The first time I heard about it, I couldn’t believe it. A good friend, travelling alone with her kids, had been interrogated harshly at border control about whether her children were hers. I kept thinking about what this scene would look like to a child: a stranger in a uniform, accosting your mum, questioning her role in your life, her care over you. I’m not saying this would lead to deep, lifetime repercussions for their little mind, but what does the nature of that exchange tell us about the way we treat mothers? Mothers who’ve decided, very reasonably, to keep the name with which they were born?
This week, an MP revealed this had happened to her. Tulip Siddiq was stopped before boarding a Eurostar on her way home from holiday to be asked who her daughter was. “I was really surprised by the question and he repeated it,” she explained – she was juggling a pushchair, a toddler and God knows what else at the time. Siddiq’s husband was elsewhere in the terminal, she added, and the couple’s young daughter, crying for her “mama” throughout, looks more like him. Marriage, birth certificates and more documents were demanded, driving Siddiq to tears. All because the border guard kept asking “why we don’t have the same name”.
There is a blindingly obvious answer to this, but no matter – Siddiq was even told to leave her 18-month-old with the border agents to go and find her husband. “I got married aged 30, I lived my life, I had a reputation under my maiden name,” she went on, which saddened me a lot – we still live in a world where women like her, just like me, still get asked to justify this choice. What she said next spoke volumes, too. “I don’t want my daughter to have to go through that kind of questioning as she grows older, because it won’t happen with her father, only with me.” The sound you’re hearing is the heads of nails being hammered.
I don’t want my daughter to have to go through that kind of questioning as she grows older, because it won’t happen with her father, only with me
I’m not ignoring the reason the Home Office gave for this encounter, which comes from a place of absolute care for a child – the practice of trafficking children is notoriously difficult to police. I also bet being a border guard is not particularly delightful. Imagine that pressure to keep the queue moving, deal with harried travellers, keep a cool head. But the campaign Siddiq has launched to get both parents’ surnames on passports helps them, too – it wouldn’t require a change of legislation and it would make their jobs a lot easier. Additionally, surely some basic training on being more humane would help? It would also stop guards getting into situations, like one another female friend went through a few years ago, with her son, at an airport. The border guard said directly to the child, “Point to your mum.” The child replied, amazingly, "It’s rude to point.”
Be it funny or not, this rudeness needs to get sorted sooner rather than later. According to a 2013 survey by Facebook of their 33 million UK users, women are increasingly keeping their own names; 38 per cent of women in their twenties were keeping theirs after marriage, up from 26 per cent of women in their thirties.
In my wholly unscientific real-life experience, many of my friends in this cohort have children with their husband’s surname, too, and I know this warrants broader questions, and ones I’m not immune to (my son has both mine and my husband’s surnames, although mine is a middle name of sorts, which sits uncomfortably on my shoulders, despite it being a decision I made).
Nevertheless, I also have many friends who have changed their names after marriage and – surprise, surprise – I still bloody love them. Choosing what we call ourselves is our decision alone. We shouldn’t be treated harshly if those decisions differ. After all, whatever our names, we’re still the same people.