Why The Names Of The Afghanistan Massacre Victims Matter

The names of 16 victims in the March 11 massacre in Afghanistan bring home the true horror of their deaths. But rape victims, who are often anonymous, don’t get the same kind of personalized rage.

There’s something truly gut-wrenching about reading the names of the dead. For those who haven’t read the names of the people Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly shot, here they are again: Mohammad Dawood Abdullah, Khudaidad Mohmmad Jama, Nazar Mohammad Taj Mohammad, Payendo, Robina, Sahtarina Sultan Mohammad, Zuhra Abdul Hameed, Nazia Doost Mohammad, Mosooma Mohammad Wazir, Farida Mohammad Wazir, Palwasha Mohammad Wazir, Nabia Mohammad Wazir, Asmatullah Mohammad Wazir, Faizullah Mohammad Wazir, Esa Mohammad Mohammad Husain, and Akhtar Mohammad Murad Ali.

I shiver every time I read these, because once I know their names, they’re not just “sixteen” anymore. They’re individual men, women, and children, and their deaths seem all the more real: these were people, not statistics. They were human beings whose families named them when they were babies, and now those families have to bury them.

A man cries in front of the truck holding the massacre victims.

It’s hard to think of the naming of crime victims without thinking about the one crime whose victims are traditionally kept anonymous: rape. This tradition has long been a vexed issue, but there’s a reason reporters don’t usually name rape victims without their explicit consent: rape is still considered shameful, not just for the perpetrator but for the victim. To name a murder victim is to call outrage down on the murderer — look at this human being whose life you took. But to name a rape victim is to invite outrage against her (or him) — what was she wearing? Was she drinking? Was she a slut?

For this reason, I’m fully on board with the practice of keeping rape victims anonymous. Since to say “I was raped” is to open oneself up to all manner of savagery, I agree that the victim should choose whether she wants her name publicly attached to that claim. But I wish that we lived in a world where a rape conviction would be a stain on the criminal’s reputation, not the victim’s.

In the world we do live in, rape is something that happens to nameless people. And those who read about it don’t get the visceral horror that comes from matching a victim to a name. We don’t get the rage that comes from knowing that Sahtarina, daughter of Sultan Mohamed, specifically, has been killed. And while rape isn’t the same as murder, it’s deserving of personalized anger as well.

A woman mourns the victims.

Right now, rape victims need the protection of anonymity. But that anonymity comes at a cost — before the dead in Afghanistan were named, Qais Azimy writes, “the victims became a footnote, an anonymous footnote. Just the number 16.” Too often, this happens to rape victims too — they become numbers, footnotes, part of a faceless problem no one can really be bothered to fix. The stigma of rape robs them of the power to speak up without judgment about what’s happened to them, to say, this happened to me. Naming rape victims without their consent isn’t the answer. We need to remove that stigma so that someday, speaking out will be a call to action, not an invitation for ridicule.

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