What's in a name? Most of us don't even consider our names beyond that they are ours. We are born into them and we put up with them, more often than not, as though we have no choice - at most, adopting nicknames, or even changing a surname after marriage. But, for some, a name can be a heavily loaded matter - something that shackles us to an identity with which we don't connect. Here, writer Hajar J. Woodland explains her struggle to come to terms with her surname - before and after the breakdown of her marriage - and why she finally plucked up the courage to change it.
I spent my childhood embarrassed about my surname, Javaheri.
I hated it.
In fact I still don’t really know how to pronounce it, hyper-aware as I am that it lends itself easily to innuendo, which the boys at primary school were quick to cotton onto, asking: ‘Hajar, d’ya have a hairy?’. What a hoot.
I wanted to be proud of my family name but it didn’t reflect my dual UK-Iranian heritage, or the way in which I wanted to present myself to others. As I entered adulthood it started to represent so much more to me than an identity or history; it was a link to a painful past that I was only just starting to come to terms with.
I was born and raised in the UK to a British mother who worked overtime as both parent and breadwinner, and a part-time-at-best Iranian, Muslim father who evidently struggled with his role in cultivating a nurturing parent-child bond.
I got used to people assuming I was ‘foreign’ and asking about ‘my culture’, as if I didn’t eat shepherd’s pie and watch Heartbeat on a Sunday night.
I always felt more connected with my British heritage than the Iranian side, but because I was so concerned with being a good Muslim, I carried a lot of guilt about my personality and lifestyle. As a result, my Western side became something to fight against, rather than to proudly embrace.
My name, more than anything, represented this cultural conflict and denial. When I moved to London for university and started to question my faith and identity, my surname seemed to be the only thing keeping me Muslim.
By my early twenties, I had only a thread of my difficult relationship left with my father, and I had decided to stop identifying as a Muslim.
I hated that my name kept me tethered to a man who had done little to nurture my early years, and even less to prepare me for adulthood.
Then, marriage came into the equation.
I wasn’t brought up with the tradition of adopting a man’s name on marriage. Like many Muslim women, my mother kept her maiden name so, when I came to get married - aged 26 - I felt deeply conflicted as to whether or not to take my husband’s surname. I battled internally between my feminist principles, my ingrained irrational romantic desire to share my name with the man I loved, and my wish to finally separate myself from my father.
But when it came down to it, rather than feeling I might be losing something by changing my surname - in the way that many married women might - I felt as though my husband’s name was a chance for liberation, a safety blanket and a positive force protecting me against all the conflicts of my upbringing. I loved it.
But it was only a borrowed identity.
My marriage ended on a Sunday night. My heart would need time to adjust but, as I coaxed off my wedding and engagement rings, I knew I had to make steps to face my new reality.
And, just like the rings that adorned my left hand, I knew I could no longer keep the married name I loved. It was a reminder of a fleeting identity I hadn’t quite forged for myself. I was still in a man’s life. His world. And now I was at the edge of my own, hoping to rebuild it afresh. The safety net had gone.
The separation was a chance to choose an identity without the male attachment, and to think about the new path I wanted to take. It felt almost arrogant to assume I could just pick my own name as the writer Cheryl Strayed had done, but I was out of options.
I’d thought about taking my mother’s maiden name, but somehow it just didn’t seem to fit, and I’d only have been trying to please her by taking it. As noble as that might have been, I didn’t want to adopt yet another name that represented someone else’s wishes other than my own. I needed a real break from all that had gone before.
After a problematic relationship with my father in my youth, and a broken marriage in my twenties, carrying either of their names felt like a weight to bear and a barrier to healing.
To take me into the new chapter of my life, I wanted the affirmation that I could be more than just a product or an extension of a family or marriage – that my life was now mine to choose, and to control – no one else’s.
By my 30th birthday, my ring finger was still unused to its new nakedness, but I had settled on a new name.
I’d considered myriad possibilities for weeks, when my grandmother finally suggested Woodland. It was my great, great grandmother’s maiden name - and while I won’t pretend to know much about her, her name just seemed to fit.
It’s British enough to represent my background and with a link to my family, but it also brings to mind some of the ethereal forestry of the works of Blyton and Potter. It gives me a sense of childhood again. And while I know I can never go back, I can certainly start afresh – with an identity that feels much more… me.