It was socially expected that soon after the “I dos”, I would dedicate time to changing all my official documents; my ID, passport and ultimately, all my accounts, so that they could all be re-registered with my new marriage name. As much as I would love to be known as a ‘Mrs So and So’ in my social circles, the hassle that comes with officialising this made me celebrate last year’s ruling by High Court Judge, Martin Makonese, that married women are no longer legally obligated to change their surnames for the purposes of securing identity documentation for their children.
Let’s face it, throughout the unfortunate tremors of divorce, women often face the expenses, time and rigours of changing their surnames all by themselves. Many years ago, a female relative got married and changed her surname soon afterwards. Two years later, she went through a divorce and now has to live with the unpleasant attachment to her ex-husband’s name because she does not have the energy to go through a third round of applications for new official documents.
What’s in a name?
This then got me asking myself, “What is in a name anyway?”
Is there anything that changes in my commitment, character or demeanour with my change of surname? Does it make my husband more faithful or loyal to me? Does it make me more identifiable as a member of his family, and hence a better daughter-in-law? Will it make people in the streets see that I am married? Will it stop other men making crude comments or making passes at me despite the ring on my finger? Will it stop other women from going after my husband or him going after them? Will it make my prospects for voting, access to economic funds, legal recognition, social and cultural freedoms better? What does the title “Mrs So and So” on paper hold for me or any other woman?
After going through this series of questions, I then remembered that even in the Bible, when God’s prophets wrote the scriptures, they referred to married women like Rachel as, “Rachel, the wife of Jacob”, or, “Rachel, the daughter of Laban”. Rachel maintained her name and was linked to her male family members through their relationship to her, and not through a change of name.
So likewise, I choose to be Busi Ndlovu kaBhebhe (Busi Ndlovu wife of Bhebhe). Being Bhebhe’s wife does not change who I am, a Ndlovu. This must complement me and thus be an addition, not a subtraction, to who I am and what I was before I said, “I do”.
According to Justice Makonese’s ruling, “There is no provision at law that compels married women to change their surnames to those of their husbands.” Therefore, in terms of Zimbabwean marriage law, a married woman is legally free to keep her last name. She also has the option to use it in combination with her husband’s or change it totally to her husband’s if she so wishes. It is just the misinterpretation, or misrepresentation, of this law by officers at the Registrar General’s offices all over the country that has, for decades, compelled married women in Zimbabwe to change their surnames – especially before obtaining birth certificates for their children.
Thanks to Fadeke Obatolu and her persistence in demanding that her rights be observed, all women can now enjoy this ruling. In her application to the High Court of Zimbabwe she stated, “I believe the first respondent is obliged to register all births that occur in Zimbabwe notwithstanding the citizenship of the mother… I am aware that first respondent (Tobaiwa Mudede) habitually and incessantly forces married women to change their surname before registering the births of their children. I do not believe there is any provision in the Births and Deaths Registration Act that empowers him to do so… I believe he is in breach of his constitutional obligations, not only to me but to the masses of women whom he summarily compels to assume the surnames of their husbands.”
Obatolu, through her lawyer, fought this battle and won it not just for herself but for all women in Zimbabwe who now have that simple but undeniable right to freely choose!
In other words, a married woman’s name can now appear in its maiden form on her child’s birth records without any legal drawbacks. This takes away the many challenges, women in particular and Zimbabweans in general, face when applying for national documents.
Our maiden surnames tell a story
However I realise how difficult this is for many men to accept. To deal with that, I refer to the famous Shakespearean quote:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Simply put, a rose would not stop smelling as sweet nor would its thorns stop stinging as they do were it called a shrub. We would appreciate and cherish it as a symbol of love and beauty still. A woman will still love, honour and cherish her man as much without changing her surname.
So I say to our male counterparts: please understand why we will first celebrate before justifying ourselves for wanting this so much. It is because for us it’s more a triumph than it is a denial to be subject to our husbands. It means we can still travel with our old passports. It means we can still vote with our original IDs without need to re-register. It means we can still conduct business or financial transactions without having to apply for new bank accounts using a different surname.
It simply means life goes on for us.
For many of us, our maiden surnames tell a story of our lives; who we are, where we’ve been and where we come from. Our maiden surnames are what remain of our original selves. They are what link us to the people with whom we share our blood, the people who gave us life and raised us to be the women our husbands married. It is through our maiden surnames that our children will link a part of their heritage.
For the new generation of women who have made names for themselves in their professions before getting married, it is their maiden surnames that tell the story of their success born of sweat and toil, and not the patronage of marriage. Therefore, it is not our names that give meaning to our lives, instead I believe it is how we live our lives that gives meaning to our names.