Did you know that in Egypt (and apparently other parts of the Middle East), it is a cultural taboo for anyone to refer to your mother by her name? According to UN Women, it is. Once a woman has a child, she is referred to as Umme-”Eldest Son’s Name”, and someone actually speaking her name becomes akin to an insult. If you really want to be obnoxious, the worst possible way to verbally abuse a man is to call them the son of his mother. So if I had a son, and we were Egyptian, some punk at school could guarantee an all-out fistfight by calling him “Mina’s son”.

In a most moving and honest advertisement made by UN Women and Impact BBDO Dubai, the film team asks men of different ages to tell them their mother’s name. The younger men squirm, visibly embarrassed. A few laugh nervously, asking, “Do I have to tell you? Why do you want to know?” The older men are stern, leveling disapproving gazes at the off-screen person talking to them. All of them are immediately on the defensive. “I can’t,” one man says, eyes downcast. Another adds apologetically but emphatically that it’s all right if the interviewer wants to know his father’s name, but his mother’s? He just cannot disclose it. “If I told you my mother’s name, someone could use it to embarrass or shame me,” explains one of the older men.

This breaks my heart. Evidently I’m not alone, because the campaign #MyMothersNameIs was launched on Twitter this year: as a sign of your appreciation and love for your mother and all that she means to you, change your profile picture to your mother’s name, and give her name back. It has, by all accounts, been quite successful, with people from diverse cultural backgrounds joining in to support the cause. What makes it more interesting to me, not just from the perspective of being a woman and a mother, is the cultural parallel we have in our own subcontinental culture: reluctance to refer to someone by name. It’s a practice that is waning now, with more modern approaches to relationships, but we all know what I’m referring to. Calling your spouse “Father/Mother of Child’s Name”, or just ‘suniye’, or ‘jee’. It’s amusing, like some relic from the past or from a black and white film with a coy begum sahib holding her dupatta out like a screen from her head addressing her spouse from behind it.

There is an important distinction here though: we can find it quaint though because the aspect of being insulted is missing from this scenario. Even if, back in the day, a wife called her husband by his name it probably wouldn’t have been a serious breach of respect. The social implications of using someone’s name outright seemed to be more centered around a notion of intimacy and familiarity that didn’t seem appropriate or respectful to have between spouses or strangers (particularly when the two coincided for a longish time, furthered by gender-segregated house setups).

The advertisement campaign however highlights the potential for shame, and the aggressive power another can have over one just for knowing the name of the person who brought you into this world. That’s a uniquely horrible kind of misogyny, and a particularly sad obliteration of a person’s identity.

In any cultural practice, being referred to as “Mother of Child X” is hugely problematic to me. It signifies that you as a person are nothing but a means to an end, that end being the production of a child. You are only the mother of that child, and that is the only identity you are allowed to have. Who you are, what you want from your life, your idea of an independent self, your existence as a physical being, all brought with a crash to center around this new name, “Mother of X”. It isn’t even a title, the way ‘begum sahib’ is. That carries gravitas, a certain cachet with echoes of imperious, Lady of the House grandeur. “Mother of X” is a soggy little name with whiffs of bottom-washing, subservient mother-person whose reward for carrying and birthing child X is now to be forever bound to them as a means of having a place in the world. And to add to that is now this new dimension, of insult and shame and embarrassment. Your name, becomes a weapon to hurt your child, and for what? For being his mother. What kind of a world is that, that takes the most selfless act any woman can do and turn it into something humiliating? That takes your name away from you, in a most profound act of disempowerment, and turns it into a vehicle of dishonour?

For once, that kind of misogyny isn’t coming from us. But it’s a sobering reminder for women everywhere to not fall into the trap of letting their identities be overtaken by their motherhood, because societies all over the world are only too happy to make that happen. In ‘The Crucible’ John Proctor is urged to recant to the court to save himself from the gallows, to put his name on a list of accusers. He refuses, crying out in anguish “because it is my name! Because I cannot have another!” He means his reputation, but the link between one’s name and honour seems to be inextricable. If that is the case, then best to claim one’s name and identity for oneself, on one’s own terms, before anyone else tries to do it for you. Women are pushed to subsume theirs to their families, but it is vital to jealously guard whatever it is that makes you essentially you, the part of yourself that has always been your anchor long before there were children and husbands and households to be looked after. It is your name, and you should not have another.