Hyphenated Names– for Women Only?

I’ve wanted to write this rant for months, and now I’ve succumbed to the urge.


Hyphenated names for non-Muslim  women make no sense to me.  They are long, phonetically awkward, and cumersome to write. They suggest that the poor woman didn’t know what name to call herself after marriage, so she simply tacked the married name on to the maiden name, much like one would add blond extensions to a full head of auburn hair.


I work in a hospital. Hyphenated names cause no end of confusion. They don’t fit on forms, they don’t get entered correctly in certain computer programs, they get mixed up, reversed,  exchanged with first names, and ulitmately abbreviated when expedient.


Some women hyphenate their names because both names consist of one syllable, and the two together sound better. Why don’t they finish combining the two into one,  forming a new name altogether, similar to the way in which John’s Son became Johnson? 


Why don’t they ask their husband to take the second name, as well? It seems ridiculous that a man has a single name, and his wife sticks  his name behind her maiden name, and what about the children? If the hyphenated name is given to the children, what names will their spouses use when they grow up and get married? 


Some women use a hyphenated name because one of the names has social recognition, but why not simply drop the obscure name and use the name that carries social weight?


Some women want to keep the maiden name, in a salute to feminism and the maintainance of identity, an awkward attempt  to exert themselves as equals, but it doesn’t work. When was the last time you heard that a husband tacked his wife’s maiden name onto his own, because he wanted to preserve his identity?


Ah, but we still live in a somewhat patriarchal society, feminism and working women notwithstanding. All family members should use the same name, the father’s name, no? In the olden days of my childhood, fathers were the “heads of family”, working outside the home,  carrying the entire financial responsibility for the well-being of the family, making all the important decisions. They were also the disciplinarians. Most people as old as I am remember their mother’s chilling words, “Wait til your father gets home!”


Now, however, most mothers work outside the home, too, many full-time, just like the father, and therefore feel entitled to share in the decision-making as well as  the  financial responsibility. Hyphenating their names may point to women’s desires to fully participate in the two major life roles most people embrace– working and having a family.


In Islam, women do not stick their husband’s names behind their own. The children carry the father’s last name. While this might suggest gender inequality, it recognizes the father as the head of the family.  Gender inequality, if you could call it that, does exist in Islam, in the sense that the father is supposed to work and bring home money, while the mother works inside the home, providing the kind of nurturing and domestic organization that is never paid its worth in currency. The deal for women is that they give up their earning power to gain financial security from the husband, and the right to stay home and raise their own children (rather then having to take them to day care).  The fact always remains, however, that he who pays the piper calls the tune.


Naming customs reflect the social, economic, and religious realities of families.  If hyphenated names for  non-Muslim women are meant to suggest  gender equality, then all family members must carry the hypenated names. Multiple  names are awkward, however, and suggest nothing but indecision or equivocation on the part of the woman. I don’t know how women are going to evolve in the future, with respect to “balancing” major life roles such as working and child-bearing.  


While I’m at it, let me add that I hate the word, “balance.” It suggests that two or more quantities can be manipulated so that their weights become equal. This is not the reality with regard to women who work and bear children during a twelve week maternity leave. Instead of  talking about balancing, let’s talk about  dividing. How does a woman divide herself so that both work and family get an equal share? Why must work and family get equal shares, anyway? In reality, they don’t, yet women keep trying,  whether they want to or not.  Hyphenated names are the objective correlative to the reality of Western women’s lives– cumbersome, awkward, and suggestive of division rather than unity.

About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions, and narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
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7 Responses to Hyphenated Names– for Women Only?

  1. susanne430 says:

    Interesting thoughts. I’m not a fan of hyphenated names for many of the same reasons you mentioned. *** I wish now I had kept my maiden name, but it was just traditional in my region to do otherwise so I did. Now I’m more of a rebel and if I had to do it over again, I might keep my maiden name. I don’t think it’s only an Islamic thing to keep your father’s name. I know a few Muslims with their husband’s last names, and I met a Chilean woman a few years ago who said it was her culture to keep her maiden name so her last name was different from her husband and children’s. I think it’s kind of unfair that women have to be different from their children in this regard as if the kids mainly belong to the father. It’s the same as keeping my maiden name…what about my MOM’s side of the family? I’m just as much that as I am my father’s side. But then I guess that would get to be a really really really long last name if we tried to incorporate everything.

    *** This made me recall an Arab guy living in Missouri who said his last name was found in the records under the J’s for “Jaraad” instead of A’s for “al Jaraad” which is his actual last name. He was wondering if those with Van or Von last names had the same problems.

  2. Marahm says:

    Naming customs either isolate women, or rob them of their maiden identity. There’s no inbetween, unless women hyphenate, which is nothing more than equivocation– so what to do? In several other cultures, as you point out with the example of the Chilean woman, women keep their maiden name, but the children get the father’s name. The expedience of this custom is that peoples’ paternal lineage can be tracked. Maternal lineage seems unimportant.

    i don’t know how a society can cope with naming when it wants to honor both the materal and paternal lineage. Maybe people should take a cue from horse or dog breeders, who incorporate the parental names into names for the offspring. The more illustrious parent’s name wins. Families would be identified not by lineage but by the parent that contributed most to society.

    That slope would be slippery, indeed, and we’d come full circle. Maybe naming should relfect the easiest pronunciation– whoever has the easiest name wins. I’d venture to agree with that Arab guy who wondered whether the Van and the Von prefixes got booted from the main names.

    When I worked in a Riyadh hospital, all the patients’ last names began with Al, which seemed redundant and extraneous in the clinical setting.

  3. djd says:

    Glad to see you posting again. 🙂

    I knew some people from Jamaica who had 17 last names. They only used one officially.

    One can see who the mother is but it is when she gives the father’s name that one knows who is the father.

  4. Marahm says:

    Thanks, djd.
    Seventeen names? This is very interesting. This system would honor both sides, but which name was used officially, the mother’s or the father’s?

  5. Safiyyah says:

    That’s why credit card companies ask you for your mother’s maiden name as a security question 🙂

  6. Sarah says:

    One idea for a system that preserves both sides would be for daughters to take the mother’s surname and sons to take the father’s. But that would divide the whole family down gender lines. It’s symbolically nice, somehow, to share a name. I like your idea of merging the two names to create a new one.

  7. Marahm says:

    Naming customs remain as divisive as they are unitive. No one wants to separate females from males any more, at least in the West.

    Merging two names into one would do away with ancestral recognition, of which most humans are proud. The only way to preserve that, as well as demonstrate name equality, would be for young people to marry their cousins who carry the same name!

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