It began to make sense to me when I was six, in my parents’ two-bedroom flat, somewhere in Southeastern Nigeria. During one of my many endless searches for books around the house, I had fallen upon a novel. I cannot remember the title now. But I remember that with the same wonder I used to welcome every new book I found, I had run my fingers delicately along its spine, kept it close to my nose, took in lungfuls of its mustiness, and wondered what vast treasures and lush adventures might lurk inside the brown pages.
I also remember that there was a problem with the book.
The name written on the frontispiece was familiar, yet strange. Agbasiere Mercy Chinyere. Mercy and Chinyere, I have always known as my mother’s first and middle names. But where did Agbasiere come from? I took the book and marched straight to the living room where my mother was sitting beside the door that opened to our balcony, a side-stool straddling her left leg as she wrote furiously into a big notebook, to demand answers to the questions that swarmed in my head. Who is the owner of this book? Why is their name so similar to yours? How did it end up in our house? I stood beside her and drew circles on our red rug with my toes. This was what I always did any time I wanted to ask her for something when she was neck-deep in work. I would stand beside her to create enough subtle distraction until she said: ‘Eh, what is it that you want this time?’.
‘Who is Agbasiere Mercy Chinyere?’ I asked as soon as my mum looked up from her writing. I flipped open the front page of the book and pointed at the strange-yet-familiar name. ‘The owner of this book is Agbasiere Mercy Chinyere.’
‘Oh, that’s me. Me before I got married and changed my surname to your father’s.’
My jaw dropped. ‘Will I change my surname if I get married?’
‘No, you’re a man. Only women have to do that.’
This was not a satisfying explanation. I prodded further. ‘Why is it only women that have to change their names when they get married? Why can’t I change my name when I get married?’
My mother did not answer. She waved me off and continued writing into the notebook that had written in blue cursive, Ilo, Mercy Chinyere (Mrs.) in the space for NAME.
As I grew older and began to observe the world and understand gender identity – the disparities and privileges that come with them, and the weight little things like women changing their surnames to their husband’s after marriage – the answer to the questions I posed to my mother, sixteen years ago, became clear.
Ilo, my surname, which belongs to my father’s great-grandfather, means enemy. No twists, no turns, no lyrical element to it, just enemy. My mother’s maiden name, Agbasiere, on the other hand, is brimful with meaning and heavy with a story of how the name came to be. It belonged to my maternal grandfather, a man I have been told time and time again I inherited my bony head from. The English translation of Agbasiere would be do not conspire against me. Agbasiere’s father, Agu, gave his son that name because of the circumstances surrounding his birth. Agu and his wife had remained childless for so long his kin began to conspire to take possession after his death of his extensive acres of land, his barns bursting with giant tubers of yam and cocoyam, and his herds of livestock. So when my grandfather crawled into this world, his name was apparent. A name that would put to futility the machinations of my great-grandfather’s kin.
My mother loves her family’s name. Who wouldn’t, with all that pride and power emblazoned on it? It reels off her tongue like fire and warms her face with a smile every time she says it, a reminder that she is still her father’s daughter. During the sparse, brief disagreements she had with my father when he was alive, she would slap her chest and say in Igbo, ‘Me? Me, the daughter of Agbasiere?’. But she still had to abandon this name she is so proud of and take up a new name when she got married to him. A name she had never known before, a name whose history she was oblivious of. Sometimes, I wonder how long it took her to fall into my father’s family name, to adjust to her new identity. Was there a time someone called out Mrs Ilo and it took her a few moments to realise that she was the person being addressed, that this was the person she had become? How long did it take for her friends, colleagues, classmates, siblings to switch to calling her this new name?
My mother is not alone in the myriad of Igbo women who have changed their names, who are changing their names right now (if you are reading this on a day that courts and newspaper offices are open), and who will change their names because of marriage. From the swearing of a change of name affidavit at the registry of a high court, to publicly announcing the name-change in at least one major national daily, to getting your name published in the official national gazette (which requires something as ridiculous as a letter from a responsible person), to crumpled naira notes exchanging hands in offices to hasten process, the process of name-change is not a simple affair in Nigeria, even though it is in very high demand.
Women changing their surnames to their husbands’ stems from the patriarchal construct that a woman becomes ‘rebranded’, a ‘new being’, and ‘a new item to her husband’s or even part of the ‘husband’s family’s inventory’ when she gets married. Society (read: the patriarchy) dictates that women like my mother should sacrifice whatever identity they have for a new one on the altar of marriage. For some women, this is not much of a problem. They have accepted taking up their husband’s surnames as a norm they are eager to partake in because this is seen as a status symbol, a way of accessing their husband’s class. For others, the tradition does not just make sense at all. These are the women who protest and put their foot down, determined to keep their names. Some of them still succumb to the pressure of family members and in-laws and take up their husbands’ surnames; some strike a bargain to hyphenate their surnames with their husbands’; and only very few emerge triumphant and maintain their surnames to the ire of family members and in-laws. The latter are often described in Igbo as umu nwanyi a naro ata nti fa ata (women whose ears you can’t eat; women who have refused to be pushed around).
