What’s in a name?

When I applied for the Dutch passport, I had to provide my birth certificate and the complete history of my previous relationships. I had changed my last name after my first marriage and I’d decided to keep it after the divorce. The municipality official explained to me that I can return my ‘real’, maiden name. I replied that I am not interested in doing that. This answer made the clerk very puzzled and concerned. She told me that I have nothing to be afraid of, that here, in the Netherlands, women have exactly the same rights as men. They can keep their own name. 

I tried to explain to her that I had practical reasons for keeping my current name. I’d married early, and I had my University diploma and a lot of other documents issued in my married name. Changing any official document in Russia is a bureaucratic nightmare. Furthermore, I was pursuing an academic career and I had already written more than 50 academic papers and a couple of books under my married name. Changing my last name would bring my visibility in the academic world and my citation index back to zero. 

I tried to explain all that to the clerk, but she kept repeating that I am safe in the Netherlands and have nothing to fear. At that moment I fished out one of the documents from my file, a copy of the death certificate of my former husband. I showed it to her and repeated that I am fully aware of the fact that my former husband couldn’t hurt me, because he’d passed away. ‘Oh, I understand. You want to keep his name as a way of commemorating your relationship’, said the clerk. Frankly, this idea had never occurred to me. We’d divorced long before his death, and I had no romantic feelings toward my first husband whatsoever. But I agreed to her just to finish this idiotic discussion and to go on with my life. 

Jane, 69, the immigrant from the UK:

When I came to register at the City Hall, I showed my passport and my birth certificate. I am married to my husband for 42 years. I have my husband’s surname. When I got married, there was no feminism. Women took their husband’s names, and I have absolutely no problem with this. But the lady at the City Hall told me: ‘No, in the Netherlands it is not your name. Here you have to have your maiden name or a double name’. So, now I am living here with this double name that sounds totally idiotic to me.

According to the World Bank data, working women constitute 48.3% of the labor force in Russia, 46.7% in UK, and 46.2% in the Netherlands. In Russia, women occupy 39% positions in senior and middle management, in UK 34%, and in the Netherlands 26%. Why do the Dutch think they need to teach us gender equality? 


According to the British sociologist Sara Farris, this is one of the manifestations of the ideology she calls “femonationalism”. Femonationalism is the contemporary mobilization of feminist ideas by neoliberal governments under the banner of the war against the perceived patriarchy of migrants from Islamic countries and the Global South in general. Recent discourses about multiculturalism and migrants’ integration have been strongly marked by demands for migrants to adapt to Western culture and values, especially to the values of gender equality. 

Funny enough, just 30 years ago the Dutch rules concerning the last names were completely opposite. When Karoly Todd and his wife Vera Lazlo, political refugees from then socialist Hungary, applied for Dutch passports, Vera was forced to take her husbands’ name, even though at that time it was not required in the authoritarian Hungary. All the correspondence to her from the Dutch authorities was addressed to ‘Mevrouw Todd’. She was angry and tried to convince the clerks that she had a right to her own maiden name even though she was officially married, but they were looking at her the same way they are now looking at me and Jane: with mild irritation, probably thinking: 

‘Why can’t these people just adapt? In the end, it’s our country, they have to adapt to us, not the other way around.’ 

And, in most cases, I agree. It’s just sometimes I ask myself: ‘How far should this adaptation go? Should the migrants not only learn the language, respect the law of the country they live in and contribute to society, but also completely delete their identity, including their name?’ 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

© 2024 Thuis in Nederland . Powered by WordPress. Theme by Viva Themes.