What’s in a Name?

Originally written for ARY News blogs

Also published in Pakistan Tribe


O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name.

Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,

And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.


Most people are familiar with these lines; they are from the famous “balcony scene” of perhaps the most celebrated play of William Shakespeare. In spite of its popularity, however, these particular lines from Romeo and Juliet have always appeared somewhat offensive to me, because Juliet here is not only enticing Romeo to give up his name, but is most happily willing to forego her own as well.


What’s in a name? Well, your name is your identity, for starters. It is what defines you, what gives you recognition. Yet, we see women giving up their names every day, on getting married; women who who no longer want to be Capulets. In the above mentioned lines, Juliet is at least striking a balance by suggesting that they both forego their names. But in reality, do we ever find men giving up their names and taking up the last names of their wives? Of course not. That would really be ridiculous, wouldn’t it? After all, it is the woman who is being assimilated within the new family, not the man. I wonder why the champions of feminism have never raised their voice against this obvious gender discrimination?


Now all this must sound extremely unconventional. The fact of the matter is, however, that this apparent unconventionality is endorsed by Islam. The women of the world appear to be quite ignorant of the fact that Islam gives them the right to retain their father’s name. Acting in a spirit of true feminism, Islam posits a form of feminism that no other system or movement has ever propounded. A woman is allowed, in fact encouraged, to keep her identity, and to not grant ownership to any man by taking up his name. Marriage is a contract, not an ownership of one party by the other.


To emphasize this point, let me mention the fact that even in the early days of Islam, the Prophet (SAW) did not ask his companions to change their names upon conversion to Islam. They were under no obligation to give up their identities now that they had embraced Islam, except for changing those names which implied servitude to any one other than God. Even to this day, people who convert to Islam are not required to change their names. They may take up a more Islamic name, but that is a personal choice. All this despite the fact that conversion of faith is even more of a significant or drastic life changing event than  marriage, it is like a turning over of the soul, of your entire belief system. If that does not require a changing of names, then why should marriage?


This emphasis on retention of identity or name simply points to a reality, which is, that a woman can and may change husbands, but she cannot change her father, the person responsible for bringing her into this world, and of course the only man who can claim to have unconditional love for her. Hence, if she is, or should be, owned by anyone, it is her father. He is the one who hands her over in marriage, and he is the one she can go back to.


It is especially frustrating when, hit by a sudden wave of nostalgia, you search in vain for old friends and classmates on social media and cannot find them because all, or at least most of them, have changed their maiden names. In a world brought so close together through the world wide web, we are still constrained by beliefs enforced upon us by this prevailing and seemingly unnoticed anti feminist mentality imported from the West. In countries like Pakistan, the Middle East and most of the Muslim world, keeping your own last name is still quite acceptable, but it isn’t so easy for women wanting to retain their last names in Western countries. It causes all sorts of complications in documents and job applications and travel, to name a few. This so called liberal world of today appears to reek of inequality and sexism when 90% of American women feel obliged to change their last names when they tie the knot.


Psychologically speaking, a person’s name is part of the schema that defines the word “I.” It is a vital constituent of the Ego and an important element in an individual’s self-image. It is neither possible to just alter your schema of identity and insert another name in it. There is definitely something amiss in expecting one half of the human population to give up their own self-image, and take up the identity of the other half. Thus, take pride in being a Capulet, ladies. Let Romeo change his name if he must, but do not give up your own identity!


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