In a bored monotone on a Friday afternoon, a government official spoke the words that ripped away my autonomy and reminded me that yes, we do still live in a man’s world.
“You need permission from your father, or another male relative to change your surname.”
I was over 18, a legal adult, and was still denied the right to chose a name for myself simply because I am a woman. Never have I felt so disenfranchised than in that moment, when my entire identity seemed to belong to someone else.
When we are born, our parents normally pick our first names for us, a seemingly arbitrary combination of letters that make up the sounds we belong to. But our last name, in Western cultures, is decided on before we are even conceived – we inherit our father’s name. Although it is becoming more and more normal for women to keep their so-called ‘maiden’ name when getting married, most children are still automatically named after their paternal family members.
I am not my father’s daughter, and I no longer wanted to be known as such. I wanted to legally show the world that my mum is my family, and the only way I could think to do so was by changing my name to hers. Realising that made me recognise that actually, Shakespeare was wrong about the significance of names.
Although a rose would still smell as sweet if it went by any other name, it would not be a rose as we know it. To use the world of celebrity as an example, consider Caitlyn Jenner: one of the most important parts of her transition was changing her name from Bruce to the name she felt represented her as a person. Calling her Bruce is the epitome of disrespect, because she isn’t Bruce. It really is as simple as that.
Except for me, it wasn’t simple.
It’s difficult to explain how important your name is to someone who feels comfortable with his or hers, or how negative connotations to that specific sound can colour your entire perspective of yourself. But it’s nearly impossible to explain how difficult it is to write out that name when it doesn’t belong to you, when you identify as someone else. We build up our identity around our name, it represents our integrity and abilities, so when your name is not what it’s meant to be, you feel like a fraud. Writing that surname brought a bitter taste to my mouth, because it didn’t belong to me.
Eventually I gave up trying to explain myself because my case was so unusual, and only a small handful of people actually understood what I was going through. A lot of my friends and acquaintances tried to tell me that it just wasn’t worth it, that the arguments and bureaucratic battles were a waste of my time. Maybe if I hadn’t fought, if I had simply bowed to the system and tried to convince my father to sign away his naming rights, it wouldn’t have taken over 18 months for this process to be legalised. Maybe my application would not have been ‘lost’ twice. Maybe I would not have had to waste hours of my life waiting in lines only to be turned away. The only thing I know for certain is that I would not deserve my new name if I had simply let my sex determine my rights. I wouldn’t be making my mother proud by letting government officials convince me that I’m still owned by my father because of my two X chromosomes.
My name is Tessa Knight, and I am my own person.
*In South African law, The Birth and Deaths Registration act, section 26 (Assumption of another surname) part 2 says the following:
At the request of any person, in the prescribed manner, the Director-General may, if he or she is satisfied that there is a good and sufficient reason as may be prescribed for that person’s assumption of another surname, authorise the person to assume a surname other than his or her surname as included in the population register, and the Director-General shall include the substitutive surname in the population register in the prescribed manner.