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Strauss-Kahn, Domestic Immigrants and Money, Power, Respect

July 11, 2011

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was recently accused of sexual assault by a black immigrant woman who worked as a maid in a New York hotel.  Since then, the media, Strauss-Kahn’s defense team, and others have attempted to violently attack the character and credibility of his accuser.  This attack has led to calls for dismissal of the case against Strauss-Kahn.

There is a movement to fight back.  Strauss-Kahn’s accuser is suing the New York Post for libel.  Activists are mobilizing and speaking out in the face of escalated attacks against her.  There is also a change.org petition “demanding the New York Post retract and apologize for victim-blaming coverage.”

Below, Tamura A. Lomax, writer and editor at The Feminist Wire, offers a lucid political analysis of the events to date.  This post was originally published at The Feminist Wire and is re-posted here with permission.  - Editors

Strauss-Kahn, Domestic Immigrants and Money, Power, Respect
by Tamura A. Lomax, The Feminist Wire

See I believe in money, power and respect.  First you get the money.  Then you get the motherf–kin’ power.  And after you get the f–kin’ power.  You get the f–kin’ ni–az to respect you. It’s the key to life.  ~Lil’ Kim

In 1998 when Lil’ Kim penned these lyrics in the Hip Hop anthem, “Money, Power, Respect,” she was likely drawing upon her early years as a struggling teen on the streets of Brooklyn with limited resources and no real place to call home.  In my naivety, I assumed that Lil’ Kim was talking about something she in fact had, not what she and countless others like her would spend a lifetime longing for.  Today, these lyrics continue to ring true for women and men alike.  For black diasporic women and girls, they are particularly profound.  However, for immigrant domestic workers, Lil’ Kim’s lyrics are prophetic.  Money, power and respect is exactly what former IMF Managing Director (and front-runner for the 2012 French presidential election) Dominique Strauss-Kahn, 62, has, and what the unnamed 32-year-old Guinean housekeeper, who accused Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault in a Manhattan hotel in May, needs to be taken seriously and to win her case against him.

According to the woman’s initial testimony, she entered Strauss-Kahn’s suite at approximately 1 p.m. believing it was unoccupied.  As the housekeeper cleaned the foyer, Strauss-Kahn “came out of the bathroom, fully naked, and attempted to sexually assault her.”  As she fought him, he “locked the door to the suite,” “grabbed her and pulled her into the bedroom and onto the bed.” After which, “he…dragged her down the hallway to the bathroom, where he sexually assaulted her a second time.”  After fleeing, the woman reported the incident to hotel personnel who called 911.  Upon boarding Air France Flight 23, Strauss-Kahn was apprehended and taken into custody, throwing the French political world, U.S. media and life of the 32-year-old Guinean housekeeper into utter mayhem.

Just last week The New York Times reported that Strauss-Kahn prosecution was “near collapse.”  “Major holes” were found in the credibility of the Guinean housekeeper, although forensic tests found unambiguous evidence of a sexual encounter between the two, and despite evidence of force (i.e. torn clothing, bruising, etc.).  According to the prosecution, the accuser has repeatedly lied since her initial allegation on May 14.

Among the discoveries, one of the officials said, are issues involving the asylum application of the 32-year-old housekeeper, who is Guinean, and possible links to people involved in criminal activities, including drug dealing and money laundering.

Ultimately, the accuser falls short of the Victorian ideal.  Like the rest of us, she is neither perfect nor without blemish (nor can she pay to appear as such).  Thus, the circumstances surrounding the encounter on May 14, notwithstanding forensic and physical evidence, and personal testimony (of the victim and others alike), must be called into question.  Moreover, Strauss-Kahn, who has already fallen from political grace and been replaced (perhaps conveniently), must now be exonerated (maybe, just in time to announce his candidacy for the French presidency).  According to The New York Times he was released July 2.  The case is now moving toward dismissal.

Some will undoubtedly see the most recent turn of events as just.  However, others, myself included, are eerily reminded of Lil’ Kim’s verse in “Money, Power, Respect.”  While there are admittedly several unanswered questions surrounding this case, few things are clear: violent sex happened in Strauss-Kahn’s Manhattan hotel suite on May 14, respect for black female life is largely improbable without money and power, especially for immigrant domestic workers and others, and those with money and power can pretty much do what they damn well please.  This is not a projection.  It is a reality.

The 32-year-old housekeeper isn’t the first to complain about Strauss-Kahn.  The married father of four has a history of allegations against him, strangely earning him the nickname “the great seducer.”  However, contrary to belief there is nothing seductive about rape.  And, just because one has never been tried doesn’t mean they are innocent.  Also, while we are at it, just because the accuser waited to tell her story, didn’t have a perfect life, was less than forthcoming about her experience, or, as in this case, was perhaps even downright untruthful about some of the details, does not mean violence, to which Strauss-Kahn should be held accountable, did not occur.

