The pain in Spain is mainly about the names

Macho Spanish man is bracing for the day when his children can take their mother's surname, writes Elizabeth Nash
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SPANISH mothers will soon have the right to pass on their surname to their children - just like their husbands. A draft law backed by most political parties gives couples the right to decide whether the maternal or paternal name resounds down the generations.

To those of us accustomed to naming children just how we want, this may not appear to be a particularly big issue. But like everything else in Spain, the naming of names is governed by a legal framework in which whatever is not explicitly permitted is forbidden. Under the present system, your children must take their father's family name as the "first surname" with the mother's name tacked on as the "second surname".

With each generation, the second (female) name falls away. Spanish law, as one commentator poetically put it last week, has traditionally devoted itself to consigning the mother's lineage to the shadows. The draft law, which proposes to "banish a historic injustice" and allow parents to choose which of their names goes first on the birth certificate of their child, is a small but dramatic gesture towards sexual equality.

MPs defending the proposal in its early stages through parliament this week railed passionately against Spain's patriarchal system that had condemned women to "historical invisibility". But the debate reveals that Spain's hidebound macho patriarchy is in one respect ahead of supposedly more liberal Britain: Spanish married women automatically keep their maiden name, and may (indeed must) pass it on to at least one generation, albeit in a secondary role.

The custom increasingly adopted as a feminist gesture by professional women in Britain and the US has long been law in Spain. The wife of the Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is called Ana Botella; General Franco's wife was called Carmen Polo throughout their married life. The humblest fisherman's wife in a remote Galician village keeps her maiden name - something few British married women, who lose their own name on marriage, ever achieve.

Franco imposed other restrictions, however. No Spaniard could be given a first name that was not in an approved list of Catholic names, which accounts for the countless Marias, Joses, Immaculadas, and Concepcions. Catalan and Basque names in particular were, of course, out of the question. One of the first measures of the democratic government that came to power after Franco's death in 1975 was to abolish the approved list of first names and let people choose their own.

But surnames remain strictly regulated, even though many were improvised centuries ago following the persecution of the Jews. Jewish orphans were named after the place where they were found: by the river (del Rio), by the well (de la Fuente), by the church (de la Iglesia), in the street (de la Calle).

And, more recently, if the maternal surname was more beautiful, or more distinguished than the paternal, it could be strapped on to the paternal so that both would be handed down as one (Ruiz Mantilla, Vargas Llosa). But such efforts took years of litigation and cost a fortune.

The most flagrant breach of the rules was perpetrated by Franco's daughter Carmen Franco Polo, who married Cristobal Martinez Bordiu and bore a son, Francisco, whose surname should have been Martinez Bordiu Franco. But in memory of her father, Carmen illegally changed the stipulated name order to confer upon her son the dubious privilege of being called Francisco Franco Martinez Bordiu.

None of this is affected by whether the couple is married or not. In Spain the stigma of illegitimacy is no more, children's origins being described neutrally as "matrimonial" or "non-matrimonial". For all its suffocating weight and tradition, Spanish law is adapting pragmatically to changing social patterns, and to the increasing sense that not every dot and comma of private life has to be codified in leatherbound volumes.