• Sweden edition
 

Forbidden names: identity and the law

Published: 26 Nov 2007 12:40 GMT+01:00
Updated: 26 Nov 2007 12:40 GMT+01:00

Anne Reath from Australia never gave the Swedish name law a second thought when she married her partner and became Anne Reath Warren. She definitely never considered that the law might get in the way of her children also becoming Reath Warrens. But archaic Swedish regulations mean that this is exactly what happened.

Anne's older daughter, born before she married husband Pierre, enjoys the style Tess Reath Warren, blending the name of her mother and her father, just as both parents wanted. Younger sister Veronica, born after the marriage, is plain old Veronica Warren. She is barred by law from becoming a Reath Warren like her older sibling.

Strictly speaking, Tess bears Anne’s maiden name as a 'mellannamn', which seemingly translate as 'middle name' but is actually a uniquely Swedish construction that is more of a secondary surname than a given name.

At the time older daughter Tess was born her parents didn’t share a surname, so there was no problem getting a mellannamn approved. But as Veronica was born after Anne had changed her name, she was not allowed to inherit her mother's maiden name.

"I can't believe the law won't allow my children to have the same name,” Anne says.

Sweden started regulating names in the early twentieth century, after concern that disreputable people were adopting noble names. The laws have been reformed since then; in 1983 it was made possible for men to adopt their wife or partner's name, as well as for women to adopt their husband's name.

But in recent years, people have started asking why the state needs to take such an interest in what people call themselves.

"There are too many restrictions," says Johan Linander, a Centre Party member of parliament, who is in favour of reforming the law.

"I think it should be a matter for people's free choice what they call themselves."

As well the mellannamn issue, the name law is controversial in a number of respects. It bans people from adopting first names or place names as surnames, or for people to adopt a 'generally known' foreign surname - meaning Springsteen might be tricky, while a more obscure name might be easier to get past the bureaucrats.

Swedish law also has plenty to say about first names. The tax authority can veto parents' choice of name for a new-born baby if officials decide the name could "cause trouble" for the child later in life.

They can also ban names if they 'have the character of a surname' - even though using surnames as given names is a common practice outside the Nordic region. While Wallenberg or Reinfeldt might jar as first names, many people elsewhere have taken to the practice. What, for instance, would the Swedish authorities have made of Jude Law's sons Rafferty and Finlay? Or Macaulay Culkin, Lennox Lewis, Mackenzie Crook and Fletcher Christian, for that matter?

Despite the questions over this part of the name law it is the mellannamn law that raises most objections.

People have complained that the law is applied unevenly, with rulings depending largely on the preferences of individual bureaucrats. For instance, a couple was initially banned from calling their daughter Metallica (a decision later overturned), authorities in another part of Sweden allowed a baby boy to be called Google. The law also brings problems for transgender people, as the rules make it hard to change the gender of forenames.

The problems with the law governing mellannamn were highlighted recently when a couple from southern Sweden said they would divorce if that's what it took to allow their son to bear both their surnames. Lars Jensen and Lina Wernström Jensen described the authorities' ruling that their son Aksel could not be named Aksel Wernström Jensen as long as they were married as "absolutely absurd".

Perhaps here I should declare a personal interest. The name law first became an issue for me when my husband and I were deciding our post-marital family name. We talked through the possibility of taking each other’s surnames as mellannamn. We then learned that I could become a Dacey Fondelius or he could become a Fondelius Dacey, but swapping names was definitely out of the question. The law only lets one the couple to have a mellannamn at all.

After this discovery, we felt it was rather pointless for either of us to consider taking a mellannamn. How would we choose? It seemed rather backwards to restrict our options. Luckily for us, I was able to change my name in my home country to a hyphenated surname and my husband took my surname as his mellannamn.

Another problem with the name law is that it clashes with fellow EU nations’ name traditions. Lars Tegenfeldt, legal expert at the Swedish Tax Authority admitted, “The Swedish name does not harmonize with name structures of other cultures including countries within the EU.”

