September 28

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What’s in a name?

“A girl should be two things:  who and what she wants.” – Coco Chanel

Last week, I went on a retreat with my CHAI colleagues.  While we did work, we also had the opportunity to learn about each other on a personal level.  It was here that I learned of a custom in Lesotho that I found fascinating.  You see, when a woman gets married in Lesotho, her in-laws, usually her mother-in-law changes her first name.  The family also decides the name of the first child.  If a couple have more than one child, the wife can lobby for a name for her child.  If she presents her case well to her in-laws and they agree with her reasoning, she is allowed to use the name she chose for her child.

This custom is so different from anything that I’m used to from Western Culture.  I was fascinated by the ins and outs of this tradition as well as the origin of it.  I asked a lot of questions.  Why does this happen?  How did this start?  Why can’t a woman keep her own name?  Does she have that option?  What if she doesn’t like the name she is given?

Here’s what I found out.  Some of it through conversations with my colleagues, and some from research I conducted into this tradition.  The naming convention goes hand in hand with the custom of lobola.  Lobola is the giving of a bride price or dowry.  The husband’s family is responsible for giving either cattle or money to the bride’s family.  Sometimes negotiations over lobola can get quite intense.  The reason for this custom is because marriage is not seen as something that occurs between two people.  Instead, it is considered to be a contract between the families.  You don’t just marry a spouse in Lesotho, you marry the entire family.  The woman is in a sense gifted and accepted into the husband’s family as their newest member.  That is why she is re-named.  Children resulting from this union become part of the father’s lineage.  This is why the in-laws are the ones to name the child.  The negative aspect of this custom is that some families see the bride as property, and can be quite abusive to her.

When speaking with women about these customs, they see lobola not as something that cedes ownership of their individual rights to their in-laws, but rather a long piece of their history and culture.  They don’t want to lose African culture to Western ideals.  I understand and applaud that sentiment; however, I still have a hard time wrapping my head around changing the woman’s name.  It is expected that the woman goes by the name she is given.  To not do so would offend the family.  The woman then needs to get all of her information, identification, documentation, including degrees and diplomas changed to her new name, as she has literally become a new person.

The one aspect of this custom I can somewhat relate to is the naming of children.  I am Greek Canadian.  In my culture, it is expected that the first born child (sometimes the second as well depending on gender) is named after the parents of the husband.  While this isn’t the case in every situation, it does still occur quite a bit.  It’s why all Greek people have the same name.  It is not unusual for first cousins to be named after their paternal grandparents and have the same first and last name.  It’s why I somewhat understand the in-laws naming the children in the Bosotho culture.  It may not be what I am used to but I get it.

For me a big part of my identity is my name, both first and last.  This got me thinking of an experiment that happened in my high school, but not in my class.  A teacher asked her students to give each other different first names.  In that class they were only to refer to themselves and their fellow students with their new names.  This was to only last for the day.  I remember these kids walking around school that day wearing a name tag with their new name.  The next day the teacher asked the students how they felt about the new names.  A lot of the students said that the new names felt alien to them, it wasn’t who they were, it wasn’t how they saw themselves.  Think about it, when you meet someone and they use either a nickname, the short or long form of their name to introduce themselves to you, that is how you know the person.  If you are then asked to change how you refer to him or her, for example Mike now wishes to be called Michael it takes a while and many mistakes before you unconsciously begin using Michael over Mike.

I am Christina Kolombos.  I can’t imagine giving up my name.  Granted I’m still single, but I figured I’d hyphenate my last name whenever I marry because I’m proud of my family name.  When I spoke with my colleagues here, I asked if they are used to their new name.  One of my colleagues told me even after all of these years she still sometimes doesn’t realize when someone is calling out to her with her new name.  Learning about this practice made me understand why another colleague sometimes uses a completely different name with people that she is very familiar with.  At first I thought it was a nickname, now, I know it is her birth name.

I don’t mean this blog to come across as judgmental.  As I said I am fascinated by this custom.  I’m just trying to put myself in the mindset of, when I get married, someone else gets to name me.  Culturally I can see how this practice can be quite beautiful when it is done to welcome the new bride into the family.  It can be a practice of inclusiveness and belonging.  At the same time, it can be the exact opposite.  This can lead to abuse and debasement of the new bride.  It just all depends on what kind of family a woman marries into.  Yes, I know this is true in any country and culture in the world.  I think this strikes such a profound chord with me, because from my perspective I see this as a way of limiting a woman’s right for self-actualization.  As a woman, I should have the right to choose if I want to change something that is inherently tied to my sense of self.  Giving that right away, or in some instances having someone take that right away from me, means giving up part of my personal power and agency.

I do wonder if this will continue in future generations.  Every culture changes and evolves.  I asked one of my room-mates who is a young Mosotho (Bosotho for plural, Mosotho for singular) woman in her early twenties if she would change her name.  Her response was no.  While women’s rights in Lesotho are not to the same level as in North America, they are slowly changing and evolving.

Until next time,

Christina