I got it from my Mama! – A matrilineal heritage


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by Hidir Koh 

Most people have a surname, or last name as some others call it. But where did you get it from? If you are like 80% of people, it is likely that you have inherited from your father. Patrilineal tradition is rampant around the world, but it seems that times are changing. A new trend has recently emerged – matrilineality, which is the inheritance of a maternal family name.

While it started out as isolated incidents, maternally inherited family names have increased in numbers over the years. One such cause for its snowball, is the advent of male celebrities who take on their wives’ maiden names (as in the case of Kick Ass’s Aaron Taylor Johnson), lending the spotlight to not only themselves but to a peculiar question: Why patrilineality?

To figure this out, let’s take a look at history. Amongst the various reasons for the rise of the patrilineal culture, one of the reasons was that family names should follow the surname of the financial provider for the family. Before the rise of feminism, that role belonged solely in the male domain, and this was one of the factors that led to patrilineality and a system that made it illegal in certain countries for a family to inherit a woman’s family name.

This doesn’t apply to existing cultures which are traditionally matrilineal, like the Minangkabau of Indonesia, the Mosuo of China and the Nairs of India.

However, during the rise of feminism in the 1970s, a change began to occur. Women started fighting for their rights, and were gaining financial independence. It is no wonder that during these times, certain women protested for their rights through the retention of their family names. Their determination eventually led to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (“CEDAW”), which dictated that both husband and wife were permitted to choose their own family name.

Interestingly though, this trend tapered off during the 1990s for reasons unknown, and we have reverted back to traditions where majority of the population take on patrilineal family names. Yet, with the recent focus being placed upon this issue again, would matrilineality be short lived as well? Only time will tell.