Somewhere in India, there are 1,000 female paramilitary soldiers with no last names. Six years ago, after one of them endured a particularly trying divorce, her colleagues, in solidarity, dropped the male parts of their names – either last or middle and last – from their name tags.

I learnt of this remarkable unit recently when I met their former commander. Her card said Geeta (I have changed her name to protect her identity). What is your last name, I asked. She smiled and said she did not have a last name any longer. When Geeta got married, she added on – as most Indian women do – her husband’s first and last names. “I wanted to go the entire way,” she said. “There was to be no confusion.” After she dropped both those names, her aggrieved husband pointed out that he was being affected by something he had no part in. “I told him,” said Geeta, “This isn’t about you.”

That is something the Indian man needs to hear from the women in his life. The decisions that women make are not always – and nor should they be – about the men in their lives. The decision made by Geeta and the paramilitary unit of 1,000 women was largely symbolic. It was made with positive intent, to express solidarity with comrades, in many ways a gesture to the camaraderie and personal loyalty typical to tightly knit uniformed forces. But it was also a move rare to such armed forces. It was also plainly a gesture of defiance.

After I met Geeta, I met other women, all writers, who had used the same symbol of defiance – removing the male part of their names.

Separate identities

There is Salma, a Tamil poet forced by her family to stop school at 13. She wrote poems surreptitiously in toilets because her husband and family – who thought her love of reading and writing was madness – gave her, as she puts it, “lots of problems”. When she left home for the first time to attend a literary event, she lied about meeting a doctor. “We need separate identities,” said Salma, who uses her pen name over her real name, Rokkiah Begum. Salma, which is what I call her as well, is familiar with male hypocrisy: one of her novels was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists over Muslim women having relationships with Hindu men, ignoring, of course, Muslim characters who woo Hindu women. It does not help that the women in her stories do not hide their sexuality.

There is Annie Zaidi, who was raised by her mother and so adopted her last name. Zaidi’s mother was Muslim, her father Hindu, and when the marriage fell apart, her mother reverted to Zaidi from Pombra. “One should not necessarily adopt a maternal name over a paternal name, but you should be free to choose,” said Zaidi. “I am very clear on this.” Women definitely should not change their names after marriage, she said. “Basically you’re going from one [male] hand to another.” She acknowledges that Zaidi itself is a patriarchal name, but she has chosen to identify with “this family”. Last year, at her passport renewal, after she put down her mother’s name instead of her father’s, Zaidi faced an indignant male passport officer. “Don’t fathers matter at all?” he asked.

There is Rakshanda Jalil, who never considered adding on her husband’s name. “Getting married at 29, it seemed the most natural thing to do,” she said. “There was no debate or dilemma. I mentioned this to my husband, who didn’t bat an eyelid.”

Male self-assurance is important. It helps if the man is comfortable with what was once regarded as woman’s work and does not display stereotypical insecurity about gender roles. Indeed, Jalil’s husband once washed dishes and cleaned toilets at home (there’s help now); he still makes morning tea for his wife. “Of course, all this has its piquant moments,” said Jalil. “We have been introduced to each other at parties! I usually respond, rather saucily, by saying, ‘Yes I know him…in the biblical sense!’ People often address him as Mr Jalil. We get invites for Mrs and Mr Jalil. None of this really bothers him.”

It does not bother me as well when I am addressed as Mr Ramani, my wife’s last name, which she never changed. My daughter takes both our names. Jalil’s college-going younger daughter has, by choice, added Jalil to her name, and her Instagram account is in that name. That, to a teenager, as Jalil points out, is serious.

(Photo credit: Money Sharma/AFP).

A new awakening

These women lead wildly varied lives. Geeta serves with hundreds of paramilitary soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir. Zaidi’s is a solitary existence; she confesses to having little in common with her neighbours in the distant Mumbai suburb where she lives. Salma’s life is the opposite of calm. She is a minor politician in Chennai and the mother of two college-going sons who live with her; her husband prefers to stay in their home village. Jalil is a translator and scholar who works and thrives among Delhi’s intellectuals.

In varying ways, their stories symbolise a gentle awakening of Indian women’s independence.

I say gentle because too many women continue to be held back by the rules Indian society sets for them. Too many woman are brought up with ideas that make them mentally or physically dependent on men. “We are so conditioned with the idea of ‘apna ghar [my home]’ as the husband’s house that so many of us take up [male] names willingly and happily,” said Geeta, the soldier. “And maybe our society thrives because of this.”

Certainly, the lot of Indian women has improved. More are literate than ever before, almost all girls are in primary school, and women like Geeta represent pioneers to new frontiers. But this era of progress runs alongside a certain regression. Over two decades, the proportion of women in India’s workforce has fallen from 35% to 27%. Only Saudi Arabia among the G-20 group of nations does worse, as does Pakistan in South Asia. Women who are illiterate or are college graduates do worst: the enrolment rate of women in higher education in India has risen over a decade from 7.5% to 20%, but 68% of women graduates do not work. There are many reasons for this including the lack of a job, the lack of transport or safety, or both. But old-fashioned attitudes that require a woman’s priorities to be making chapatis, raising children or caring for her husband and parents are probably the greatest obstacles.

It is apparent that there are numerous red lines holding back India’s women. These lines manifest themselves in the form of rules and conditioning, and they are not going away any time soon. So gestures of defiance, however incremental, serve to loosen those restrictions and place women at the threshold of historic change, a future that does not subordinate them to men. A name is an identity, and a name change implies subordination. Indian women could start changing history if they refuse to change their names.