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What’s in a name… after marriage?

“Ladies and gentlemen, let us put our hands together for the newlyweds, Mr and Mrs…”

If you are that kind of person who regularly attends wedding after wedding, then you must have heard this statement mentioned so many times that it may have stopped registering any significant meaning in your brain.

Well, for Anita Arinaitwe Mugisha, this statement’s meaning is still imprinted in her mind. It marked her first steps into a marital journey and signified a new beginning, a new life, a new responsibility; it signified marriage.

Married on Saturday, December 15, 2012 at St Augustine chapel, Makerere University, Arinaitwe was more than happy to take on her husband’s surname. Arinaitwe was no longer called just Anita Arinaitwe. She was now called Mrs Anita Arinaitwe Mugisha.

“At first, it felt really awkward, but in a nice way. Ultimately it made me feel more responsible, more mature and gave me a greater sense of belonging,” Arinaitwe narrates. “It reaffirmed to me that the games were over; I now belonged to someone.”

Almost marking three years in marriage now, Arinaitwe believes taking on her husband’s surname has united both her marriage and the family.

“It has been a unifying factor for my family because I and our two baby girls now have his name; so, it makes us all feel united,” says Arinaitwe.

Arinaitwe is just but one of many women in Uganda who have accepted to take on their husband’s surname after marriage. Charity Kobusingye, currently known as Mrs Charity Nshuti, believes it is socially prestigious to identify oneself as ‘Mrs.’
“[It] symbolises change of family. It also symbolises love and submission on the part of the wife,” says Kobusingye. 

This practice is actually the norm, and from the likes of Dr Miria Rukoza Koburunga Matembe who is married to Nekemia Matembe, to Ruth Senyonyi who is married to Dr John Senyonyi, the list of women who take on their husband’s names after marriage is endless.

CUSTOM’S ORIGIN

Changing one’s name after marriage is no new custom in Uganda. Very common among the women, and unheard of among the men, the custom dates back to the time of British rule in Uganda. According to Kavuma-Kaggwa, an elder from Kyaggwe in Mukono district, adopting the husband’s name after marriage was introduced by the British.

Under the common law, according to the English system, women after marriage were – and still are – required to adopt their husband’s surname. Their previous surnames would then become their maiden names. It is little wonder that many official forms in Uganda ask for maiden names because it is assumed that the lady has taken up her husband’s name after marriage.

After marriage, one can hyphenate or blend her name with her husband’s name, take her husband’s name, or come up with a completely different name. Change of names by wives can be done on two fronts. One can legally change her name after marriage simply by signing on the marriage certificate.

However, for one to choose to legally change their names means they may be required to also make similar changes on all their official documents thereafter, though the swearing of an affidavit should adequately take care of that.

On the other hand, one can informally use the husband’s name on specific social occasions; a practice many women who maintain their maiden names prefer. 

Systems such as the French one are very different. Here, women after marriage are not required to adopt their husband’s surname; so, they can get to keep their original names. For instance, in Burundi, women do not take on their husbands’ names.

The French can be likened to Muslims where the Islamic culture does not compel women to take on their husbands’ names after marriage.

Kavuma-Kaggwa further explains that change of names after marriage was unheard of in the African traditional setting where polygamy was the order of the day. In such a setting, a man would have more than one wife and, therefore, could not have all of them taking up his surname.

HOW MEN FEEL

For Joshua Nshuti, to have his wife, Charity Nshuti, adopt his surname makes him feel very good and proud. It is a constant reminder of his responsibilities.

“It is a form of public declaration that she is mine and I am hers. It shows me that she loves me enough to let me be the head of the family and take care of her,” says Nshuti.

Nshuti explains, however, that this at times also makes him feel scared, pointing out that in the case of the wife doing something outrageous that tarnished their name, the whole family would be culpable and suffer the consequences. Married in 2013, Isaac Olanya’s thoughts are no different from Nshuti’s. Sharing a name with his wife gives him pride and strength to defend the family.

“To have my wife take up my name makes me so proud. It gives me the mandate, the energy, the mental strength to defend and take care of her as she is and as an extension of myself,” observes Olanya.

Augustine Sekibule, a family counselor with Holy Trinity Church, Kamwokya, believes taking on a husband’s name after marriage symbolises oneness and unity in the marriage.

“The fact that the wife has accepted to take on her husband’s name and the husband also accepted to let the wife take on his name are both forms of submission,” Sekibule explains.

NO CHANGE

Not all women have embraced this age-old practice of changing names, though.  The uncertainties of marriage and the need to maintain one’s identity prompted Mercy Nalusiba, a traditional Ssenga (marriage counselor for women), to maintain her name.

“Well, it is not that I believe my marriage will fail. I would just like to be on the safe side in case it ends abruptly. I wouldn’t want to have people still calling me by my ex-husband’s name when we are divorced,” explains Nalusiba.

She further points out that she had already built up her own reputation before marriage and changing her name would make her lose her identity.

“In case I had changed my name after marriage, I would have lost some of my clients and it would have taken a while for many to adjust,” says Nalusiba.

The long tedious process of changing all her papers, the fear of losing her identity and the uncertainties of marriage motivated Nalusiba to keep her maiden name. Nalusiba speaks for most women in Uganda who continue to maintain their names after marriage.

Kizza Besigye and wife Winnie Byanyima

Winnie Byanyima, married to Kizza Besigye, maintained her name after marriage; world-renowned Hollywood film producer/director Mira Nair, married to the acclaimed Ugandan academician, Mahmood Mamdani, also maintained her maiden name; Iryn Namubiru, formerly married to a Frenchman, Frank Morel, too, opted to keep her name. And the list goes on.

Historically in America, taking your husband’s last name after marriage was mandatory. The first American woman to legally maintain her last name after marriage was Lucy Stone. Stone got married to Henry Blackwell in 1855. She became an icon for women in America who wanted to maintain their names. Decades after her, women who kept their name after marriage were referred to as ‘Lucy Stoners.’

ATTACHED STEREOTYPES

In the years after Stone, keeping or changing names by women became both a personal decision and one that many people were eager to read meaning into: does changing your name make you more traditional? Does keeping it make you a feminist or independent? 

A 2010 study published in Basic And Applied Psychology showed that women who changed their names after marriage were typically viewed as more ‘caring and emotional,’ while women who kept their last names were viewed as ‘smarter and more ambitious.’

Sekibule believes women who maintain their names after marriage are proud and not submissive.

“There was a time a married couple came for counseling and I noticed that the wife did not use the husband’s name. I had to convince the lady to take on the husband’s name,” Sekibule narrates.

One of the reasons Mercy Nalusiba did not change her name was the need not to feel owned by the husband. She desired to maintain a sense of independence. However, Sekibule counters this argument and says sharing a name is not ownership but, rather, unity.

“In African tradition, women become part of the man’s clan after marriage and the man becomes head of the family. Similarly, in Christianity, the man becomes head of the family after marriage,” he explains. “In both instances, the woman has to be submissive.”

Kavuma-Kaggwa believes that keeping or changing one’s name after marriage is a decision that should be agreed upon by both spouses; otherwise, the marriage is tainted with disagreements and insecurities from the word go.

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