Should we care that Amal Alamuddin has changed her last name to Clooney?

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Amal Alamuddin Clooney in Greece

Amal Alamuddin Clooney arrives in Athens to advise the Greek government in its battle to repatriate the ancient Elgin Marbles statues from Britain.

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Oh Mrs Clooney, say it isn't so! Is it wrong of me to be so disappointed? After all, it makes absolutely no difference to my life whatever names a celebrated lawyer goes by.

And yet, I am disappointed. Well that, and somewhat perplexed. Why would someone as successful as Amal Alamuddin want or need to take her new husband's name? Yes, I'm fully aware "it's her choice." But putting something down to "choice", especially the long-standing and problematic tradition of women changing their last names upon marriage, is not a magic salve that automatically negates underlying issues.

Regardless of how we individually feel about the practice, there is no doubt that the tradition is a relic from a more patriarchal time. A simpler era when, upon marriage women were literally transferred into the possession of their new owner, who also went by the title of "husband."

Amal Alamuddin Clooney, who has changed her professional name to Amal Clooney, arriving in Athens, Greece.

Amal Alamuddin Clooney, who has changed her professional name to Amal Clooney, arriving in Athens, Greece. Photo: AFP

Before you object to this assessment, please consider that men were also called the "husband" of their animal flock and, that slaves were also given their new owner's surname upon purchase.


Truth be told, I have reservations writing this because I've previously deliberately stayed silent on this particular issue. This is not because I don't have an opinion on married names versus "maiden" names but because I realise that, despite its inauspicious history, there are many reasons a woman will decide to take on her husband's name.

I recently wrote on how Australians with Muslim last names often change their names to avoid discrimination.

Spectacle: George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin.

Spectacle: George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin. Photo: AFP

Then there's the fact some women may simply not like their last names, or perhaps they don't like their fathers very much, so changing their names is a way of wiping the slate clean.

However, despite my public silence, I've always privately thought it bizarre that the practice is still so widespread in the "enlightened" west. I'll admit to feeling a slight shock (and yes, even a glimmer of annoyance), when I see newly married female Facebook friends update their profile to reflect their new last name (please don't unfriend me, ladies).

I used to think that women who married young changed their last names so readily because they just hadn't had the chance to identify to their names, or to establish themselves professionally. But some of these friends include women who got married a little later in life and who have already made a name for themselves in their chosen professions.

George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin Clooney arriving at Venice city hall for their civil ceremony on September 29.

George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin Clooney arriving at Venice city hall for their civil ceremony on September 29.

Which brings me back to Amal –ahem- Clooney.

I am not going to criticise her. I don't know what process led to her to this decision. Nor will I make grand claims about how this spells the 'death of feminism' . There is far more to feminism than women's names. But I will admit to feeling perplexed and (perhaps unfairly) even let down.

First, as someone who is actively working to challenge assumptions and stereotypes about Arabs, and Arab women in particular, I deliberately put my name in the public sphere. Now, that Amal's Lebanese surname is history, it'll be all so much the easier for the western media to sweep her cultural background under the carpet.

Second, perhaps it was simply misguided of me to have assumed that a woman as successful in her career would not choose to do something as traditional as call herself "Mrs Clooney." But, given how so much of the media had already, during that famous courtship, glossed Amal Alamuddin's own achievements in favour of subsuming her into the identity of her famous fiancé, I admit to not seeing this coming.

Clearly I am not alone in having feelings about this. When her law firm, Doughty Street Chambers updated their website to reflect the new moniker, it gathered so much interest the site crashed. Every media outlet from Vanity Fair to CNN to the ubiquitous Daily Mail has announced the decision. All of which goes to show a measure of surprise across the board (and perhaps in some corners, glee).

In a way, the name change shows a measure of confidence on Amal's part. We've already witnessed her own formidable achievements eclipsed by her spouse's celebrity, and the way that this fame was used by some to undermine her professionalism and demean her.

Although officially going by the name Amal Alamuddin Clooney, to choose to shorten this to Amal Clooney in a professional capacity could surely give ammunition to those detractors looking for any excuse to diminish her.

