By Fr. Vitus Ugwu
It has been argued that the requirement of a new name by men is tantamount to holding that women have no identity of their own outside men. On the contrary, what the new name signifies is an accretion to her already existing identity—accretion which is not incompatible with the former. The new name is not a threat to the earlier names. People may still address the woman with her previous name and she will answer. But the name that recognizes her new status is that that she receives from her husband like Eve did from Adam. I don’t know how many of us have observed that husband and wife after many years of living together appear to look alike. Why would their names too not look alike? If the name of a man is adopted instead of a woman’s, it is not because a woman is inferior but because it is the way of life of a people. There are instances where a man is known by the wife and there is nothing wrong with it either as long as love is the motive.
Adoption of a new name by women is a significant capitulation of the macho complex of the past. It is a memorial of the permanence of marriage which did not obtain in the past. In the immediate context preceding the advent of Christianity in Israel, divorce was so common that women were changed more often than our unscrupulous politicians change their vehicles today. “In the immediate background of Christianity, the marriage relationship had broken down, and the home was in peril. Divorce was so common that it was neither unusual nor particularly blameworthy for a woman to have a new husband every year” (William Barclay, (2009) The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 94-5; cf. the school of Hillel in its Vol.1, 175). In such era, women could not have answered the names of their husbands, not because the Bible did not support it, but because men did not understand it so; just like they did not understand that marriage was envisioned to be permanent between a couple. It was a period that:“The Jew in his morning prayer thanked God that he had not made him a Gentile, a slave or a woman” (William Barclay (2009) The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 93). Because women were seen as being on transit in their (husbands’) homes, and as virtually equal in rank with slaves, it was understandable even if they did not adopt the names of their husbands or why they were not allowed to adopt their husbands’ names at the time. The adoption of a husband’s name as we have it today, therefore, is a milestone that marks women out no longer as disposable commodities but as essential constitutive parts of their (husbands’) families. It shows their equality with their husbands’ which they never dreamt of in the distant past. So, in cultures where women did not answer the names of their husbands in the past, it was not because of their independence or freedom from their husbands, which they generally never had, but because of their inferiority to their husbands.
Is the new name imposed on women? No! To describe the love-driven adoption of new name as imposition is to give a dog a bad name in order to hang it. What is done in love cannot be imposed. Similarly, what should be done in love should not be seen as imposition. The adoption of marital name should be done seamlessly in love, not by force. The basic love that should make this adoption possible should be taken for granted between two aspirant partners in marriage. Those who want to share in their husbands partly instead of wholly should have no business going into marriage because they failed it before it started. A woman who sees the absorption of her husband’s name as imposition is not in love with the husband. She loves her name more than her husband. For those who are shut with the unholy darts of feminism and who may consider the adoption of husbands’ names as belittling, they may take time to reflect on this: “Don’t ask me to leave you. For I will go where you go and stay where you stay. Your people will be my people and your god, my God. Where you die, there will I die and be buried. May Yahweh deal with me severely if anything except death separates us” (Ruth. 1:16-17). Even though Ruth retained her name, the whole assertion strongly suggests that her readiness to adopt her husband’s name should be taken for granted. If she made this declaration of commitment to her mother in-law, what would she not have given up for her husband? Ruth left her own people and started a new history with the people of Israel. It should be clear to women as well as men that every marriage begins a new history in which both partners enter the histories of each other in significant ways. If Ruth made Naomi’s people her people in spite of the racial discrimination of that time, would she not have adopted the name of Mahlon for the asking? As long as husband and wife live, not even a name separates them! Only death brings a dividing line.
