HOWIE SEE IT: Mother Knows Best

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By Atty. Howie Calleja

Every husband worth his salt knows the saying, “behind every successful man, is a phenomenal woman.” As we celebrate the start of women’s month, this famous saying holds even more weight, and we look to acknowledge the role of the phenomenal women in our lives, and celebrate both the strength, beauty, and growing independence of the Filipina. Though our society has been admittedly skewed in the favor of men, what with our ideas of how women “should” act or how what is a “proper” way to dress, our laws have made progressive steps in responding to the disparities between the sexes.

A number of women’s rights statutes were crafted to specifically address certain vulnerabilities women face: the Anti-Violence Against Women law was made in response to the disproportionate abuse towards women; the Expanded Maternity Act was done to ensure that women would not be discriminated against in the workplace if they became pregnant; and the Safe Spaces Act recognized the need to ensure that educational and work spaces would be free from gender-based harassment. But while these measures are certainly revolutionary, and necessary; no one law can encompass the impact that patriarchal norms has had on our society.

One such norm is the use of the father’s surname for children. This custom has become so widely used that many believe it is the law, and not even a point of discussion for soon-to-be parents. However, social media has been abuzz with the news of the recent case of Alanis v. CA, that has, effectively, flung the door wide open for future parents to weigh their options. The recent case reiterated that legitimate children may use the surname of their mother as their last name, and feminists all over the country celebrated.

Though this is certainly important information, it is, by no means, new jurisprudence. It is in fact, a reiteration of the ruling in Alfon v. Republic – a decision penned in 1980 – where the Court held that Article 364 of the Family Code does not intend to exclusively apply to fathers. For reference, Article 364 of the Family Code states that “Legitimate & legitimated children shall principally use the surname of the father.” In the case of Alfon, the Court ruled that the word “principally” is not equivalent to “exclusively” and, thus, there is no legal bar to a child who might opt to choose the surname of his or her mother.

But, while the law, and jurisprudence, has reflected this for four decades now, the custom has always been to use the father’s surname for legitimated children. This custom is so widely used, it is practically crystallized. This sparks a larger discussion on the State’s duty to actively engage in eradicating (or, at the very least, acknowledging) the existing patriarchal structure of our society. The fundamental equality of men and women must pertain to all corners of society and, as the case of Alanis recognizes, the rule of equal application should also apply to surnames.

This is the fundamental difference between the cases of Alanis, and any other case that has interpreted Article 364 of the Family Code – or has attempted to discuss the rule of surnames. The recent case of Alanis includes the Court’s acknowledgement that the practice of legitimate children exclusively using their father’s surname may be viewed as discriminatory against women, and it is the Court’s duty to address the culture that supports the existing patriarchy. In interpreting the Family Code to include the mother’s surname, the Court took the opportunity to reinforce the commitment to ensuring gender equality; implying that, to take the opposite position would be to obstruct gender equality.

The few instances where society has accepted the use of the mother’s surname in children is in the cases of illegitimate children (that is children that are, generally, born outside the confines of a legal marriage). But, with the recent case of Alanis being spread by the national media, this can only spell good news for women’s rights – and the larger discussion of the “norms” that we have settled into as a nation, that are only for the benefit of men.

Another “norm” that many couples do not realize is not a law is the rule on a married woman’s name change after her marriage; I cannot count the number of times clients have come to me surprised upon finding out that the law does not compel them to change their name, following their marriage. But there are, according to Article 370 of the Family Code, actually four possible names for a married woman to use: (1) her own maiden name; (2) her first name with her husband’s surname attached; (3) her first and last name hyphenated with her husband’s surname; or (4) her husband’s full name but with a prefix (such as Mrs.), indicating that she is his wife.

The “norms” of using the husband, or father’s, names are certainly available to a married woman, or to a mother, but it is not a legal requirement. Mothers, and wives, should be made aware of their options, so as to give them total freedom of choice. This women’s month, let us celebrate not just how far the Filipina has come, and what rights have been upheld in her honor; let us also celebrate her individual agency – and the knowledge of her rights, to continue empowering her every day.