In Australia many international students (particularly students from South East Asia) will introduce themselves with an English name instead of using their birth name; migrants are also often asked for their nicknames for ease of pronouncing; and many are given an English name by their employer for the same reason. Such stripping of identity by renaming an individual, though not unique to Australia, is not as banal as many would have us believe. Naming practices are reflective of prevailing power structures and hierarchies; creating new identities by erasing previous identities; creating new relationships and histories by maintaining colonial patriarchies. These naming practices have pedagogical implications for the discipline of Social Science in general and Development Studies as it intersects with development practice. Naming practices not only assert the power of the “developed world”, but also enable Western superiority and value and prominence in knowledge production in the world. Naming systems have patriarchal and colonial legacies and continue to influence Development Studies especially in terms of “what” and “who” is valued and what is worth “preserving” in terms of norms, values, cultures and traditions. The reality and practices of (re)naming in Australia are quite contradictory of our claims regarding acceptance of cultural & gender diversity and racial equality.
I was once asked, as a passing reference, whether I was the daughter of a person he knew, as I share the same last name. I have never been known with any other name except my “first name”, yet have received messages, replacing my last name with my husband’s name, sometimes even erasing my identity altogether, calling me as Mrs. so and so, though on a few occasions, my husband was called by my last name. I have friends and family members who took their husband’s name as their last name after getting married, some noting it as a sign of their love for their partners, though many have kept their “maiden” names – not necessarily as a political or feminist act, or a sign of agency and empowerment, this being the norm. Simone de Beauvoir (1989, p.418), in “The Second Sex” argues that in marriage, a woman “takes his name…she becomes his other “half.” Simon Duncan (2020) noted that almost 90% of women in Britain take their husband’s names, many consider it a legal requirement, a commitment to marriage, and signifier of the “good family”. Deborah J. Anthony (2010) articulates how Hillary Clinton’s surname played a significant role in both her and her husband’s political career, such is the power of the surname. As the politics of naming systems continues to ignore matronymics traditions altogether, women continue to encounter these politics at different stages in their lives. In 2012 France removed the title “Mademoiselle” (married women’s title) from all its official documents, matching the male title “Monsieur” with “Madame” in an attempt to end discrimination. Despite the universality of humans having a name, surnames are a relatively recent human invention.
Deborah Anthony (2018) noted that with the Norman Conquest and occupation of England in 1066, surnames were introduced though remained a flexible and inconsistent cultural practice till the 17th C., primarily useful for taxation and inheritance transfer purposes. Women had individualised surnames and pass these down to their children. At times husbands took their wives’ surname for the purpose of property inheritance as well as to gain the social status of his wife’s family. By the 18th C. coverture legal principles were adopted in England, wherein women could no longer own property in their own right; inheritance rules changed favouring men, even distant male relatives over female descendants. These principles also ensured that only a husband’s surname became a family name and was subsequently passed on to the children. Deborah Anthony (2018) states that, the history of women’s surnames was entirely discarded and replaced with an alternate false tradition in the service of cultural and political ends and continues to be one of the most commonly accepted gender-specific practices of modern times. Cassie Werber (2015) notes the pressure as well as the bureaucracy surrounding the name changes, that women have to deal with after marriage.
Deborah Anthony (2018) argues that when British common law was adopted by the United States, despite equal rights in keeping surnames (in principle), the practice of keeping husband’s surname was also adopted. Various court decisions during that period, not only invalidated legal rights, but upheld the discriminatory practices, at times even leading to the double-erasure of the identity of married women. The courts in United States continue to minimise women’s heritage by favouring men’s rights, upholding imagined traditions, and fabricating cultural memory. Ironically the idea of changing women’s surnames at marriage is akin to the African American slaves, whose names kept changing with each successive owner (master). Deborah Anthony (2018) concludes that, “The erasure of the nuanced history of women from the cultural memory, and the political mechanisms served by it, was extraordinarily successful” and continues to justify, reinforce and perpetuate the inferior status of women.
Ki-young Shin (2008) notes that in Japan, wives kept their surnames when married in an aristocratic family, being considered permanent outsiders, and were assigned a lower status. Though the Meiji Civil Code revision in 1989 stipulated that the wife would take the surname of her husband’s family. During the US occupation of Japan, the traditional family registry, which was based on extended family systems, was replaced with a new family registry system based on the nuclear family. Even though the equality in marriage is recognised, the expectation and the tradition of wives changing their surnames continues. Among Muslim communities the naming system varies especially among Arab and non-Arab Muslim communities, though the father’s name is generally kept as a surname and women are encouraged to keep their surnames after marriage.
Katharine Hauptmann (2013) writes that the Nordic naming system has strict rules around naming and a name can only be chosen from a list of pre-determined names, names that have historically been gendered, though one could take the name of the mother or father. She says that in Iceland people do not have family names and under the matronymic and patronymic naming traditions, it did not make any sense for women to take their husband’s name. The Icelandic naming committee feared that the patronymic naming traditions will die if the naming laws are changed, however with the passage of the Gender Autonomy ACT in 2019, gender diversity is recognised and individuals can change gendered names to non-binary names.
James Scott, John Tehranian and Jeremy Mathias (2002, P.6, 18) argue that surnames “represent an integral part of knowledge-power systems” and are “a modern invention” linked with state control over individuals through legal systems and ownership of property regimes. Vernacular practices varied across the world and in many communities and cultures people still have one name and there is no middle or last/surnames.
