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regular-article-logo Saturday, 13 April 2024

Rogue prefix

Why is there an insistence on highlighting the marital status of a woman? This also begs the question as to why some women draw their identity from their marital status

Sheetal Choudhary Published 04.03.24, 07:25 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. Sourced by the Telegraph

A friend requested her office to refrain from addressing her as ‘Smt/Mrs’ in any written or oral communication. She felt that her marital status was her private affair and being addressed as ‘Smt/Mrs’ made her feel like the property of her husband. With an imperious shrug, the Symbolic Order sent her the next communication with her name prefixed with ‘Smt’ in boldface and a new font. While narrating the incident, my friend stated, “they forgot to underline the Smt.”

Questioning the use of an archaic salutation ruffles the feathers of patriarchy. Why is there an insistence on highlighting the marital status of a woman? This also begs the question as to why some women draw their identity from their marital status.

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‘Smt/Mrs’ is a symbolic identity which never quite becomes an organic part of the psychological identity of some women. We have here what Louis Althusser called “ideological interpellation”: the symbolic identity conferred on women is the result of the way the ruling ideology interpellates us — as wife, mother. The discomfort emerges when a subject starts to question her symbolic identity and there is a gap between a woman’s psychological identity and her symbolic identity.

In May 2023, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition of Pratima Gond saying that there cannot be a general order to remove the prefix from women’s names. “… it depends upon the choice of a person whether to use a prefix or not to use the prefix,” said a division bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Ahsanuddin Amanullah in the order. This brings us to the question of exercising the choice that must be made within/by the system. In my friend’s case, despite putting in a request for removing ‘Smt’ from her name, the system not only persisted but also boldfaced it.

This is a social issue and must be addressed as such. In the Indian context, an unmarried boy and girl would be referred to as ‘Kumar’ and ‘Kumari’, respectively, while a married man and woman are referred to as ‘Shriman’ and ‘Shrimati’. The usage of ‘Kumar’ has fallen by the wayside and a man is a ubiquitous ‘Mr/Shri’ irrespective of his marital status. But the marital status of a woman has to be spelt out loud as she is the bearer of family honour and, thus, needs to be identified not only by the sindoor and mangalsutra on her person but also by the ‘Mrs/Smt’ prefixed to her name.

Is the married woman a category which lends stability and coherence to society based as it is on the sacrosanct unit called family?

The insistence of society on ‘Mrs’ and ‘Smt’ is a subtle ruse of power, which threatens the woman questioning it and puts her in trouble in the name of keeping her out of trouble. Should it not be one’s choice whether or not to live soaked in the awareness of one’s marital status in the public eye, as bellowed by the ‘Smt’ and ‘Mrs’?

There is an honorific ‘Ms’ in place. It was first suggested in 1901 by an unnamed writer to avoid embarrassment caused by the revelatory feature of ‘Mrs’. Later, arguments have been put forth on the usage of ‘Ms’ as a form of etiquette and expediency. The question left hanging is that of ubiquitous acceptance of the same in our society.

Respecting the decision of the honourable Supreme Court, let all institutions use ‘Ms’ as the default salutation; ‘Mrs’ or ‘Smt’ can be used only if a woman exercises choice and insists on being referred to as such. After all, every woman has her own notion of womanhood.

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