Johan Linander argues that the law "is based on the principle that the whole of Sweden has the same name culture - but this is not the case."

For Spaniards living in Sweden, the rigid rules can be a particular source of frustration. It is customary in Spain - and in some other Spanish-speaking countries - for children to take the names of both parents.

Pepi, a Spanish national living in Sweden, decided to conform to Swedish name tradition and take her husband Anders’ surname. Since she was able to keep her Spanish surname as a mellannamn, she was under the false sense of security that her children would also be entitled to her maiden name as a mellannamn.

However, mellannamn cannot be passed to children. Even changing back to Pepi’s original Spanish name won’t help give her name to her sons because Sweden inverts the name order of her Spanish name. Her original surname is regarded as a former mellannman.

Pepi has cautioned her other Spanish friends to keep their Spanish names when marrying if they intend to follow Spanish name structure. “Because they saw the trouble I have they didn’t change their names when they married.”

It could also be said that the law is sexist, given that in the overwhelming majority of cases it is the man's name that is passed down to children. Magnus Jacobsson, a spokesperson for Jäm-O, the Swedish equal opportunity ombudsman, concedes, “It’s arguable that the mellannamn [restrictions are] structurally discriminatory against women.”

It is hard to find anyone to defend the name law, but despite repeated efforts by various politicians, the rules remain. Even the bureaucrats charged with enforcing the law want things changed.

The Swedish Patent Office, which is responsible for enforcing the law, has recommended a string of changes, including making it possible for each member of a couple to take the other's name and for children to inherit both parents' surnames. As long ago as 2001, the Swedish parliament told the government to change the rules, but still there are no proposals on the table.

The current government vowed last year to carry out a review of the law, but there has so far been no further movement on the issue, prompting Moderate MP Gustav Blix to submit another motion to parliament in October calling for action.

With government, public authorities and politicians supporting reform, many feel action is well overdue.

"I hope there will be a change soon," says Johan Linander. Couples contending with bureaucratic rules are likely to raise a glass to that.

Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

Don't miss...X
Left Right
Today's headlines
Zlatan scores hat trick in PSG thrashing
Photo: AP

Zlatan scores hat trick in PSG thrashing

Champions Paris Saint-Germain thumped Saint-Etienne 5-0 as Bordeaux saw their 100 percent record at the start of the Ligue 1 season ended on Sunday with a 1-1 draw against Bastia. READ  

Sweden reports suspected case of Ebola
Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Sweden reports suspected case of Ebola

Officials at a Stockholm hospital reported that they had found a suspected case of the Ebola virus on Sunday night. READ  

Flash floods cause chaos in southern Sweden
A car in Malmö on Sunday. Photo: Stig-Åke Jönsson/TT

Flash floods cause chaos in southern Sweden

The Skåne region of southern Sweden was hit suddenly by extreme rains on Sunday morning, with houses flooded, buses evacuated, and people having to swim to safety from their cars. READ  

Fit-again Ibrahimovic set for PSG return
Photo: TT

Fit-again Ibrahimovic set for PSG return

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is set to make his comeback for Paris Saint-Germain against Saint-Etienne in Ligue 1 on Sunday after two weeks on the sidelines with an abdominal muscle injury. READ  

Military raises readiness level over Ukraine
Swedish soldiers in Afghanistan. File photo: Magnus Lindstedt/Armed Forces

Military raises readiness level over Ukraine

The Swedish military said Saturday it had increased intelligence gathering and called in extra staff to its headquarters over the crisis in Ukraine, as the prime minister compared Russia's current behaviour with the Cold War. READ  

Police injured in anti-Nazi protest in Stockholm
Police and demonstrators on Saturday. Photo: Fredrik Persson/TT