But none of this eases my own confused disenchantment. Choices don't happen in a vacuum. This "choice" for women to change their names upon marriage wouldn't even exist if not for the millennia of patriarchy.

So while the decision of other women to take on their husband's surname doesn't affect me directly, the fact that it's even something that women still so often do, does feed into the perception that women are "complements" to men; that our identities are ultimately malleable and can be moulded around the solid, unalterable male persona.  And that is something that affects us all.

Vale Amal Alamuddin. We hardly knew ye. 

80 comments so far

  • I am also disappointed when friends change their surnames. I just assume they haven't really thought it through. I am quite surprised and disappointed by Amal's change of name for all reasons listed in article. Would be interesting to hear her side.

    Date and time
    October 15, 2014, 8:38AM
    • She is demonstrating her full commitment to the marriage and her new family.
      She will now be the leader of the Clooney family that she and George have formed.

      Date and time
      October 15, 2014, 12:01PM
    • Why are you disappointed? Isn't it her prerogative. While it may seem by some to be something of ownership, most now consider it a sign of the union. My mum didn't change her name when she got married in the 70's. That was her choice. My wide did. Again, her choice.

      Isn't it great that women can choose to do this? It is incredibly pathetic that women line up to criticise this choice and be disappointed by it due to their own interpretations of what it means.

      Date and time
      October 15, 2014, 12:03PM
    • It's a convention in western culture, but in many cultures (particularly in Asia) people keep their own names, and sometimes men take their spouse's name. Most of the successful professional women I know in Australia took their husband's name when they married, but they certainly were not taking it in a subservient way or becoming a possession.
      Personally, I would have liked to take my wife's name when I married, but her family was against it. Her name was simpler and I was sick of always having to spell out my surname. Maybe the same logic applies here!

      Date and time
      October 15, 2014, 12:30PM
    • If she keeps her last name, what name do the children take? Maybe "Alamuddin-Clooney"? And their children's children, what name do they take? Alamuddin-Clooney- Smith? Where does it stop?

      Date and time
      October 15, 2014, 12:38PM
    • I work in a professional services company, so all the employees are intelligent and successful. A significant number of females have married recently and all have changed their name. In discussing this with them, none felt forced in any way. Each gave their own reason, such as tradition or wanting their children to have the same name as both parents. The biggest issue each reported was the sheer difficulty of doing it. In talking to males who have married about this issue, none asked or even expected their new wife to take their name. In each case, the wife took their name anyway. In my case, I married over 30 years ago and told my wife I had no expectation she take me name, but she insisted she wanted to. Overall, this appears to be a non-issue for most men and it is the women driving it.

      Date and time
      October 15, 2014, 12:39PM
    • @comitted "She is demonstrating her full commitment to the marriage and her new family."

      So a woman who hasn't taken her husbands name is not as comitted? Where is the husbands commitment to his new family?

      Date and time
      October 15, 2014, 12:57PM
    • You assume, when friends change their names on marriage, that they haven't thought it through?! How arrogant of you to make that assumption. As to hearing Amal's 'side', you have heard it - she changed her name. She doesn't have to explain 'why' to you or anybody.


      The Night Garden
      Date and time
      October 15, 2014, 1:12PM
    • Changing the name is the sacrfifice the woman makes out of love (of her own free will of course) for the sake of the children and the family. The children have the same name as both parents and the family essentially becomes one. The father is the head of the family because he is essentially the protector of the family and will in turn sacrifce everything, even his very life for the wellbeing of the family (any good husband would) out of love. That is what family is, a loving sacrifice where each puts aside their own selfish ideals out of for the love of the family. These days people are so caught up in their selfish ideals they tend to forget this and so family's are being torn apart. Just look how disposable marriage is now. So verry, very sad.

      Date and time
      October 15, 2014, 1:13PM
    • @committed...

      If "She is demonstrating her full commitment to the marriage and her new family." I guess we HAVE to assume that since HE DIDN'T change his name he's not committed?

      Gay marriage is so much easier - no one's expected to change their names - is that why it's illegal? :)

      Date and time
      October 15, 2014, 1:14PM

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