by Gaopalelwe Phalaetsile
Will I take my husbands surname? Maybe not.
I started thinking about marriage from a very young age, I’d say around eight to nine years old. However, at the time I was thinking more about my wedding day and not so much the marriage itself. I enjoyed the wedding tradition in my neighbourhood. The white dresses and the traditional clothing the Tswana women in my home town would parade on their wedding days made me envious and made me aspire to one day plan my own wedding.
It was only when I started entering my teenage years that I started questioning the traditions around marriage. When I began to date young boys I noticed that friends and people in my neighbourhood refer to me with their surnames. Only then did the question of why women take their husbands surnames pop into my head.
My family and I enjoyed sitting around the TV room and whilst we had dinner we had awesome conversations about life. My aunts favourite question was always who I wanted to marry when I grew up and she enjoyed how my answers changed as I grew older. I started with, I would marry my brother which she found seriously hilarious, but as time went on I would start mentioning certain boys names depending on who I had a crush on. She said she always enjoyed the shyness that came with my answers and that I never looked her straight in the eye when I answered her questions about boys.
I remember one occasion when my father was home as we sat and ate and I decided to ask why women have to change their surnames when they got married. My question came from the fact that our family is really small and it seemed the burden fell on my brother to keep our family name due to its uniqueness and rarity. Deep down I wanted to know why I couldn’t do the same, especially because I had aspirations to become this famous person one day who would take our family name to new heights.
My fathers response to the question was simple and confident. Young women belong to their fathers until someone takes their hand in marriage. This answer did not sit well with me and I had more questions that seemed to irritate my father and my aunt. I asked why this is the case and what would happen if one day I decided to keep my surname. My aunt said this is how traditionally things have always been done and we need to respect our traditions. My dad said that there are some things we have to do, and do not really need to ask why. I decided that day that I would keep my surname the day I got married no matter what.
It occurred to me that some traditions we practice when we get married are deeply patriarchal and archaic. When I reached my twenties and started exploring more I realised that there was no reason to take my husbands name when I got married. I have toyed with the idea of having both surnames, but why? To show that I am married? Surely my marital status and marriage certificate are enough to prove that I am married?
What is interesting is often when I asked the men I was dating if it would be okay with them if I kept my surname after marriage, most of them were against the idea. I remember one particular ex-boyfriend, things were really serious between us and I truly believed that one day we might get married. He was completely opposed to my decision. He said there was no reason for us to get married if I had already decided that I wanted to keep my surname. Whenever I asked why, his answers were always possessive and often vague. These were some of the arguments he would bring up.
- Well what is the point if I pay lobola for you and you keep your surname?
- Don’t you think it is unfair that you would be MY wife but you get to keep YOUR surname?
- Other peoples wives have their husbands name as per our culture!
I felt that there was a sense of ownership that came with a woman having to change her surname to her husbands. My ex felt entitled to me and justified his entitlement on culture and tradition.
I don’t blame him though, this is what he has been taught most of his life and he couldn’t think of anything better. He held the belief that a man continues his lineage and a woman is there to help him do so by giving him children. I would often chuckle at his response when I would suggest he takes my surname because he would be MY husband. His response was always; What kind of a man takes a woman’s surname? That is not a real man.
What is interesting about his response is that it is actually not accurate. My surname is my fathers, it was given to him by his father, who also got it from his father and his fathers father. I emphasise this to highlight that we live in a society that places men above women. The traditions we still follow, even though some of them remain our individual choices come from a traditional pattern we have followed throughout the years that ensures men continue to lead the way.
As our society tries to change and open up space for the emancipation of women, there are certain areas like marriage and wedding traditions where we still justify patriarchy. Taking your husbands surname has simply become irrelevant in the 22nd Century. Same sex marriage is finally legal in some countries and still to be in many others, but yet we still exert patriarchal traditions and practices on women.
I would guess the burning question would then be, why go through the whole process of lobola itself? The question of what women really think about lobola has been trending on Facebook since the New Year. With a new wave of black feminism arising, I guess a lot of people are wondering what black feminists really think about the process of lobola.
As a Tswana girl from the North West, lobola (Magadi in Setswana) has always been something I couldn’t wait for. I imagined the day my partners uncles will come to my fathers home and ask for my hand in marriage. I remember whenever a girl had her lobola paid off, she would often be described as a real woman. She would more often than not be treated with more respect than she was before. However, it didn’t end there, it came with certain expectations.
She was now expected to bear children, as well as take care of her husband and their home. Even though the conditions we live in today have forced women to find jobs, we are still expected to hang up curtains and win our way into a mans heart through his stomach. Like seriously? This way of thinking is dated! I have managed to win my way into a mans heart through absolutely doing nothing but being myself.
I hold the view that no matter how lobola is explained by different people, it still remains a patriarchal tradition. My granny told me its two families coming together and the husbands family has to thank his wife’s family through lobola. She said it was a sign of respect and a sign that the man would be capable of providing for his wife to be and the children they would ultimately have.
As romantic as that sounded to me at the time, it has since become a great headache. The questions I have asked regarding this practice have not yet yielded satisfactory answers. My aunt has told me lobola has nothing to do with my value, yet at the same time when I ask her how much does she think they will charge my future husband, her response is always a big sum of money. When I ask why so much money, she puts down all my life time achievements including the fact that I have a university degree.
Because I have a child I was told that by bringing this child into a marriage with a man who has no children the lobola amount might go down. Why is this? What determines the amount and why would my child be a factor? Is it because I am not a virgin? This is a serious question I ask myself each time I think of whether or not I would get married.
What makes it a headache is the fact that if I choose not to go through the lobola process the chances of my family not attending my wedding will be very high. This decision could potentially harm the relationship I have with some of the people in my family whom I love so much.
When having a conversation about this with my friends, friends who happen to be very frustrated young black feminists navigating their way through this patriarchal society, a friend suggested we do not get married at all. As much as I believe the idea of marriage in itself is archaic and should at some point be done away with, for some reason I would still love to get married. But I want to get married on my own terms. Terms that myself and my partner can engage in fairly and equitably.
I am currently in a relationship with a man who holds the same views as I do and respects my decisions and choices as a person and a woman. I do not believe keeping my surname will result in as much damage as deciding to elope. So I guess its safe to say, for me personally, there is still time to ponder on the issue of lobola and marriage and see where I find myself. But, if I ever do decide to get married, I will remain Phalaetsile.
Gaopalelwe is a journalist and a writer with a Bachelors Degree in Political studies and Philosophy from Wits University. She is a feminist who uses her writing to help enforce radical change in society. Follow her on Twitter here.