Czech women could soon have the option to use last names that don’t automatically signal their gender, the latest push to challenge male-oriented surname traditions across the globe.
Pirate Party lawmaker Ondřej Profant, who is supporting the initiative, told The Washington Post that the naming practice is “impractical.”
“Until now, however, such a change has been bureaucratically demanding and required the fulfillment of some uncontrollable conditions,” he said in an email, noting that the option to forgo “ova” was available only to foreigners or women who planned to live abroad. “Many women lied so that they could write the unchanged form.”
The bill has set up a clash between those who favor skewing an age-old practice to give women more flexibility and those who argue the tradition is fundamental to Czech grammar. It’s one of several attempts stretching from Colombia to Iceland in which courts and legislatures are weighing demands to provide greater equity in surname traditions that have long favored the predominance of male last names. It also comes as the #MeToo movement continues to spark conversations about gender and protests worldwide.
“Language is elastic. It works to do what we need it to do,” said Marissa Fond, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Linguistics at Georgetown University. “Language responds to social changes, and language can also create or reinforce that change.”
Language experts note that patronymic naming practices are common across cultures and that language has the capability to become more flexible as more people demand agency in their identity.
English last names such as Johnson, Robertson and Richardson are derived from naming traditions meant to indicate a person was the “son of” John, Robert or Richard. Muslim nations and followers of the religion use a similar naming structure, utilizing “bin” or “ibn” in a nod to the father, such as the Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tariq or Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the United Nations secretary general’s special representative for West Africa.
Other nations such as Armenia, Ukraine and Georgia have similar naming conventions to the Czech Republic in that the father’s family name is slightly varied based on the sex of his children.
While the Czech Republic is in the spotlight for challenging its traditional naming conventions, it’s not the only country to legally challenge the status quo for monikers.
In 2019, a Colombian constitutional court ruled that the tradition of naming children with the father’s last name before the mother’s infringed on principles of equality and instructed the nation’s Congress to create new legislation that would give parents more flexibility in naming their children.
Iceland dropped a previous legal requirement for girls and boys to be named according to their sex that same year, giving more autonomy to parents and more control over gender identity.
Changes such as the one in Iceland can alter how gender is expressed and perceived, Fond noted. Names also allow people to talk about something or someone in very specific ways and can signal a lot of identifiers about someone, she added.
“Names are such an important aspect of how we locate ourselves in the world, and those decisions are made by our parents,” she said. “In this case [of the Czech Republic] … a change like this is important for people. They have the ability to make gender less salient. In a naming system like this, it’s making gender salient in regard to surname.”
The push to allow less gender-obvious names has been a debate in the Czech Republic for at least 20 years, with similar legislation introduced in 2000. Proponents of the legislation argued that the “ova” used for women was perceived by some as demeaning in the post-Communist country where feminism was slowly being tolerated.
Profant told Prague Radio International last year that a survey of a registry office in Prague showed 28 percent of women requested the masculine version of their last name, as well as about 11 percent of women outside the capital, suggesting a significant number want an alternative.
David Danaher, professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, noted that similar proposals have failed in the past, but said that non-gendered last names aren’t necessarily new in the Czech Republic.
“It is currently possible for a woman to choose a legal last name that is not gendered, although sometimes it may require a white lie to conform to the law as it is currently written (for example, the woman could claim to be of Hungarian — not Czech — heritage, which makes it legally possible to choose a non-gendered form of the last name),” he said in an email. “As I understand it, a certain percentage of women do choose to have a non-gendered legal last name, and if the law is changed to remove the restrictions, then every woman would have a free choice, in which case the percentage of women choosing the non-gendered option would likely increase.”
Profant speculated there’s a strong possibility that the measure could become law in the Czech Republic despite previous failed attempts.
The Senate will debate the topic in 30 days. If the Senate passes it, it will then move to the desk of the president who can choose to sign it.
Both Danaher and Fond noted English has adjusted in recent years to encompass gender norms in ways that would’ve been seen as grammatically incorrect but are now socially acceptable. Names are also part of the change.
“If linguistic conventions force you to identify yourself in ways that don’t make sense to you, then you will probably seek to challenge those conventions,” Danaher said. “The proposed Czech law is, then, not a new story; it is instead a reflection of a long-term trend in challenging linguistic norms that fail to do justice, in one way or another, to how we understand ourselves.”
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