SURNAMES AND GENDER EQUALITY
(Abstract of a Telugu article that appeared in 1986)
This paper tries to explore an understudied cultural factor, namely, `the system of surnames' and its implications for gender equality. It raises and tries to answer certain questions concerning the social (and linguistic) means of identifying and classifying individuals. They are: (1) Is the first name or given name of a person enough to identify that person socially; or is any other name additionally necessary?; (2) What is the mode in which individuals are identified in the present‑day society?; (3) What is the `right way' (in the sense of gender equality) to identify individuals?
The paper argues that the first name of a person is not enough to identify that person socially. A surname, along with the first name, is essential; otherwise it is difficult to identify socially a person as a particular individual from among several people. The paper notes the fact that plants and animals are identified and classified on the basis of their physical properties in terms of `genus' and `species' and not on the basis of any social characteristics. While acknowledging the fact that humans are also identified and classified on the basis of physical properties such as color, hair, eyes and so on, the paper focuses the need for identifying each individual person socially.
The paper observes that in the contemporary social world, children of all countries, languages and classes inherit surnames through their fathers. However, the paper notes the differences in the system of surnames between languages. But it argues that the differences are marginal and insignificant. However, the paper does not rule out the possibility that in some clans of a tribe (or even among certain castes) children acquire clan names (surnames) through the mothers. Such an occurrence is negligible. If we disregard such tribal clans or castes, if there are any, children throughout the world inherit their surnames through the fathers only.
Further, the paper argues, the surnames inherited by the male persons through their fathers never change in their lives whereas female persons change their paternal surnames and acquire the surnames of their husbands after marriage. The paper, therefore, concludes that the essence of the existing system of surnames symbolizes male supremacy that came into existence as a result of the system of private property and its inheritance.
The paper does not argue that the right way of acquiring surnames is through the mother only, because such a system does not assign equal status to the father on par with the mother and hence does not indicate gender equality. The paper proposes an alternative system of surnames whereby an individual is identified socially by means of a surname that includes both "mother's first name and father's first name". It further proposes that the first place in the word‑order of the surname be assigned to the mother's first name over that of the father in view of the fact that the infant child is physically attached more to the mother than the father during the periods of conception and lactation.