‘There’s no such thing as a feminist name-change’

When I reverted my surname back to my maiden name, apparently the Interior Ministry decided I was getting divorced. How do you prove that you’re not getting divorced? My own personal brush with Kafka.

Minister of Interior Affairs Aryeh Deri visits at Interior Ministry office (Misrad Hapnim) in Petah Tikva, July 26, 2016. Photo by Yaakov Cohen/Flash90
Illustrative photo of a clerk at an office of the Israeli Interior Ministry. (Yaakov Cohen/Flash90)

I went to the Interior Ministry office in Beit Shemesh to get a passport issued for my adolescent son last week. He is supposed to travel with friends for a ski vacation in Europe, where it is winter, snowing, cold, and expensive. I got there very early so that I could get back to work at a reasonable time. There were only two Arabs waiting in a short queue, the rest were ultra-Orthodox people of all ages. After an hour, our turn came.

“I paid in advance on the internet,” I declared proudly to the nice, sleepy clerk who asked a few questions as he typed on the keyboard. He looked at me doubtfully and said: “According to the computer you are getting divorced, so you need your partner to also consent.” I was shocked.

“I’m not divorced, sir, what are you talking about?”

“It’s recorded here, ‘in divorce proceedings.’ That’s what you declared a few years ago when you changed your surname.”

“I didn’t change it. The name was Salaime-Egbariya and I decided to keep only my maiden name, Salaime. It’s a feminist act, do you understand?”

“I don’t know, you probably told the clerk and she wrote that you were separated.”

“We never initiated divorce proceedings. I’ve been with my partner for 22 years. We are not separated. How is it that we’re registered as separated?”

I began to defend my marital status with all my might, as if my family’s honor had been deeply wounded by the fear that the clerk conjured up. My son, embarrassed by the situation, remembered that he had been with me at the Interior Ministry that day when I changed my surname — he began to argue also and insisted that his parents actually live together.

“Do you have a court’s ruling?”

Kafka in Beit Shemesh

I approached the manager of the Interior Ministry branch in an attempt to explain the situation to her so that she would allow us to move forward with the process of issuing a passport to my nervous son. The woman did not listen and began to recite in rapid-fire: “A woman who changes her name must have a reason. Maybe you are separated? Maybe your husband doesn’t live at home and he has a partner somewhere else? Why did the clerk write ‘divorced?’ Surely you said something.” I half expected her to slip me the phone number for a private investigator.

“I’m not divorced — not that I would have a problem with being divorced. It’s not offensive to me.” I began mixing my arguments about my own status with my desire to explain that in principle divorce is a normal family situation, to dispel the social stigma. Thank God, I didn’t dive into the issue of the status of divorced Arab women. “But,” I insisted, “I’m not getting divorced. I changed my name as a feminist, ideological act. It’s a personal process that I went through.” My voice rose.

“A personal process of divorce? I don’t know what a feminist act is. Do you have a court ruling?”

“A court ruling proving that I’m a feminist?”

“No, that you’re not divorced. That you’re not separated.”

“How can I prove such a thing? We’ve never been to court or hired a lawyer for this. A couple can show that they are married, but to prove that they are not getting divorced, and never were — how do you that?”

“If you tell me that today is Sunday, I’d believe you and write it in the computer. But if you come back later and say it was actually Monday, who has to prove it, me or you?”

A triumphant smile spread across the manager’s face, as if she had won the most important debate of her life.

While I was trying to wrap my mind around her comparison, my son suggested one could simply look at the calendar and check what the date was. Finally, the director suggested a solution: “Bring your husband here and sign an affidavit that you are still living in the same home and are not divorced.”

At this stage I decided to pull the oppressed Arab woman card, hoping that it would help to evoke some cultural sensitivity in her heart that would save me from this bewildering situation.

“You understand that I’m an Arab woman, right?”

“Yes, I can see that. It does not matter.”

“Do you understand that asking me to bring ‘my husband’ here to tell him that you decided that we are getting divorced so that he can declare that we are not is embarrassing and inappropriate? It could harm our family fabric.”

“Yes, it’s unpleasant, I understand. Why did you change your name in the first place?”

“I didn’t. It was Salaime-Egbariya and now it is Salaime. I am still with the same partner. I changed the name, not the man. We have been stuck together for 22 years, and tomorrow is his birthday. Instead of celebrating his birthday you want me to tell him: ‘Tough luck, the Interior Ministry divorced us?'”

