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Forbidden names: identity and the law

The Local · 26 Nov 2007, 12:40

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

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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.”

Story continues below…

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

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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