ullah Bakht. ‘Bakht’ was more of a title and was soon dropped in the face of British bureaucracy, and so he went by Habib Ullah. In keeping with Bengali naming tradition, my grandparents chose the middle name ‘Parveen’ for all their daughters, and ‘Iqbal’ for all their sons – and then tacked on ‘Ullah’ to maintain the British convention of having one common family name. The final result was that although at birth all six children were given relatively uniform names, in adulthood they ended up with entirely different combinations of names, many of them dropping Ullah, others using their middle names as surnames.

My mother’s choice to retain Ullah made her life much simpler for when she married my father who happened to already share the same last name. She was able to maintain her principle of wanting to keep her own name after marriage, while also avoiding the inevitable scrutiny that faces married women in Britain who keep their names. When it came to naming their children, my parents’ motivations were slightly more unconventional. Ever the pragmatist, my mother recalled the years spent being at the bottom of the register thanks to her ‘U’ surname, and decided that the life chances would be better for her unborn children if they had the privilege of being at the start instead: being called first for presentations in class, having teachers remember your name because you were top of the register. She engineered this opportunity – which I still thank her for today – by bestowing our father’s given name – ‘Ahsan’ – on us as our last name. And so, it became that we were a family of two Ullah parents and three Ahsan children.

It was not until I became engaged that the question of surnames arose again in any significant way. Friends and family would ask the questions in loosely the following order: How did he propose? Have you set a date? Are you changing your name? I was taken aback by this sudden interest in my name, when the decision, at least to me, was fairly obvious. I don’t come from a culture where that was the expectation. I had spent twenty-nine happy years with the name I had, eighteen of those years ruling the top of my class register. All my qualifications to date were in the name of ‘Shahnaz Ahsan’. And aside from that, I loved my name. Shahnaz means ‘Favourite of the King’. My middle name means ‘Excellent’. Ahsan means ‘the Best’. My parents, it seems, never gave me a chance to not have self-belief, naming me – with no sense of irony – ‘The King’s Favourite Excellent The Best’.

A joint birthday for me and my older sister, Shabnam

When I informed my friends that I would decidedly be keeping my name, I was largely met with sounds of relief. Oh good, I can’t imagine you being called anything else. Or, I’m so glad you’re keeping your identity. What went unsaid, at least for me, was that as much as I wanted to actively keep my name, another significant reason was that I didn’t want to lose who I was. There was a very real terrifying possibility that upon marriage I would cease to be. My degree certificates would be in the name of someone who no longer existed. My published writing would no longer be attributed to me. People who I knew before marriage and then lost touch with may not realise if they came across me years later with a different name that I was the same person. In the workplace I have seen women, particularly in the fields of academia and research, struggle to rebrand themselves with a new name after marriage, especially when their publications and research papers have been released under a previous name. As a woman, you can build up a career for years only for society to expect you to cash that in for a new name, supposedly as a symbol of your commitment to another person. Another person who, in a traditional, heteronormative context, faces no expectation to change his name or sacrifice his career history and public recognition to date as proof of his marital dedication.

This led to the subsequent issue of titles. There is no public title that distinguishes between married and unmarried men, all enjoying a nice egalitarian ‘Mr’. For women, there are a myriad of possible titles, reflecting perhaps, the societal obsession with women’s marital status being symbolic of something else – success, convention, prestige. I had always been ‘Miss’ but becoming a ‘Mrs’ wasn’t an option as I wasn’t taking my husband’s name. The neutrality of ‘Ms’ seemed ever more attractive as an option. In having this as my official title, my marital status is of no consequence to anyone else, being revealed on a need-to-know basis rather than being brandished either as a smug status symbol or a somewhat presumptuous warning of being ‘off-the-market’ to any single Mr types.

Perhaps the most difficult part of making my own choice to keep my name was actually softening my own kneejerk reaction towards women I knew, and those I didn’t, who did choose to change their names after marriage. As much as I resented the implication that I was any less committed because I did not want to take on my husband’s name, I realised that I was making all manner of assumptions about women who did change their names: that their motivations were, indeed, about status, or that their family histories and identities somehow meant less to them.

The Ahsan girls and Mother Ullah dressed up for Eid

I had to come to terms with the truth that women have plenty of reasons why they would choose to change their names after marriage. Some might have uncomfortable relationships with their birth names, or their families, and view marriage as an opportunity to take a new name for a new chapter in their lives. Others decide they want to have the same surname as their children, going by the social and legal convention that children receive their father’s surnames at birth. Many more simply just view changing their names as part of getting married and forming a new family unit; a tradition they take on and accept as much as walking down the aisle and wearing a ring. If what I seek is a suspension of judgement from others for not taking my husband’s name, the least I can do is suspend my own judgement of women who choose to do so.

My own grappling with this issue is reflected in the fact that there are an ever-expanding number of ways couples now seek creative solutions to their post-nuptial names. Double-barrelling, merging names, and even choosing a brand-new name are all emerging as solutions for those who do not want to give up one name and take on another, in marriage among and between men or women, or non-binary people. This is not an insignificant issue for couples today. For couples that bring together different cultural traditions, this becomes even more challenging as they try to balance practicality, cultural identity, personal identity, societal and family expectations.

Our names are far more than just a way for people to address us. They tell others about our histories, our roots, the patterns of migration our ancestors may have undertaken, the social hierarchies they moved within. For many people, these are compelling enough reasons to maintain the names they were given at birth. For others, the truth that we carry much more about ourselves in ways other than just what people call us, leads them to take on new names for new parts of their lives. Accepting and respecting all of these approaches for what they are – personal choices, informed by societal and cultural norms – means that, hopefully, in the future, no other eight-year-old will be left blinking at her teacher when she is asked whether her parents are ‘really’ her parents, just because they are called something different.

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Shahnaz Ahsan is an award-winning writer of short stories and is currently working on her debut novel due for publication in 2019. Born and raised in West Yorkshire, she has lived in Oxford, London, and the USA, but her flattened northern vowels remain victorious. She sporadically tweets: @shahnazahsan and is represented by @CWagencyUK

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One thought on “Migration & marriage: women of colour and the politics of surnames

  1. Well I wanted a last name that was neither my husband’s family’s last name nor my father’s. Took my grandma’s but that is her husband’s name. Keeps going back to a man.And then people still assume my email name is me. Worse is my mother’s generstion took husband’s first and last name so morphed into him.


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