Sunday June 18, 2017

Hey Quebec, it's 2017, let me choose my name

Saleema Nawaz, author of "Bone and Bread."

Saleema Nawaz, author of "Bone and Bread."

Listen 7:37

It used to be tradition in this country that when a woman got married, she'd take her husband's name.

That of course has faded as our ideas about marriage and equality have progressed.

In most of the country if a woman even decides to bother getting married, it's up to her to choose if she wants to keep her family name, take her partner's name, or opt for a hyphenated version.

But in Quebec,  it doesn't work that way. In 1981 the province passed a law that prevents women from taking their partner's surname.

It's a law that, at the time, was seen as progressive.

But Saleema Nawaz says it's time to grant women the right to choose. 

Of course I support women keeping their own name if they want. Absolutely. Or husbands taking their wives names or them creating a new family name, hyphenating, whatever.  I think it's all great.  I think we should just be able to choose. - Saleema Nawaz

After her father abandoned Nawaz and her mother when she was little, she says she wanted to change her last name. 

And when she got married, she thought she finally had her chance, but was shocked to discover it wouldn't be so easy.

"There are only certain circumstances in which you can change your name," she says. "It's not as simple as filling out a form."

The Montreal-based writer had to jump through many hoops to be granted permission to take her husband's name — including needing to get a letter from a psychologist explaining she'd experience serious psychological harm if she wasn't allowed to change her name.

I was a little bit outraged...it felt a little bit paternalistic that the state would be saying 'Okay you're free to decide, except not this one decision. That would be bad for you. - Saleema Nawaz

While Nawaz says some of her Quebecois friends express pride in the policy — arguing it's had a positive impact on feminism and women's rights in the province — she says  overwhelmingly, she hears disbelief and sympathy for women being denied the freedom to choose.

"It's just really removing the freedom of choice from women, which just does not seem very empowering."

Nawaz was eventually allowed to change her legal last name to Webster, her husband's name, but continues to publish under her birth name, a choice, she argues, that should be up to her.