Tuesday, September 2, 2008

September 26, 2007

Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”. Canada is receptive and wants to satisfy diverse cultural sensitivities. The kirpan in schools, the turban replacing motorcycle helmets, and even the hijab in the army are only a few examples to prove Canada’s cultural responsiveness and tolerance. Like any other democratic country, the Canadian society values individual and collective freedoms and rights. As one fundament of such societies stays the declaration of equality between women and man. But this equality wasn’t here from the very beginning. This equality was achieved through long fight.

As part of the new world, Canada had to put the first bricks of future democratic institutions, shield for human rights and liberty. The path was long and bumpy. Women had no rights, following the historical situation of women in every society. The pioneers for women’s rights had a long way to go. Nellie McClung fought for women’s rights to vote, mothers’ allowances, public health nursing, free medical and dental care for children, liberalized birth control, divorce laws, and improved property rights for married women. She fought for women to be considered “persons” and have the right to be appointed to the Canadian Senate. In October 1929 the Judicial Committee ruled that Canadian women were, in fact, persons and could be appointed to the Senate. 1912 is the year when the first woman in the Canadian history was appointed as full professor at McGill University in Montreal. As for voting, Canadian women got this right in each province before 1940. Quebec was the one before the last (Northwest Territories) to recognize women’s right to express their political choice. This happened April, 1940. When it comes to Quebec, many things are different. Nothing was gained easily, nothing came fast. Women had to wait long years until their rights were accorded in this province. One of such discrepancy is the situation of married women. According to Quebec law, a woman can never use her married name in any official document and is to maintain her maiden name for the rest of her life. I judge that Quebec’s civil law denies women’s freedom of choice, and disregards cultural tradition and choice regarding marriage. If in the rest of Canada, women are given the choice of officially using their married name, Quebec is anchored in a phony law that denies freedom of choice in the name of “women’s freedom”. The origins of the law go back to the creation of the Quebec Charter of Rights, which clearly defined equality between men and women. And this equality was proclaimed by forcing women to stay “maidens”. It is interesting how a woman is forbidden from taking her husband’s surname after marriage, but a pardoned criminal has the right to change his/her name, in order to “protect” himself/herself. This outdated law must be abolished, since the “historical “reasons which determined its creation do not exist anymore. Women’s equality in our society doesn’t have to be proved anymore. It is a gained fight. The war is over. Not changing surnames is frequent for celebrities, but even so, many simply choose to add their married name next to their maiden one. The latest famous example is actress Demi Moore who has decided to change her surname and take her husband’s name: Kutcher. If keeping your maiden name is perfectly acceptable for Chinese, Korean, Iranian or Arab women, which are cultures where women usually do not change their name after marriage, as a European, I request to be given the choice of choosing my name and the right to use my married name in all official documents. Many Arab and Indonesian societies commonly do not have family names in the English sense of the term. French women do not legally change names when they marry. However, it is customary that they take their husband’s name as a “usage name”. This is not a legal obligation and not all women decide to do so. In Hungary both the bride and the bridegroom have to declare before the wedding which name they will use, a family sharing a common surname. In Brazil, until the recent reform of the Civil Law, women had to take their husbands’ surnames; not doing so was seen as evidence of concubinage. Also in Dutch tradition, marriage requires the female to drop her maiden name and take on the husband’s name. The current Dutch law gives people more freedom: upon marriage, both partners keep their own surname, but are given the choice to use their partner’s surname, or a combination of both. In Germany the name law is ruled by sexual equality since 1994: the woman can adopt her husband’s name or the man may adopt his wife’s surname. In Japan, marriage law requires that legally married couples share a surname. In Romania, when you marry, your name is automatically changed to that of your husband and all your documents are emitted with your acquired married name. But, a woman has the choice to request to keep her maiden name after marriage. As a social convention, in many cultures married women are called “Mrs. X” (their husband’s name) and unmarried women, or divorced (sometimes even after divorce some women choose to keep their “married”� name) are automatically called “Miss”, no matter their age. It is a change of status and a change of emotional character. It is