Rhodes University Logo
Rhodes > Political & International Studies > Latest News

The pain and politics of names

Date Released: Tue, 19 April 2011 09:49 +0200

Research professor at Walter Sisulu University, Professor Thenjiwe Miyewa, highlighted the challenges faced by South African women wanting to change their names following a change in marital status in a society that has little policy to support it. She was speaking at the Critical Studies Seminar hosted by the Departments of Politics and International Studies and Sociology last week.

Prof Miyewa, also the former head of the Gender Studies Department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, entitled her talk “’Till Death do Us Part': Names, Politics and Women's Experiences Following a Change in Marital Status”.

Based on research with 60 participants, all of whom are South African women academics who have had some experience with a name change in their life, she said the paper is a work in progress because “it’s the type of work that swallows you”.

“I realised after I started researching this area that there is nothing in South Africa in terms of research or policy on this topic. In terms of changes in marital names and status, other countries are far ahead but in South Africa we have nothing,” she said.

The participants were all situated within specific groups, including women who had married but never changed their name, those who had married and had changed their name, those who kept their married name after a divorce, women who had changed their name after divorce and those who had changed their name after their husband’s death.

When asked about their experiences with their names and any changes they had made, Prof Miyewa said she was met with mixed responses. “Some women became quite hostile when I asked them questions about whether they were happy with the name they had taken.

“They became defensive and that made me wonder what they were so uncomfortable about,” she said. Prof Miyewa said the aim of the research was to gauge the lived experiences of women in South Africa with regards to their names, and to highlight any need for change.

Although the paper doesn’t stem strictly from her own experience, Prof Miyewa said she can relate to much of what she came across during the research. After her marriage ended a few years ago she experienced firsthand the trials and challenges involved in trying to revert back to her maiden name, and that these experiences have shaped her research interests to a point.

“I was met with a lot of criticism for wanting to change my name. People told me if I changed my name then they wouldn’t recognise me or give me credit for the work I’d done while I was married, writing under my husband’s name. I said but what does it matter whether other people know who I am? This is about me and how I identify with myself,” she said.

She said it’s the emotional issues attached to the identity of names that is of most interest to her. “Names affect women on a daily basis. They are met with judgement and condemnation by service providers across the country, and this is something unique to women in 99 percent of cases. There are many forces which determine who you should be irrespective of who you want to be,” she said.

She encouraged women to take up these issues and to mobilise in various forms of social activism to work together for change. “Often the choice of keeping or going back to your original name is not respected. To create policy on this matter we need lived experiences to be brought together collectively and framed within social activism,” she said.

Story and photo by Sarah-Jane Bradfield

Photo: Prof Thenjiwe Miyewa