Challenge and change

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

What’s in a name? We know that phrase well. In “Romeo and Juliet” this is part of what Juliet says to Romeo to try and convince him that they should be together even if their families are bitter enemies. But as the two find out, those names they are so quick to discard can carry a terrible weight. A first name may be one that is arbitrarily chosen, but a surname is infused with expectations, norms and historical power structures. Look no further than the fact that most men take it for granted that the surname they have at birth will remain with them their whole lives, and that any children they have will carry that surname onwards.

That’s why for this column commemorating International Women’s Day, as well as Women’s Month, I’d like to highlight the importance of the recent decision of our Supreme Court in “Alanis III vs. Court of Appeals.” (G.R. No. 216425. November 11, 2020). Here, the Court made it clear in no uncertain terms that “a legitimate child is entitled to use the surname of either parent as a last name.”

The tradition of women and children taking the surname of the husband/father is one that’s deeply ingrained in the mainstream of many cultures, including our own. On the woman’s part, Western media has long portrayed it as romantic, as the symbol of a woman starting a new life, and even in some of the most egalitarian nations, such as Norway, it remains the norm.

When this is due to a woman’s clear and informed choice, from among equally viable options, that is one thing. I took my husband’s surname and hyphenated it to my own. But I have friends who decided against taking their husband’s surname at all, as is their right under our law, and their experiences make it clear that many of our systems simply take it for granted that a married woman should have her husband’s surname. It can cause difficulties in travel or claiming familial benefits, and this isn’t even taking into account the casual judgment that can be displayed by those who equate a woman keeping her surname with a lack of love for her husband, or a lack of commitment to a unified family.

Yet, why is it that it’s only the woman who is expected to change her name to show love, or commitment? Why does she bear the onus of sacrifice of a part of her identity in order to create a new family?

The simple fact is that a woman taking the surname of her husband while the husband’s name remains unchanged is a remnant from less enlightened times, when women were practically property of their husbands. Naturally, in such cases the surnames of the children would flow from the father’s as well. Again, when this is an action that is chosen, when it is a conscious decision, it can be a testament of love. But it can only be a conscious choice if it is clear that this is not the only choice, that women have a right to retain their own names and that the children may take the surnames of their mothers rather than their fathers.

That’s why the decision in the Alanis III case is so important, because it shows that positive action and explicit statements are necessary to make the status quo more malleable, and more equitable. The decision reiterated that “[t]he fundamental equality of women and men before the law shall be ensured by the State” and that the provision in Article II, Section 14 of the Constitution that the State “shall ensure the fundamental equality before the law of women and men” requires that the government must be proactive in ensuring gender equality.

The courts, as one of the organs of the State, also have their role to play. The Supreme Court stated that “[c]ourts, like all other government departments and agencies, must ensure the fundamental equality of women and men before the law. Accordingly, where the text of a law allows for an interpretation that treats women and men more equally, that is the correct interpretation.”

In this case, involving the petitioner’s prayer to use his mother’s surname, the trial court’s denial of the same was premised on Article 364 of the Civil Code, which provides that: “Legitimate and legitimated children shall principally use the surname of the father.” In rejecting the trial court’s rationale, the Supreme Court applied a construction of the law that treats women and men more equally, stating that: “…the word ‘principally’ as used in the codal-provision is not equivalent to ‘exclusively;’ so that there is no legal obstacle if a legitimate or legitimated child should choose to use the surname of its mother to which it is equally entitled.”

The decision is an important first step towards equalizing the mindset concerning the choice of surnames in the country, an important step in shaking up a status quo that assumes male as a default, or implicitly supports male privilege. There are many other areas where this type of inequality is still prevalent, such as the underrepresentation of women in traditionally “male” fields such as mathematics (which is even more pronounced in more egalitarian and developed nations). With some research indicating that the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic may result in a higher prevalence of traditional gender roles, it’s more important than ever to unpack habits and traditions that we’ve taken for granted, whether that be how we choose surnames or how we divide household chores. Women’s rights are not so entrenched in society that we can afford to be less than vigilant, and there will always be those voices clamoring for a return to “simpler” times, even when that simplicity comes at the cost of women’s agency and dignity. As UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia has said, “Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year.” There are heartening signs, however, across the globe. A court in Beijing recently ruled that a man had to compensate his wife for housework done during their marriage (though the amount was minuscule). In India, a woman was acquitted in a high profile defamation case where the court ruled that “the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman.” The theme of International Women’s Day this year is #ChooseToChallenge.

What’s in a name?

A reminder that only when we challenge the status quo can we change it.

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