Surnames of married women

I read in the press that female members of Parliament (MPs)recently demanded that upon marriage women should have the option to use their maiden surnames instead of adopting those of their husbands.

I am not aware of any legislation in Malawi which requires women to adopt their husband’s name, I cannot claim to be familiar with traditions throughout Malawi, but I do know that in traditional practice, women in the Northern Region never used their husbands’ names. It is only in the modern European system that they use their husbands’ names.

If a girl in Mzimba called Deliwe Nkosi marries a young man called George Moyo, she is addressed in the village as Nkosi not Moyo. In the past the Ngoni used the prefix ‘ma’ instead of ‘nya’. When the prefix ‘nya’, ‘ma’ or ‘na’ is attached to a surname, it refers to a female. If you say Moyo has gone to town, someone will assume that you are referring to a man. If it is Moyo’s sister, you have to say nyaMoyo. You do not refer to Moyo’s wife as nyaMoyo but nyaNkosi, her maiden surname.

When and why did women start using their husbands’ surnames? To say it is a Christian practice does not sound convincing. Neither in the Old nor New Testament do we come across wives being referred to as Mrs so and so.

It seems women themselves chose to be identified through their husbands’ names. More than 20 years ago, I remember reading a novelette by Willie Zingani in which he started by quoting seven women in the Bible’s book of Isaiah begging a man to allow them to use his name for the sake of their respect.

More than 40 years ago, while I was working at the Malawi Embassy in Bonn, one of the secretaries, a West Indian, confided in me that many of the women in Germany who are addressed as Frau (Mrs) so and so are not married. She said that during World War II, too many young men were killed that girls were finding it difficult to marry. For the sake of dignity, the government, I was told, passed a law that women could use the prefix Mrs instead of Miss if they felt uneasy about being old maids.

Ten years ago or a little earlier at a meeting of feminists in England, it was proposed that the prefixes Miss and Mrs should be dropped and one should be adopted that could apply equally to a married woman and a spinster. Almost all married women voted against the resolution. They wanted to keep being known as Mrs so and so.

The custom of calling women by their husbands’ surnames apparently has been adopted worldwide, judging by names of the great women of history. There was Madam Curie the scientist in France, Mrs Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel, Mrs Bandaranaike, prime minister of Sri Lanka, Mrs Margaret Thatcher of Britain and Mrs Indira Gandhi of India.

Do these women who want to be known by their maiden surnames prefer to be addressed in English as Miss? If so, this would be an embarrassment to both their husbands and their children, for it would seem as if the children are born out of wedlock.

The impasse has already been cleared by some women in Malawi, especially those who have married foreign husbands with non-African names. A Miss Kumwenda, upon marrying a Mr Brown, instead of being called Mrs Brown, she has preferred to be called Mrs Nyakumwenda-Brown.

In the United States, both men and women retain surnames of their fathers or mothers as middle names. President Richard Nixon used Milhous, his mother’s surname as a middle name and was known as Richard Milhous Nixon.

Incidentally, our linguists should translate into Chichewa words like name, surname or clan name in a manner that will not confuse some of the people. On official documents for completing information, we come across your surname (dzina la bambo). If someone is James Shaba, and he has a son called John, should John complete his name as John James or John Shaba, the ‘dzina la bambo’?

What they use in the North are not names of fathers, but their chiwongo (plural viwongo), which means surname. Therefore, to cater for different practices the translator should write ‘dzina la bamboo kapena chiwongo’ for surname. Where viwongo like Gondwe, Jele, Chirwa and so on are used as surnames, people use fathers’ names only as middle names. Hence John in the above example might be John James Shaba but not John James.

We have major problems in Malawi facing us, whether women use their maiden or husbands’ surnames is not much of an issue.

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