Misunderstanding Ms

April 5, 2015

Why Ms Alamuddin became Mrs Clooney

Misunderstanding Ms

Dear all,

Why did she do it? Why did Amal Alamuddin change her surname to Clooney after she got married?

Her business, I suppose. Yet I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that such a high profile, internationally recognised, hot-shot lawyer should not have retained her own name. I mean, the whole world knew she was marrying one of the world’s most eligible bachelors (the lovely George Clooney), everybody knew she was Mrs Clooney so why did she have to actually go and change her name?

Amal Alamuddin, who works to further the cause of human rights all over the world, did a great disservice to the cause of women’s rights by not choosing to remain Ms Alamuddin. The fact is the usage and function of Ms remains much misunderstood, despite the fact that we are in the 21st century and despite the fact that equal rights and equal opportunities for women are stated goals for most governments and international organisations.

Ms is an eminently practical idea: the equivalent of Mr for women, a title that simply indicates your gender without actually stating your marital status. Yet, somehow it is associated with an unappealingly strident form of feminism.

A few years ago I was astonished that my own young daughter was reluctant to put Ms rather than Miss on a form she was filling in because she thought it was making too much of a ‘statement’. That a young woman from a progressive household, brought up and schooled in the west, and with a mother who never changed her surname (and a father who has never made it an issue) should think like this was very disturbing.

So am I (as my daughter implied) making some sort of statement? Perhaps, but I am also just being accurate. I chose not to change my surname when I married so my surname remains the one I started life with: Khairi. I am not ‘Miss Khairi’ because I am a married woman, but neither am I ‘Mrs Khairi’ because I am not the wife of a Khairi. My legal and professional name is Umber Khairi and Ms just indicates that I am female. And that is, I believe, as it should be: men and women should use their own names and their title need not reflect their marital status.

But why has this not become the norm in this day and age?

One would think the usage of Ms would be the logical outcome of the feminist movement and other progressive currents of thought, yet the use of the title remains the exception rather than the rule. This despite the fact that ‘Ms’ as an idea is not the reactionary result of some bra-burning phase of recent history; apparently the term was used as early as the 17th century as an abbreviation for Mistress just as Mr was an abbreviation for Master, yet as a title it was not made acceptable for use in official documents in the United States as late as 1972.

But even though the title has now gained widespread acceptability in etiquette manuals (even Emily Post), this advance is undermined by women’s own reluctance to use it. Evidently this must have something to do with the contemporary woman’s attitude to marriage. Many women I have spoken to have even said the name change was their free choice and also that it would indicate a lack of commitment or lack of romantic attachment if they were to not take on their husband’s name.

This idea of assuming a new identity upon marriage is not uncommon to most cultures, but I find the name-change aspect of it brutal because it effectively wipes away the woman’s previous existence and even makes some of her memories and documents alien to her.

Particularly surprising though is the attitude of women in so many western countries.

The Saudi woman who cannot travel without her husband or father’s permission is a second class citizen without the same legal rights as a Saudi man, but surely a European or American woman needs to think more carefully about the political implications of her decisions vis-a-vis marriage and equality before the law?

But this is perhaps a reflection of the times we live in: that as legislation to ensure equal rights becomes stronger, women themselves are becoming more regressive because they argue it is "their choice". The world is trying to move forward, and women, perhaps without realising it, are moving backwards.

Even as stereotypes of how women should look and behave are strengthened, women now fail to distinguish between what is ‘feminine’ and what is progressive, egalitarian and fair. And in this distressing scenario the usage and perfectly straightforward implication of the title Ms are viewed as perhaps too radical. In this, the 21st century….

Truly Amal (Clooney) is the Ms who really missed out on an opportunity to set a standard and be a role model, she could have helped blaze a trail -- instead she changed her name…

Best wishes

Misunderstanding Ms