James Scott (2020, p.65) notes that the Qin dynasty in China imposed surnames “for the purposes of taxes, forced labor, and conscription”. He also notes that during the Spanish colonial period, the ‘Filipinos’ were instructed to take a Hispanic surname after a decree was passed in 1849, at the pretext of bureaucratic ease. “Schoolteachers were ordered to forbid their students to address or even know one another by any name except the officially inscribed family name.” Edward Delman (2015) notes a similar push on Jewish communities across Europe to adopt certain surnames. For example, the Austrian law passed in 1787 required the Jewish population to adopt a hereditary surname and were assigned one had they not chosen one, to mark their Jewish identity, a similar Napoleonic decree in 1808 mandated surnames (James Scott, 2020, p. 71).
In other parts of the world, similar attempts were made by the states on different pretexts. Senem Aslan (2009) states that Turkey passed the Surname Law in 1934, banning certain surnames, erasing tribal & ethnic identities in an effort to build a modern nation state like Western European States, with ethnically indistinguishable citizenry. While in the early 1970s, as noted by Ali Eminov (2001) Bulgaria as part of its assimilation policy required Turkish Muslims to adopt a Bulgarian name, eventually erasing any reference to “national minorities” or “ethnic groups”.
Larry Moses (1988) notes the single name practice in Mongolia, while Mark Magnier (2004) argues that in Mongolia the tradition of citing clan names existed, as noted by Urgunge Onon (2001) in his translation of the Secret History of the Mongols, a tradition that ended with the communist takeover in the 1920s. A law passed in the 1997, requires adopting a surname prompting people to search family histories. Before the 1950’s Eric Kunto Aribowo and Nanik Herawati (2018) note that it was common among Javanese communities in Indonesia, to have one-word names, and many Javanese still have only one name. Many Indonesian students in the Australian Universities find themselves with a double first name as their one-word name is used both as first and last name. “Western” naming system continues to push the colonial practice of naming with little understanding and ability to accommodate diverse cultural practices. The politics of naming systems impacted the private and public sphere, legitimised discrimination in the name of fabricated cultural traditions, and family systems that only benefitted the patriarchies. These toxic patriarchies took many turns over the last many centuries and continues to marginalise communities under various pretexts, and history notes that their impact is more pronounced among indigenous communities in Canada, USA and Australia.
Colonial practices in Canada and USA “intended to create unambiguous (male) personal identities legible to officials” not only robbed Native Americans of their land, but it also created and normalized patriarchal family-systems suited to the colonial vision of citizenship, individual ownership of land as well as “moral conduct”. The colonial obsession with fixed names not only destroyed the fluidity of names, a complex family naming system, it also erased gender identities and communal stewardship of land – a “civilizational project” similar to the to the injustices of First Nation peoples in Australia. Rod Hogan (2015) notes that in 1935 Inuit in Canada were issued ‘dog tags’ bearing an identification number, abandoned in 1969, replaced with ‘Project surname’ forcing Inuit to have a surname for bureaucratic convenience and creating a modern homogenous Canadian identity.
Rod Hogan (2015) highlights the difference in the naming system, noting that while Anglo-Australian naming systems use names for identification, “Aboriginal communities ‘names’ convey very different information, such as status, kinship relationships, the relationship of the speaker to the person named and current personal circumstances of the individual concerned”. Until recently indigenous Australians were given names by Anglo-Australian officials, primarily for record keeping purposes, “focused on refining social control, assessing ‘assimilability’, measuring the extent to which people need ‘management’, or selecting for the application of discriminatory policy.” For indigenous Australians, naming is a powerful act, and serves more than mere identity, it embodies history, characteristics, a sense of place and a right to belong and a kinship system. A system that establishes relationships with the community and universe, advising of individual “responsibilities towards other people, the land and natural resources”, mandating living in harmony with other people and the natural environment.
By giving Anglo names to indigenous peoples, the policy erased cultural significance of names, thus excluded their histories from public records. Forcing the name change was also an attempt to disrupt the relationship of the individual with his/her clan that consists of an extended family, but also a way to break the relationships between human and nature. The renaming was aimed at “civilising” the indigenous peoples and bring them in harmony not with nature, but the capitalist centralising system typified with clear boundaries and ownership rights on land, resources, and the environment. For indigenous peoples the kinship relationships and the relationship with nature have an intrinsic value and come with an obligation of mutual care – humans look after nature and nature looks after humans. Humans take only what they need within natures limits, and nature keeps giving. These relationships are central to maintain the earths natural systems that sustains humans and its value cannot be measured or costed in monetary terms as human survival is dependent on the health of these systems.
Although there is some recognition of the need to restore indigenous names in taxonomy of species and lands there is less recognition of the significance of the names of the people and places, both remain a critical part of reclaiming identity, ownership and relationships. Names are not merely power, but identity and relationships as well. Colonial imposition of names is arguably an assertion of colonial power over aboriginal lands and nations, they had little understanding of, and could not comprehend or speak and record aboriginal names. These inadequacies contributed to the fabrication of an imagined history, in which aboriginal lands were claimed as Terra Nullius and aboriginal peoples labelled as savages, hunters and gatherers. Rose Barrowcliffe argues that “Indigenous place names link Traditional Country to the history, culture and people that have been a part of that land long before colonisation. Overwriting Indigenous names with colonist names is an attempt to deny this deep, pre-existing connection and the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples.” Recent outrage at Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu is a reflection of the difficulty modern Australia as a nation has in engaging in a conversation about its colonial past, thus exposing the politics around monopolising terms such as “hunter-gatherers” in the name of academic rigour.
Development Studies academics and practitioners have an important role to play in decolonising these practices and understandings by unpacking colonial patriarchies in their classrooms, research, and practice but first they need to liberate themselves from patriarchal and colonial baggage.