What’s in a Name III

This is the last post in my series of thinking aloud about our baby’s name.

We were thinking about our daughter’s last name when I found an article about the issue of women taking their husbands’ last names. A debate then started in the blogworld about this issue. For example, see Crescat Sententia.

Matthew Yglesias favors women keeping their own name after marriage.

The basic dilemma is that, for many women, their lives will go better if they just take their husbands name. It’s more convenient in a whole lot of ways. But if everybody (or even just most people) could be pursuaded to keep their own names, then the “convenience” factor would cease to point toward the name switch. Plus, things would be fairer. The question is how do we get from here, where it’s often rational to change your name, to the fairer world where it’s usually rational not to change it?

Diotima rubbed me the wrong way with this comment.

I think it’s incredibly important for a family to have the same name. A family isn’t just a collection of autonomous individuals, but shares a common identity. So, my thinking lately, is that I’ll pull a Hillary when I get married and keep my last name as a middle name: Sara Butler X.

I guess I don’t have a family then, just a collection of individuals. I guess her response is limited to her culture only since different cultures have very varying practices on this matter. For example, here is a Kenyan tribe tradition.

In my father’s tribe, it’s not customary to take the last name of one’s father. Each kid gets his/her own last name. The name is determined by the conditions under which the child is born, i.e. morning, noon, night, raining, etc. The last name also varies in the spelling with regard to gender: girls’ last names begin with A, boys’ with O. With Kenya having been a British colony, some Kenyans use their fathers’ last names in keeping with the European tradition. Some don’t. However, even those who use the European system of naming still have a “middle” name; more accurately, two last names.

Or consider the rigid Japanese laws.

Hiroko Mizushima has been married several times to the same man. But theirs is no soap-opera saga: Dr. Mizushima once divorced her husband to get a passport so the name would match her other documents. She remarried him to have their baby, and then filed for divorce again to continue publishing under the byline with which she’s built her career as a child psychiatrist.

“We’ve been married for nine years and never had any real intentions to get divorced,” Mizushima says. “But I write in international journals and have patients who know my name, so how can I change it?”

The couple is legally married again, but Mizushima insists on going by her original family name, which is technically illegal.

Mizushima is supposed to make laws, not break them. As a freshman politician who was elected to the lower house of parliament this summer, she is leading a drive to change the timeworn laws that require members of a family to have one last name.

As Brian Ulrich points out, the naming conventions arose out of specific cultural/historical factors.

The American way of assigning surnames stemmed from a combination of urbanization in the late middle ages (how to tell John the Baker from John the Miller) and Norman record-keeping with respect to property rights and needing a word to call different descent groups. It was set up on a strictly utilitarian basis.

Other cultures developed different naming patterns. In Arabia, the key question was descent and figuring out who was related to whom and to what degree. [… I]n this system there is no provision for women taking a husband’s name, though Yasser Arafat’s wife is Suha Arafat, probably a sign of Western influence on the elites. Names are about ancestry and origin, not a means of defining a bounded entity for the purpose of property rights.

Does anyone have any suggestions about books which cover the cultural history of naming conventions and the factors which shaped them?

But I digress. This post is not about women taking their husbands’ name after marriage. It’s about what to name our child. On that topic, One-sided Wonder thinks it is important for children to have the same last name as their father.

I’m in favor of keeping your own name, and I don’t think it’s very important for a mother to have the same name as her children. The maternal bond is such that it doesn’t need that sort of reinforcement. (And I say that as someone who has had a different name from her mother most of her life.) But I do think it’s very important for a child to have the same name as her father.

When a woman elects to keep her maiden name, some people have suggested hyphenating the last names of the parents for the children. But that gets out of hand pretty quickly. Crescat Sententia has another suggestion.

I find hyphenation a response that only is good for a generation or so, not to mention that it doesn’t work so well with salty names. I had a friend in high school whose mother’s last name was Saltanovitz and father’s last name was Przybylski. They did the most equitable thing I can think of: each parent used his or her own name, one child became Saltanovitz, and the other became Przybylski. As far as I know, the family doesn’t feel disunified because of embracing both names.

In Pakistan, we do not have any set standards for last names. Some people use their family name (acquired because of tribal, clan or occupational reasons) as their last name. “Khan” is probably the most common one. Another common family name is “Syed” but that is usually used at the start of the name rather than the end. Most people’s names do not contain a family name. This is changing over time. For example, Pakistan’s President-General is named Pervez Musharraf. “Musharraf” is actually his father’s name. But he has started using it as a family name by naming his son “Bilal Musharraf.”

In my case, my last name “Ajmal” is my Dad’s given name. To confuse matters further, it is his middle name.

We also do not have a fixed tradition of a woman taking her husband’s name at marriage. However, British influence does mean that some people do so. The lack of a family name can cause problems with this issue though. Some women thus take as last name their husband’s last name, which might be her father-in-law’s given name. Others tag on their husband’s first name, especially in social situations, but sometimes also legally.

