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Laws of Eve: Happy to be a Jamaican woman

Published:Monday | December 21, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Most Jamaicans probably grew up believing that a woman was obligated to take her husband's surname after marriage.

More recently, it has become more stylish for women to create double-barrel names (a combination of the wife's maiden name and the husband's surname) after marriage and professional women often opt to retain their maiden names. Some women even use one surname professionally and another socially.

What is clear in Jamaica, is that the entire issue boils down to personal choices, as there is no legislation that compels a husband or wife to take the other's surname. However, within the past week, the spotlight focused on Japan and the world learnt of an old statute that specifically provides for what the newly married couple must do in relation to their surnames.

The many reports concerning the case online, say that a group of Japanese women commenced proceedings in 2011 to challenge two ancient provisions under the Civil Code. One provision compels a married couple to have a single surname. In other words, after marriage, either the husband or the wife must take the other's name. Accordingly, this invariably resulted in a wife dropping her maiden name and adopting her husband's surname. The rationale is that a common name helps to preserve the family's structure. However, if one of the parties to the marriage is not Japanese, they are not bound by the provision.

The other provision forced women to remain single for at least six months from the day of dissolution or cancellation of the previous marriage, except the case in which she both gets pregnant before the day and gives birth to the child. This law was said to exist in order to avoid uncertainty over the paternity of a child who is born after a divorce.

It was a 15-member court that heard the matter that was brought by five women who contended that they were inconvenienced by having to use two surnames - the maiden name in professional circles and the legal married name on official documents. Five of the judges (including three females) did not agree with the majority.

In relation to the action to remove the impediment to remarry within six months after divorce, the court reduced that time period to 100 days. The reason for this ruling is that there is modern technology available to conclusively determine the issue of paternity.

To many who have heard of the Japanese cases, the issues may appear to be of little consequence. However, if we traced our legal history, we would find that there were provisions under the common law by statutes that impeded women from exercising rights that we take for granted today.

Some common examples are that women were once chattels or property, had no right to own property, to acquire loans in their own names or to vote. Today, those issues do not even arise for discussion.

I empathise with our Japanese counterparts, because the reason stated in the judgement for upholding the law in relation to the use of surnames that the legislation did no harm to "individual dignity and equality between men and women" seems to ignore the fact that we are living in modern times. If nothing else, the decisions in the Japanese court helped me to focus on another reason I am happy to be a Jamaican woman.

• Sherry-Ann McGregor is a partner and mediator in the firm of Nunes, Scholefield, DeLeon & Co. Please send questions and comments to lawsofeve@gmail.com or lifestyle@gleanerjm.com.