What's in a Name, or the Ordeal Indian Women Face in Obtaining Official Documents

Many women who don't take their husband’s surnames on marriage face harassment, probing questions and unfair delays in government offices while registering for almost any new official document. When will the bureaucratic system appreciate the right of women to retain the names of their choice?

The Tanvi Seth passport case has generated its fair share of controversy following Seth’s tweets to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj alleging harassment and hindrances in obtaining a passport. Seth complained that she and her husband were being harassed because of their inter-faith marriage and her not having changed her name upon marriage.

Tanvi Seth’s tweet to Swaraj was routinely tagged by one of her aides to the official concerned, who took action. Subsequently, the passport officer on the case was transferred and Seth’s passport was cleared. However, the matter took an ugly turn on social media and quickly escalated into a communal issue, with the external affairs minister getting trolled and blamed for pandering to Muslims and ‘unfairly’ transferring the passport officer, a Hindu. While Swaraj should be commended for dealing with the trolls efficiently – calling them out and blocking them – the uproar it generated has unfortunately taken away the spotlight from the main issue: the difficulties women face while obtaining official documents.

It seems that Tanvi Seth was harassed not just because of her inter-faith marriage, but more so because she kept her own name. While her religious status (due to the nikahnama) is unclear – and would certainly call into question Ram Madhav’s extolling of her Hindu identity in his recent op-ed – Tanvi Seth is in her rights to keep whatever name she wants despite her marital status or religion.

This is guaranteed not only through our Constitution (Article 19 grants to all citizens the fundamental right to freedom, which includes in its extensive ambit the freedom to keep or change one’s name), but was also reinforced through a government resolution (dated: June 25, 2014, unique code: 201406251240437430) passed by the Maharashtra state government in 2014 which provides women with the right to give any name of their choice to themselves and their children and directs all government departments to not compel women into keeping their fathers’ or husbands’ names. The resolution further states that women who face problems in exercising this right can file a complaint at the district collectorate against the respective department or officer in charge.

However, despite these reaffirmations by the government, it is the government officials themselves who seem to be in the dark and create hindrances for women with non-conformist names and surnames to get legal documentation of any kind. During my MA research about women who had not taken their husband’s surnames on marriage, I found that all women had faced some form of harassment, probing questions and unfair delays in government offices while registering for almost any new official document. They have shared experiences of being denied passports, ration cards, bank accounts and even the right to vote, all of which were attributed to their names.

The reason behind this is patriarchal practice, which is pervasive across religions and normalises the notion of women’s relational identities to such an extent that women changing their names upon marriage is seen as something completely normal – a convenience – and not the coercion it really is. The legal and bureaucratic systems of our country blindly subscribe to this norm and are sadly not equipped to be sensitive to the diversity of names and identities that thrive (and should thrive) in a society like ours. Rather, it is not so much the religious clerics as much as government officials who more often than not coerce women into conforming to patrilineal naming customs.

Many of my research participants were asked to ‘think twice’ about their decision to keep their natal surnames by government officials. Some were also told that it was ‘against the law’ for a woman to have a different surname than her husband. When they demanded to see proof of such a law, they got no response. One participant, who writes her name like mine – her parents’ first names instead of a surname, shared that she was not allowed to file an FIR for her stolen wallet because she did not have a ‘proper’ surname.

For women across the board, whether they keep their names or change them, it becomes a hassle to obtain any kind of documentation, owing to the simple but powerful patriarchal notion that women’s identities (and names) are not their own. That women belong to the men in their lives – fathers, husbands – as witnessed through their names. This ‘brittleness’ of women’s identities serves to prevent them from accessing the same status of full citizenship that men enjoy. It relegates women into being second-class citizens: requiring more suspicion, more scrutiny, more paperwork. And as for women who do display the agency to go against this and keep names of their own volition, or give their children their names, it becomes even more difficult to deal with a system that neither recognises nor accepts this agency or choice.

Therefore, I think looking at this issue only through the lens of religion and inter-faith marriage is myopic. It wrongly narrows the issue into a religious blame-game when it should be broadened to include all women who face unnecessary questioning, scrutiny and on many occasions outright discrimination while attempting to obtain documents. The bureaucratic system – especially the people who are part of it – should be trained to understand and appreciate the right of women to retain and pass on the names of their choice.

The harassment that women face for choosing to keep non-patrilineal names must be seen as a violation of their fundamental right. It is completely unconstitutional and needs to be called out for what it really is – discrimination against women.

Sakhi Nitin Anita is a graduate of women’s studies and a feminist researcher currently based in Nashik.

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