“There is no such thing as name change for feminist reasons. I don’t care if you are a feminist. I don’t have anywhere to type that. Bring your husband here so we can restore your previous status.”

My son gave up and called his father, who could not understand why two parents were required to issue a passport. In the meantime, the rest of the clients were treated to a free theater production about a strange and complicated Arab family, with a divorce, a son, and a complete lack of clarity about who is married to whom.

Whether his parents were married or not, the most important thing was that my son could get his passport and embark on his vacation.
Passport control at Ben-Gurion Airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The symbolic dimension

We sat waiting for my husband and I felt my son’s palpable anger and frustration. I tried to contain his rage. My love, why should he experience this? I began to explain to him the importance of a woman’s surname, and how women deal with this issue, that they go through deep emotional processes over transferring their “ownership” to a partner’s surname, which they love but by which they do not want to be defined. I talked about the solution — using both names — but then the name is too long to fit in official boxes and forms, even on the supermarket club card.

I told him about women and freedom of choice, relationships, and family life, and then I saw the fire coming out of my son’s mouth, the volcano erupting any minute. “Is it hard for you with your name, long or short? You and your feminism!” He exclaimed. “What are you complaining about? Do you realize what name you chose for me?”

“Yes, Muhammad, your name.”

“And you don’t think it’s problematic today? What does it make you think about, what does it mean?

“It is the most common name in the world. Identity, religion. It’s a very powerful name.”

“You think it’s like that. It really is not.”

“You can change if it’s so hard for you. When you’re 18.” I folded pretty fast.

“I don’t want to change it, I was born with it and I’ll cope. It is what it is. That is the difference between you and me.”

“I’m glad you see it that way. I also went back to the name I was born with, without additions.”

The argument went on until my husband arrived. He wanted to understand why we had summoned him so hastily. With a ridiculous smile I tried to minimize the damage and explain the situation and how we got into it. “Do you remember when I returned to being Salaime without the Egbariya … Well the Interior Ministry … they thought we were separated…They made a mistake….a fatal mistake. What a mess, hey?”

He was silent for a moment.

“Made a mistake? Who made a mistake? Don’t you think this has a symbolic dimension?”

“Come on, Omar. Please. I fought all my feminist wars, don’t start on the symbolic dimension, the hidden, the subconscious. Sign the deposition. We are together and that’s all. Look at Muhammad. Let’s be done with this miserable ordeal.”

The whole family went back into the office. I raised my head with inexplicable marital pride, as if to demonstrate our normal relationship to all those I had shouted at an hour earlier. As if I wanted to tell them: Here is my husband. We are not divorced, everything is fine. I’m just a stubborn and stupid feminist, but still married! In short, pretty pathetic and sad.

We sat in front of the clerk, who looked us up and down. He took my partner’s ID card, left, photocopied it, and then said: “Sir, you are registered as a resident of a village up north, not Neve Shalom.”

“Yes, yes, but we have lived in Neve Shalom for 17 years,” I cried out.

Omar explained that he simply never filed a change of address form, and that he lives in Neve Shalom/Wahat Al Salam with me, his wife.

Then there was another short argument, at the end of which I wrote an affidavit affirming that I live with this man in the same home, that we are not divorcing, and that I consent to him living with me. I actually liked the idea that I was the one letting him live in our lovely village. My husband signed that he is “my husband” who lives with me and that he is not in the process of getting divorced from anyone.

The audience was relieved and almost applauded. I said to Omer, “Mazal tov, my dear husband, whether you like it or not, according to the Interior Ministry’s computer, we are now husband and wife again.”

My son slumped into the car. My partner got into his car.

On the way out, I heard one of the religious women whisper to her friend, “Maybe he’s married to another woman and she doesn’t know? That’s how it is with the Arabs.” Against my normal inclination, I went on my way. I had enough struggle for one day, but I reserve the right to respond in the future.

For now, I intend to celebrate the coupledom renewed by affidavit by the Interior Ministry. And all I can hope for is that my son leaves for his ski vacation with warm and tender feelings for his complicated parents, who are blessed with a son named Muhammad.

This article first appeared in Hebrew at Local Call. Read it here. Translated by Yoni Molad for Middle East News Service and edited by Sol Salbe.