In the past, many African cultures had women answering their own names apart from common surnames of wives. The reasons are not far-fetched. First, in those cultures, marriage was not understood as unity between a man and a woman. A man did not see his wife as his second half, but as an inferior party in a marriage. Marriage was not seen as an indissoluble bond between a man and a woman. The fusion between a husband and wife was fragile compared to Christian notion of monogamy. Thus, divorce was not only allowed, but married women retained their primary allegiance to their families. Married women had obligatory roles they perform yearly to their native villages and when they die, they are returned to their villages for burial. These were things that show that in our cultures, married women remained substantial parts of their parental homes. A married woman was in a mission as far as her marriage was concerned and would return either alive or dead to her native village. That was the conception that led to her retention of her family name. Secondly, the value of a woman was slightly above that of a slave. A wife called her husband Lord, the same name a slave called his master. Thus, it was too much an honor for a woman to contemplate answering the name of her husband. That would have meant a woman sharing the same equality with her husband. In our pristine culture, macho husbands could not have reduced themselves to answer same names with their wives. Besides, names in most cases say what a man has achieved. Ogbuagu (killer of lion) is a heroic name given to man for his valor. It was unthinkable for a daughter of a weakling who was luckily married to someone who killed lion to arrogate to herself the name of an Ogbuagu. The husband would object to it and the people would protest against it. This wasbecause they saw the husband and wife as disparate individuals. Because names carry the history of the bearer, the proud partner would not like to surrender or to share his/her name with an intruding partner. This thin line of division between married husbands and wives in many cultures in Africa was removed by the simple teaching of Christian marriage as unity of the persons involved. The insertion of a woman into the life of a man and his family gives her boundless participation in the history and life of the family even as she does not excise her own history.
The proponents of women’s retention of their maiden names run to African culture for proof. But while citing our historical past as evidence, we have to be cautious: a large part of that history which could have served as evidence was unwritten and not uniform in many cases. The people of that era most probably did not come together or put it to debate the name a woman would be called after marriage. It is likely that it was left at the spontaneous discretion of a caller. Thus, we could get those whose maiden names dominated (depending on how popular the person was before marriage) and those whose husbands’ names dominated (depending on how popular the husband might have been). In spite of the possibility, the general position seemed to favor the name of a man over the maiden name. How did they do it? They started by calling the newly married woman, “wife of ….” Then followed the combination of the maiden name, with the husband’s name to get a long descriptive name. For instance, my mother’s maiden name is Nkwoja Ugwuanyi and my father’s name was Odonwa ugwu. I grew up to hear people call my mother Nkwoja Ugwuanyi nwunye Odonwa Ugwu or Nkwoja nwuye Odo. This development and progress is natural and explainable. The principle of simplicity (Ockham’s razor) and culture favored the contraction of the maiden name to the husband’s name. Where a woman was stronger than the husband, people called her by her maiden name. But this was by the way. A woman’s name may be written with her maiden name in Africa but such names were abbreviations. Their full names had their status (wife) joined with their husbands’ at least.
No doubt, Christianity influenced the adoption of a husband’s name by a wife. And to understand the victory won here, one has to go back to our distant past. What was the dignity of the women in respect to their husband? We must confess that then, as we have hinted earlier, wives were a little above servants. Servants bore the names of their masters and so it was with wives, but in the sense that they were variously identified as belonging to their master. It is only by the mention of the names of their masters that they were known. The reference to their master was the surname they bore and not necessarily the surnames or names of their masters. The reason is simple: it was considered not so good for the master to share the same name with the servants or it was seen as too much grandstanding for a servant to attempt equating himself with the master by sharing the master’s name. The ancient knew that to share the same name with a servant was to share the same dignity with the same servant. Alexander the Great could only tolerate a namesake in his army if and only if the namesake is brave like himself. To share the same name with one’s husband is to share the same dignity and equality with him. Those who advocate for the emancipation of women and yet struggle for the retention of their feminine names in marriage destroy with one hand what they gain with another. They do not know that the participation in the name of a husband by a wife was a victory won in favor of the equality of husband and wife in marriage. We know that a lot went wrong in former time (the acceptance of slavery, for example) but it is unfair to conclude that everything went wrong then. We now know that slavery is inhuman but the obedience required of the subordinate to the superior is valid for all ages. In the same vein, the near reduction of women to property is not acceptable but the possession of the names of their husbands is not unacceptable. The name shows whose yoke they bear. I can accept that a man too can take up a new name to signify his dependence on the wife. If a man is Peter Adamu and marries Helen Eze, his new name can read: Peter Helen Adamu while the wife answers: Helen Peter Adamu. This I can accept but not disparate independent maiden names between husband and wife.
