As a foreigner arriving in Germany you will be straight away confronted with an official form where you should fill in your surname (or family name), your maiden name (in case you are a woman) and your first name. That´s when your problem starts … The officer will try to help you and will immediately get very confused if you have more than a first name and a surname. Where do all the names belong to?
The worst scenario is for a married foreign woman, who doesn´t have a maiden name (!!!), with a different surname than her husband. But, but… where is the family name? – will the german officer politely ask. And, … are you really married ?- will he ask as well. You will end up telling him about all the traditions of your country, but still you will have a very puzzled officer who does not understand why on earth there are countries without family names, maiden names and where people have the freedom to select surnames. Believe me, there are countries where you can choose your children´s surnames from all the available surnames of your ancestors (as long as you can prove it)! I think such freedom is actually very nice.
This has led me to some thought over the years I have been in Germany. A question which frequently troubles me is: why would a woman want to abdicate from her maiden name and take her husband´s surname? Surnames, as first names, are part of our identity since we are born. When you think about yourself you think about your name(s) – these are part of you. As I would never consider changing my first name for any other – because it is part of me, in the same way I would never change, delete or substitute my surname. For me it is just unthinkable. In my life, I only met very few men who would consider to change their name upon marriage. So, why do women still agree on it? Getting the husband´s surname is like getting a stamp saying that you are property of your husband. I can imagine that if you marry someone who is famous or rich then some women will do it for status and power, but what does that actually tell about yourself? In this line, then men married with famous women should actually take their wife’s names, but I don’t know a single example of it. Imagine also, the scenario when your marriage does not work out. Do you want to carry for the rest of your life the surname of your former husband? Sure, in most countries, if not all, you can get back your maiden name. However, in my daily life I meet frequently women who after divorce still carry the surname of the former husband. That I can`t simply understand. Why do you want constantly to be reminded of your previous partner, with whom you had a relation that didn´t work out?
To finish up, I would like to tell you about two families I met here in Germany.
Number one is a family from South Europe. I put it as an example of freedom in using surnames. The woman kept her two surnames upon marriage. Uses usually the middle one, which actually, comes from her mother. The husband has several surnames (which were obviously not changed upon marriage). They have two children – both have a surname from the mother and a surname from the father. If there is a family name then I would say this double name is the family name! The interesting thing is that the woman gave her children the surname she usually uses – the one from her mother!
Number two is a family from Denmark. When they got married they just fused the surnames of both in a double name – a unique example of a man who has changed his name upon marriage!
These are nice examples of good directions to go if we are to take gender equality seriously. I think that until women are free to say no to the practice of erasing their maiden name and/or take their husband´s surname there is no true gender equality, and women will never be taken seriously and with respect by their male counterparts.