Men are warned not to marry from families where women choose to retain their surnames because it would mean that the woman is marrying the man, instead of vice-versa, showing that this age-long tradition is an exertion of ownership and power.
Marriage is one of the focal points of Igbo tradition. From childhood, girls are, in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, taught to aspire to marriage. Things like ‘ajukata, onye muru?, ajuba, onye na-alu’, which loosely translates to ‘when we’re done asking who gave birth to you, we will start asking who you’re married to’, are chiseled into the hearts of young women to remind them to ‘make their life choices always bearing in mind that marriage is the most important’.
In Lesley Nneka Arimah’s Caine Prize-winning story, ‘Skinned’, which is set in a post-modern Igbo society still ridden with misogyny, girls are disrobed at their teenage years and can only be covered up when they secure a wife-cloth as a result of getting married to a man. What this story expertly captures is the premium society (read, again: the patriarchy) has placed on marriage, how it is viewed as saving women and protecting women, in spite of having created the system that necessitates women to be saved and protected. What the wife-cloth does for the women in Arimah’s story is exactly what marriage and taking up one’s husbands’ surname stands for in reality for the Igbo society.
You may ask: why is this essay about something as trivial as names, anyway?. But names are not trivial, at least not to the Igbos. My people have stored and preserved history through names for centuries before we could start documenting using text. Name encapsulates the stories of our ancestors and keeps these stories alive. The stories and names of my forefathers have been carried on from generation to generation, passed on by their offsprings and the offsprings of their offsprings who bear their names. In the quest for preserving their names, some fathers who have no sons go to the extent of compelling their daughters, usually their first, not to marry but to bear children in their own names.
However, only male ancestors benefit from this rich tradition of preserving history through names. Women and their names and their stories are erased or swallowed up by the names and stories of their husbands. For instance, I know that Onwuhafo, my father’s father, who died years before I was born, was a great hunter and a renowned herbalist. People used to travel from miles to seek his counsel. He was also pivotal towards building the first community school in our town so that people like my father would not have to trek to the next town to get access to the white man’s education. Onwuhafo’s father, Nwuzogu, was known as one the strongest men in our town, a renowned wrestler like Okonkwo, the central character in Achebe’s magnum opus Things Fall Apart. Nwuzogu’s father, Ilo, amassed acres and acres of land for his descendants.
The names and stories of my father’s forefathers can be traced down to Ugo, the man who birthed my father’s kin. If we take this same trip to my maternal lineage, I know that my mother’s father, Agbasiere, was a successful farmer. His father, Agu, was a famous warrior who protected his community during wars and land-grabs. And these stories, just like those of my paternal lineage, can be traced to Ezeonuji, the man who birthed my mother’s kin.
I have tried to trace the genealogy of the women who birthed me. My mother, Chinyere, her mother Lolo-nwa, her mother’s mother, Ogaekwe, her mother’s mother’s mother, Akuobi. It ends there. Apart from my grandmother, who spent her last days at my parents’ flat, there are no stories behind the names of these women. Nobody knew who they were or what they did. At best, they are remembered as the wives of great men.
Igbo society is deeply misogynistic and this is carried in sayings such as ‘nwanyi enwero afa’, ‘a woman has no name’. What this statement illustrates is that women are half-formed beings bearing temporary identities until marriage comes to rewrite these identities with indelible ink. The (un)intended consequence is that most young girls grow up seeing men as something they need in order to validate their identity. It will take years for some women to unlearn this and some may never do. Growing up, anytime my sisters and I talked about how our classmates called us distortions of our surname (Loi, Loi-Loi, Eloi, Alom) instead of Ilo, they would shrug their shoulders and say that they would get married and take up new names people would find extremely difficult to make fun of. I never thought about marriage and how it would bring with it a new name as a child. This is because society has conditioned my sisters and me to think differently, to view the world differently.
People have tried to redefine this tradition as an act of love, claiming that there is absolutely nothing patriarchal about it. This argument does not hold water for so many reasons, one of which is that we do not have to own people or be owned by people to show that we love them. And if it is really about love, why is the entire brunt of this love borne solely by the woman?
Happily, more Igbo women are pushing back against this tradition. The most prominent is award-winning writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has retained her surname and insists to be addressed as Ms instead of Mrs. For Adichie, this not so much of a political statement or a radical feminist act but a modest decision:
The truth is that I have not kept my name because I am successful. Had I not had the good fortune to be published and widely read, I would still have kept my name. I have kept my name because it is my name. I have kept my name because I like my name.
However, it is easier for women like Adichie, who are either born into a privileged socioeconomic class or have earned it by virtue of their achievement, to retain their names after marriage. It is more difficult, almost impossible for women who are from underprivileged backgrounds or are uneducated. Class and privilege have a way of blurring the seemingly stringent lines of patriarchy.
When I visited my parents’ flat in April of 2019, my eldest sister and I talked about her intention to pursue a doctorate abroad. She had laughed midway through our conversation and said something like, ‘imagine getting this PhD and not being called Dr Ilo because I am married.’ I smiled mischievously. I do not know if my sister will follow through with retaining her surname when she gets married, but the fact that she sees that there is something not right with women having to change their names gives me so much hope. This is important because it is not just about names. It is about women reclaiming their stories, and their histories.