THE BLOG

How Women Are Still Being Defined Relative to Men

06/06/2014 11:41 BST | Updated 04/08/2014 10:59 BST

'This is not fair. This is 2014. Marriage should not be seen as a business transaction between the father of the bride and the father of the groom. This seemingly small inequality is part of a much wider pattern of inequality. Women are routinely silenced and written out of history.'

These are the words from a petition launched last month asking for mothers' names to be included on UK marriage certificates, which has now passed 25,000 signatures, 75 per cent of its 35,000 target. Currently, in England and Wales, marriage certificates include space for the name of the Father of the Bride and the Father of the Groom, with separate boxes allocated to each of their occupations. The mothers of the happy couple are excluded from this official documentation. The format of the English and Welsh marriage certificate has remained unchanged since the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1837. As in any patrilineal society, tracing female ancestors is notoriously harder than uncovering the male line in family trees. The absence of mothers' names on marriage documents contributes further to the phenomenon of invisible women ancestors.

Having spent several years living in Nepal and India, I have gotten used to seeing mothers' names excluded from application forms. In fact, in India every form I have ever completed always requested the father's name of the applicant. Perhaps this is not so surprising in a country where the patriarchal institution of the arranged marriage is still the norm. However, I was surprised to learn that in the UK, a country that prides itself on a high levels of gender equality and progressive thinking, such subtle discrimination against women still exists unchallenged (until now).

'It's all in a name'

But this is not the only type of discrimination faced by the majority of women when it comes to filling in official forms. Declaring one's marital status has been the norm for women since forms began. Despite feminist progress in getting institutions to recognize and use the neutral title of 'Ms', 'Mrs' or Miss' are still prevalent on forms and everyday use.

In 2009, leaders of the European Union banned the use of the words 'Mrs' and 'Miss' because they are 'sexist' and issued new guidelines in a bid to create 'gender-neutral' language. In 2012, France bid adieu to the term 'mademoiselle' - on the grounds that it is 'sexist'. The Gallic equivalent of 'Miss' was abolished from all Government documents. Prime minister Francois Fillon also banned the phrase 'nom de jeune fille', meaning 'maiden name', from official paperwork because it is 'archaic' and has 'connotations of virginity'. As a result of the work of feminist campaigners, an order issued to all ministries and regional authorities said 'mademoiselle' must be replaced with 'madame' and should be not interpreted as an indication of marital status. French feminist campaigner Julie Muret welcomed the move, saying: 'Men are never asked if they are married if they want a credit card or mobile phone.' 'Mademoiselle harks back to the term 'oiselle', which means "virgin" or "simpleton".' If you think that's bad,the Tibetan word for 'wife' and 'woman' is 'kye men', which literally means 'lower birth'.

As Eve Kay wrote in The Guardian, back in 2007:

'Miss and Mrs are marks of the old world, reminders of women's second-class status as wives-to-be (Miss) or simply wives (Mrs).....Choose Miss and you are condemned to childish immaturity. Choose Mrs and be condemned as some guy's chattel. Choose Ms and you become an adult woman in charge of your whole life.'

However, in the UK I am still generally asked (on forms and over the telephone) if I am 'Mrs' or 'Miss', leaving myself to choose the option of 'Ms'. Worse still, the response of 'Ms' is still interpreted by many to indicate 'previously married' as opposed to being the female equivalent to Mr - a title that says nothing about a person's marital status. Also, most forms request women to state their 'maiden name', another indirect way of getting them to declare marital status. Hardly gender-neutral.

'It's in the way you dress'

In addition, many women still follow traditions where dress indicates marital status. What is the origin and role of such dress? "Visual markers of marital status are particularly important because they indicate that a person should not be approached for flirtation, courtship or sex"(Wikipedia, 2011). Yet again, women being publicly defined in terms of their 'availability' to men.

In Tibetan society, for example, it is the social norm and tradition for married women to wear a striped apron (pangden) which immediately singles them out as 'unavailable'. Married Hindu women also wear bangles of either white (sankha) and/or red colour (known as pala) on both hands, and never remove them until they are divorced or widowed. Sindoor, a red powder (vermilion), is also put on a woman's forehead to indicate her marital status.

In Orthodox Jewish communities, head coverings are worn by women at all times outside her home. In some hasidic communities, women shave their heads after the wedding and wear a close-fitting black scarf. The type of head covering may be determined by local custom or personal preference. In some communities, it is permissible for hair to show; in others, no strand is left uncovered.

Women whose husbands have died are also expected to indicate marital status through dress such as wearing white for Hindu women. In western and northern Europe, it used to be common for widows to wear black, at least for the first year after the death of the husband. This custom has withered away in recent decades. Although, the white wedding dress, supposed to symbol a bride's purity and virginity is still going strong.

Why do we accept it?

Feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez, who has endorsed the campaign to include mothers name on marriage certificates, when considering the possibility of marriage for herself states:

"I cannot sully a relationship that means so much to me, by associating it with an institution that renders my mother worthless, invisible, surplus to requirements."

Indeed. Isn't it time all such outdated, patriarchal traditions and dress that perpetuate and promote the idea that women are the property of their fathers or husbands; or defined in terms of their marital status, be banned everywhere? Until that happens how can females ever be genuinely regarded as equal, autonomous human beings independent of their relation to men? As Simone De Beauvoir wrote in 'The Second Sex':

"It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations posed upon her by her sex. The real question is not why she should reject them: the problem is rather to understand why she accepts them."