a new position in the community and everybody knows that you are married because you have your husband’s name. Taking a married name might serve as daily and public markers of the marital union and the rights afforded thereto. Let’s not forget the emotional factor. Name change is a basic legal act that is recognized in practically all legal systems to allow an individual the opportunity to adopt a name other than the name given at birth, marriage, or adoption. In Quebec, any immigrant wishing to change his/her name is given this right. But married women are denied a fundamental freedom, that of choosing their surnames.This rule applies to all women domiciled in Quebec, even if they married outside Quebec or outside Canada, except women married before April 2, 1981 already using their husband’s last name to exercise their civil rights. (Source: Marriage is an institution which joins together people’s lives in emotional and economic ways. Even if in our modern times, there are many contemporary critiques of the institution of marriage, developed from a feminist viewpoint, suggesting that marriage can be particularly disadvantageous to women economically and socially, I believe that imposing any directions in this respect is infringement upon our human rights. I am not a Lucy Stone and there are many other women who are not. Though some feminists have asserted that taking a marital name detracts from the individual worth of the spouses, I request to have the choice of officially and legally using my husband’s surname. I do not believe that any of these feminists is being forced to anything against her will. Since they have the choice of not getting married, of not having a father for their child and the right of keeping their “maiden” surnames, their mission is accomplished. I consider that those women who, on the contrary, want to legalize a relationship by marriage, have a father for their child and use their husband’s surnames should be given equal understanding, respect, juridical and social support. Lesbians and gay couples have received the right to marry, to adopt children. Religious, sexual minorities turned the world upside down and the world decided to grant their more or less queer requirements. In this whirlpool of requests and approvals, married women in Quebec were completely ignored. In many cultures, if a woman lives with a man and doesn’t use his surname, it signifies that they are not married, thus it is a relation of concubinage. No matter how widely such relationships are socially accepted, some women are uncomfortable in presenting themselves in the above named type of relation. When you book a hotel room under different names, it is as if you are not a couple, but some people having an affair. This is humiliating. In many cultures, a couple who is married has the same surname. This is the social sign of a family, the sign of a couple legally married, who took joint responsibilities. Marriage is not a simple event. Marriage is a change of status; marriage is a new life, with a new name. Some women practice their new signature with emotion. The first document a woman signed with her husband’s name is regarded as a precious memory. Some women simply like to be called “Mrs. X”. A letter received on two different names is not addressed to a “family”. If some women do not wish to change their names and want to stay for the rest of their lives under their name of birth, it is their choice. But other women think that it is an honour to use their husband’s name. We must have the choice to choose our name after marriage. If the law is sensitive to human rights, than we must change its compulsory nature and enable women to make a choice. This means respect for human rights. I request the law to be changed and permit women to choose. I believe that the mentality according to which taking your husbands name is submission and you become his “propriety” belongs to the pioneering years of our fight for our freedoms and emancipation. We don’t have to wear trousers or smoke with ostentation in public anymore to prove that we are “free”. Sexual revolution and a tolerant society made everything possible: teenage mothers, fatherless children, fashion that shows nudity etc. What was long ago a gesture of rebellion against social taboos has become in our days as common as eating an apple. I believe that even feminists would agree that the Quebec law acts exactly against our freedoms, thus it must be abolished. I have contacted the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, but they do not consider that the case of a woman who wants to use her married name in all official documents is an issue of human rights. Since their answer was not satisfactory, I decided to send a letter to Prime Minister Jean Charest. The answer I have received from France Lessard, Director of Administration and Correspondance, is as follows: “Dear Mrs. Lussier, On behalf of the Premier of Quebec, Mr. Jean Charest, I acknowledge receipt of your letter dated August 12, 2007. Your query falls under the mandate of Mr. Jacques P. Dupuis, ministre de la Justice, and will be passed on to him for consideration.”

It is time to move on and put an end to a dictatorial law and give us nothing else but Freedom of Choice.


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