When Amber and I got married, in a fit of romance and sentimentality, we decided that Amber should take my name as her last name. Since I didn’t really have a surname, she switched from “Ambrin Asum” to “Ambrin Zakaria.”

This didn’t present us with any problems in Pakistan. But it did require us to listen to a long lecture by the immigration officer at JFK when we first came to the US. He said something about how familial relationships can be found without sharing a last name. I just hope his last name wasn’t Smith, of which there are about 3 million in the US.

Other problems we have encountered include all the “Good Samaritans” who helpfully “correct” our names whenever they see them together so that Amber and I share the same last name. Thus, I become Ajmal Zakaria, which causes further problems and we have to get my name fixed.

There was also a health insurance company who did not have a last name field for dependents of the subscriber. Since Amber was the primary subscriber, I became Zakaria Zakaria in their database.

Therefore, in addition to a first name, we need to choose a last name for our kid. Our first thought was to change our last names so that all three of us share the same last name. But that would result in a lot of hassle for Amber and me. So, we are going to stick to our names and just choose a last name for the baby. There are three options:

  1. Ajmal: My last name and my Dad’s given name.
  2. Zakaria: My first name and Amber’s last name.
  3. Some other name.

Option 3 would confuse the heck out of people, so that’s out.

Deciding between options 1 and 2 depends on utilitarian issues like convenience as well as how well her first name goes with the chosen last name.

Any suggestions?

Categorized as Pregnancy

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. Hi. Thanks for linking to my old article. However, as someone who was born and raised in the US, and as someone who grew up being the lone person with my last name (my parents divorced and my father went back to his home country), I’m inclined to agree with Diotma. I know what it was like to feel that separateness. Obviously, had I been raised in Kenya, I’d likely have a different perpsective, but I wasn’t and didn’t.

    For more about this subject, read here.

  2. Hrm. You’ve got a toughie there. I’m not sure I can really offer any advice that would be useful, but I can offer some commentary on the issue that might give you some inspiration. (Or not).

    The issue of last names comes up a lot on mostly-or-all-women listservs I’m a part of and every once in a while somebody comes up with a nifty new solution. The complexity always seemed to come up if people had children or were planning to have children. Hyphenation can get very out of hand, and having a last name different from your child can potentially cause difficulties, especially if you’re dealing with passports, schools, hospitals and other official situations. (I and my husband now carry our marriage certificate in case we ever need to prove that we are indeed related to each other.)

    I’m not planning to have any children myself, but long ago, when I thought I might have children someday, I thought about assigning the father’s last name to any sons and the mother’s last name to any daughters. I thought it might create a sense of connection to a line of female anscestors for all the daughters and vice versa for the sons. And then at least there would be at least one parent with the same name as the child, for official puposes.

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  4. If you plan to remain in the U.S. for awhile, there’s a lot to be said for the convenience factor of using Ajmal as the last name for the kid. It’s unfortunate that so much hassle can be caused by people who don’t think about others having different traditions from their own, but there it is.

    Other than that rather pragmatic advice, all I can say is go for what sounds best and what you think would be a good name to bear.

  5. A bit late but better than never !
    So far as I know from my young-age reading, children all over the world used to have a family name which used to be of their great grand father. Sometimes it was as people called him; examples: Cycle Wala, Pan Wala, Dossa (Dost Muhammad), etc.
    These suffixes had a purpose of recognition of the person as to who he was. Now, there are different traditions in different countries. Even within one country there are different traditions.
    Presently, one should think of his and his child’s future convenience. So, you should adopt the tradition of the place where you plan to live for the next decade. Better consult some one fully coversant with the rules.

  6. Juliette: I get what you are saying. My point about Diotima’s statement was simply that most people’s worldview in such matters is limited to their own cultures.

    Fazia: Your suggestion sounds good and that is effectively what we could do if we name our daughter “xxxx Zakaria.” Would that create any bureaucratic problems for us?

    Al-Muhajabah: Thanks. I think in the end we’ll go with what we like, but we do want to consider pragmatic issues as well.

  7. Fazia you mirrored what I was going to say that in an ideal world the logical option would be for daugthers to take on their mother’s surname and sons after their father’s. In that way continuity is maintained throughout the generations (girls lose their surnames after marriage at any rate so why should it be a patronymic privilege).

    By the way Latif comes from my grandfather’s Christian name so imho it’s a good thing to start a tree with a surname that extends as far back as possible.

  8. What’s in a Name II

    In my previous post thinking about a name for our baby, I mentioned a website for Muslim names. Now, what exactly is a Muslim name? Let’s take a look at a few websites listing Muslim names. Most of the names…

  9. My bro from the motherland…your blog is dizzying…I was searching for ideas for our baby due in Nov and came across the blog. Anyhow, why don’t u just keep it simple? My wife simply adopted my last name, Khan, as her last name while keeping her maiden name as her middle name. All of our kids carry my last name, I.e. Khan.Simple?

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