Police injured in anti-Nazi protest in Stockholm

Swedish police said three officers were injured Saturday as they faced a crowd of thousands protesting against a neo-Nazi rally in central Stockholm. READ  

Boy receives cancer vaccine by mistake
Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT

Boy receives cancer vaccine by mistake

A boy scheduled to be vaccinated against mumps, measles, and rubella instead received a vaccine against cervical cancer. His family has now reported the blunder for inspection. READ  

Sweden grants additional funds to jobs agency
Photo: Bertil Enevåg Ericson/TT

Sweden grants additional funds to jobs agency

The Swedish government has announced that it will increase funding to the jobs agency (Arbetsförmedlingen) in 2015, primarily to cover personnel costs but also to prevent long-term unemployment. READ  

Police 'powerless' against street racers
Police on E4 highway. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Police 'powerless' against street racers

Stockholm police said they were powerless to react when streetracers took over at "insane speeds" on a large highway on Friday night. READ  

Saab carmaker wins receivership
Photo: Björn Larsson Rosvall/TT

Saab carmaker wins receivership

After initial rejection, a Chinese-owned company set up to take over Saab's assets after the troubled Swedish carmaker's bankruptcy said on Friday it had succeeded in being placed in receivership. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Tech
Sweden's highest peak to lose title next year
Politics
How immigration became a key election issue
Society
Brit's life in Sweden becomes BBC radio show
Gallery
People-watching August 27
Gallery
Top ten false friends in Swedish
Blog updates

25 August

Hit och dit, här och där (The Swedish Teacher) »

" Hej igen! A common challenge for Swedish language students are the location adverbs hit/här, dit/där, hem/hemma etc. Some of the location adverbs come in two versions. We should use one type of location adverb when we use a verb describes where we are, and we should use the other type of location adverb when we the verb..." READ »

 

25 August

The Dollar Store (Blogweiser) »

"A dollar store in Sweden. Blog post: http://t.co/tNuuvcP1q0 #USD #greenbacks #sweden #sverige pic.twitter.com/RHFAYf7U1k — Joel Sherwood (@joeldsherwood) August 23, 2014 There’s a chain here in Sweden called The DollarStore. This name always stood out to me in a country where they don’t use dollars. I went there for the first time this weekend. They actually accepted greenbacks..." READ »

 
 
 
National
Roma advocate scoops Wallenberg prize
Society
Meet the man who made a Swedish store recall its high heels for kids
Business & Money
'How I came to run my own business in Sweden'
Politics
Expert explains why Sweden's election oozes uncertainty
National
City plays Schindler's List theme at Nazi rally
Society
For Stockholm Fashion Week, here's the A-Z of Swedish fashion
National
'Amnesiac' man avoids deportation for ten years
Gallery
Princess Estelle through the years
Business & Money
Swedish city all set for six-hour workday trial
Business & Money
Five golden rules for the Swedish job hunt
Sponsored Article
Graduates: Insure your income in Sweden with AEA
Gallery
People-watching August 22-24
National
Armed royal guards caught (very) drunk on the job
National
Sweden orders textbook on Roma discrimination
Gallery
Violent anti-Nazi demonstrations in Malmö
Society
A closer look at Sweden's five official minority languages
Gallery
See the destruction from the southern Sweden floods
Politics
'Sweden Democrats hold the key to elections'
Society
Swedes celebrate first day of smelly fish season
Sponsored Article
Find out what gives this Swedish school executive appeal
Sponsored Article
Introducing...Your finances in Stockholm
Sponsored Article
Introducing...Housing in Stockholm
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

732
jobs available
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions is an innovative business company which provides valuable assistance with the Swedish Authorities, Swedish language practice and general communications. Call 073-100 47 81 or visit:
www.swedishdowntown.com
PSD Media
PSD Media is marketing company that offers innovative solutions for online retailers. We provide modern solutions that help increase traffic and raise conversion. Visit our site at:
http://psdmedia.se