Behind a surname

This week, Nick Clegg's Spanish wife Miriam González Durántez remarked on the irony of being addressed as "Mrs Clegg" on an invitation to an event organised to mark international women's day.

Understanding surname acquisition is one of those issues that inevitably come up in a conversation between a Briton and a Spaniard, each finding it hard to digest the other's explanations. I was brought up with mums and dads, aunties and uncles, family units, all sharing the same surname. Today, I don't think I'm wrong in saying that the majority of women in the UK still take on their husband's surname when they marry.

It's one of those things that I took for granted and didn't give much thought to, until, that is, I found myself looking at my home country and its traditions from the outside, through the eyes of a foreigner. Some things then become very hard to explain.

The same thing happens though when the Spaniard tries to explain his or her two surnames to someone from the UK. Carrying both your father's and mother's surnames with you forever may appear further removed from the times when women were considered their husbands' possessions than the British system, however any superiority claims in the field of gender equality are dubious. Here the father's name comes first; changing the order was only made legal relatively recently and a minority actually take advantage of that possibility.

The important thing though is what's behind the name, whether the woman, labelled as "wife of" or "daughter of", is treated equally or not in society. Spain still carries the "machista" stigma, but neither country fares too well in the daily race to equality. Breaking the "glass ceiling" is a work-in-progress worldwide, but numerous scenes in everyday life show that certain ideas aren't changing. You only have to look into the car next to you at the traffic light. If it is occupied by a couple or family it's more likely that the man is in the driver's seat. The house is still considered a woman's responsibility, even when both have jobs, and men proudly claim they "help" rather than just get on and "do".

Miriam González Durántez has drawn attention to a custom that remains in place out of tradition and inertia. But doing away with it wouldn't change the minds of those few who still think of a woman as a possession. Cases of domestic violence still fill the courts and the hospitals - whatever the surname.