A man is born not to leave the house but to bring continuity to the house. So, when Gen.2:24 says a man leaves his father and mother, it does not mean that he will leave the house. Instead, it means: “…that this relation (to his wife) is to be preferred to all others, there being a nearer union between these two than between any others….” (Matthew Henry: 1991). A woman on the contrary is born to leave the house (Ps. 45:10-11). If she left the father, mother, siblings and relatives for her heartthrob, what is then in the surname that she cannot leave? Is the surname more important than the father, mother and siblings? Is surname not inclusive in her father she was told to forget? “Listen, O daughter, pay attention; forget your father’s house and your nation.”It is as though the Psalmist knew that some would not listen or pay attention to his appeal! A footnote in New Community Bible has this to say: “When marriage takes place, much has to be abandoned.” Matthew Henry understood Ps. 45:10-11 to mean: “Retain not the affection thou has had for them, nor covet to return to them again; banish all such remembrance (not only of thy people that were dear to thee, but of thy father’s house that are dearer) as may incline thee to look back, as Lot’s wife to Sodom” (Matthew Henry: 1991).A woman who leaves her father’s house for a marriage leaves like Abram to become Abrahamin her new home even if the reasons for the leaving are different for the two. Leaving treasures behind is a basic law of espousal. Name is one of such treasures. The motto of every Christian marriage is: TotusTuus (totally yours). As such, the partners can say to each other: “I love you, all I have is yours, yours I am, yours I want to be and do with me whatever thou wilt.” The partners decide to follow each other without going back or turning back. It is an intermingling without intermission.
A wife is an invaluable gift in Africa. The arrival of a new wife is like the arrival of a new child. It is greeted with singing, dancing, merriment and hopes. Just like the naming ceremony symbolizes the formal integration of the newly born into the family he came, the adoption of a husband’s name points to the indissoluble bond between husbands and wife. The adoption of a husband’s name unlike the naming ceremony of a child does not call for a former celebration because the wife has already an identity unlike the child. Secondly people gather during naming ceremonies of newly born to hear the names they will be called; in the case of newly married women, we already know what they will be called. She will be called a name that shows she is not a passer-by in the family, a name that signifies her identification with the family of her husband. It is true that marriage does not severe a woman’s relation with her maiden family, but it is equally true that in Christian marriage, her maiden family becomes her secondary family upon her marriage. It is not out of place for a woman to bear the name of her primary family—her home with her husband. Indeed, it is somewhat awkward for her to bear the name of her secondary family and lack the name of her primary family. Husbands and wives are not like rivers Tetri and Shavi that meet without mixing together. Marriage ideally entails the absorption or admixture of names.
Even if a woman retained her maiden name after marriage in traditional setting, what does it prove for a Christian here and now? When did our traditional marriage become the rule of faith for Christian marriage? Is marriage understood in our pristine culture as a coalescing of man and woman into one flesh? If the Bible said that the two shall become one, what else do we need to know that identity of name in a sense is implied? It smacks of scriptural shortsightedness to read about the oneness of couple and yet ask to be shown where it is in Bible that a woman should adopt the name of a husband. It is surely not a commandment, but it is a worthy counsel. To argue against the normalization of husbands’ names by newly married wives is inescapably tantamount to arguing for a normalization of a liquid culture that will lead to a loss of homogeneity among a homogenous group. There are choices already made which members of a group have to take up if they must find their identity with the group. To choose to identify with the group and to kick against their identifying choices is an identity rebellion. Adoption of a husband’s name by a wife is a victory of the gospel, and not a defeat of womenfolk by men. We can conclude this reflection with the words of Portia in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Within the bond of marriage, tell me, Brutus, / Is it expected I should know no secrets/ That appertain to you? Am I yourself,/ But, as it were, in sort, or limitations,/ To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed/ And talk to you sometimes? Dwell I but in the suburbs/ of your good pleasure? If it be no more, / Portia is Brutus’s harlot, not his wife.” (Act Two, Scene I, Lines 280-285).