The question of whether a woman changes her name after marriage remains strangely controversial and emotive, even in 2017, and when there are children involved the issue can become practically difficult. It shouldn’t be this way, says Tulip Siddiq, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn.
Siddiq is currently championing a petition started by one of her constituents calling for “passport equality”, after an experience Siddiq herself had over the summer. “Our daughter has my husband Chris’ last name, which was a decision that we made collectively, and I’ve kept my maiden name,” Siddiq explains, “so we don’t have the same surname. We were coming home from France and I was sent to the priority queue because I had a pram, whereas Chris was way at the back – out of the door almost.” When Siddiq reached the British border, she was faced with a startling question – “Who is this child?”
“It was tense,” she recalls. “They asked for my marriage certificate and Azalea’s [Siddiq’s daughter’s] birth certificate, but I didn’t have those with me.”
Thankfully, Siddiq’s situation was quite quickly resolved after she located her husband, “but the weird thing was,” she says, “after a friend who works at The Guardian wrote about it, there were countless emails from people saying, ‘This has happened to me.’” Siddiq recounts stories of children with autism seizing up in terror when asked by border guards who their parents were. She also tells me about a woman of Iraqi heritage who was held up in Toronto because her baby has the pale skin of her white British father: “She was accused of abducting the child and she found the whole experience really distressing.”
An estimated 600,000 women with different surnames to their children have been held up at UK security in the past five years, according to research by Siddiq’s team.
It’s not just women who are affected either – Siddiq also tells me that she’s had emails from numerous gay couples with adopted children, “who have been questioned mercilessly at the borders wherever they go”. And, of course, fathers are affected, too – there are some parents – like mine – who decide to give their children the mother’s surname.
I understand the intention – it’s to keep vulnerable children safe – and that’s always our first priority. But this isn’t the right way of doing it
The fix for this particular issue is simple (and, no, it’s not – as a number of keyboard warriors I’ve come across have helpfully suggested – that women should just shut up and take their husband’s names). All that’s needed is to include both parents’ names in their children’s passports.
It’s a solution that many other European countries arrived at long ago. Take my friend Kate, who is British, but lives with her partner and son – who have a different surname to her – in Brussels. Kate chose to get her son an Italian passport (his father is half-Italian) because it automatically includes the names of both parents. She regularly travels back to the UK with her son to see friends and family. “I get harassed every time at the border,” she tells me, “but thankfully I can say, ‘Yes, he's my son – see my details on page five of his passport.’” UK border guards even acknowledge the problem, she says. “Last time I showed them my details, the lady said, ‘Oh, those Italian passports are great, aren't they?’”
As Siddiq points out, the change makes sense simply from a practical perspective – the current system is a huge waste of resources. “I understand the intention – it’s to keep vulnerable children safe – and that’s always our first priority. But this isn’t the right way of doing it,” she tells me.
The response from government to date has been disappointing. “I did write to Amber Rudd [the home secretary] about whether she had any plans to change this and she just wrote ‘No’ – there was no sort of explanation – just no,” Siddiq relays, clearly frustrated.
Her hope now is that the petition will receive enough signatures to trigger a debate in parliament, but this isn’t the first time government has refused her calls to make changes to archaic administrative procedures. Siddiq also championed including the names of both parents on marriage certificates, which currently only list the details of both partners’ fathers.
“David Cameron basically showed a lot of enthusiasm, but even now the change hasn’t happened,” she sighs. “You can champion issues, people show enthusiasm, but it’s not a top priority. And yet, for me, a lot of these things are symbolic gestures to make sure that women aren’t erased out of history.”
“There have been some victories,” she continues, citing her successful campaign for the rollout of free prenatal testing on the NHS as an example, “but I think it needs a lot of pressure before you achieve certain changes. It’s no secret that in parliament there is a huge lack of women generally – not just as MPs, but researchers, advisors, press officers – there are huge gaps across the whole range of politics where women should be.” Which, she asserts, is why it’s all the more important to be vocal on these issues so they cannot be ignored.