History reveals a ritualistic raping (and the threat of rape) of black diasporic women in general and black female domestic workers in particular by white men who use  social capital and economic prowess to not only silence their prey, but to reconfigure them altogether.  While we should not rush to judgment, we also cannot afford to ignore the growing archive.  The defense made it clear that they would make the credibility of the woman a focus of their case.  Of course this is a common rape strategy across the board. Rape trials are rarely solely about sexual violence, and often (over) emphasize the victims personal life.  Sadly, the burden of “proof” lies there–in one’s ability to avoid reasonable doubt–through the unquestionable presentation of a “perfect” life (something most often bought by those with money, power and respect, if not already privileged by race, class and gender).

So, the question is, how does one avoid reasonable doubt when one is already stigmatized due to race, ethnicity and class, and when violence against one is so familiar and normative that suffering is unfathomable?  Further, how does one avoid reasonable doubt when rape is historically a normative mode of sexuality, the black female body is made the originary locus of liability, coercion is confused with consent, class and social structures imagine the black female body to be both will-less and always-willing simultaneously, and white culpability has a history of displacement, particularly as white sexual violence is perpetuated under the rubric of seduction, paternalism and hierarchy (within which violence is a legitimate form of engagement)?  Moreover, how does one avoid reasonable doubt when she is not seen as a person with innate dignity and worth in the first place?

Apparently, the accuser lied about being raped before.  That is, she recanted her story after giving it.  However, anyone who has been on the underside of sexual violence knows that there are many possible reasons for this.  Recanting doesn’t necessarily mean that rape did not happen.  Living under a symbolic rape cloud is burdensome on many levels.  Nevertheless, lying about it can be equally death-dealing.  To this end, one might say that doubt is reasonable.  However, if sexual violence occurred on May 14, and I believe it did, what bearing does the accusers previous lie have on what happened in Strauss-Kahn’s suite that Saturday afternoon?  While it may sway how we read into the case (in the same way that Strauss-Kahn’s history of sexual inappropriateness does), DNA results confirm sexual contact and other evidence corroborate violence.  That is the issue at hand.  Let’s be clear, a woman was assaulted.

The defense will likely posit that contact was consensual, or as The New York Post suggests, that the defendant was a “hooker,” “doing double duty as a prostitute, collecting cash on the side from male guests.” One might reason, if true then presumably violence was warranted.  Not!  Not only is this stereotype as trite as they come, sexual violence is neither earned nor justifiable, not even for those with money and power.

A woman was assaulted.  According to her testimony, violence came unrequested.  And as far as I know, the prosecution has yet to find any “holes” there.  Sure, it is her word against his, not to mention there are enough stereotypes on both ends to make our heads spin!  On one hand we have the rich white Jewish womanizer.  On the other hand we have the poor Guinean Muslim immigrant widow (possibly HIV positive with a potential criminal history).  To be sure, this case is ripe for multiple “bold imaginings.”  And yes, there is also a taped phone call between the accuser and an incarcerated acquaintance that highlights talk about the benefits of such a case.  While the context and particulars of that conversation are unknown, it certainly adds to such fantasying.  However, does such behavior, whatever you may think about it, mean the housekeeper was not violated on May 14?  Is it possible that she was in fact violated and wishes to financially benefit?  She is an immigrant seeking asylum, in search of the “American Dream.”  To this end, the accuser is no different than most other American’s who make capital gains off of misdeeds against them.  This is in fact “the American way.”

A woman was assaulted, but apparently that’s neither here nor there.  She stands on the wrong side of history and power and thus her past outweighs that of the defendant.  Let us also be mindful that French elections are underway.  Perhaps the 32-year-old Guinean housekeeper was always a “non…factor.”  It’s clear that Strauss-Kahn found her to be “rape-able.”  However, one can’t help but to wonder if the woman was exploited by French political powers wanting to put Strauss-Kahn out of office and then subsequently discarded altogether by those hoping to put his name back in the presidential hat.  What cannot be ignored as Patricia Williams at The Nation points out, is that Strauss-Kahn was not only on his way to becoming France’s next president, if successful he would have been the first Jewish president.  In addition,

As head of the IMF, he led that institution in a distinctly progressive manner. He sharply critiqued corrupt American bankers and banking practices and, early on, predicted the collapse of the mortgage market. As a center-left Socialist party member, he was close to negotiating a European Union bailout for Greece. And his elimination from the election empowers the candidacy of Marine LePen, head of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic National Front party, whose popularity, alarmingly enough, currently polls higher than that of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Nevertheless, with the recent turn of events, I wouldn’t be surprised if we learned later that this case was ultimately deployed by Strauss-Kahn’s supporters as a form of political peroxide.  As the case moves toward dismissal, he is slowly but surely becoming the honorable victim.  Money, power and the right pigmentation can do that for you.  Yet, what most brown and black women know is that a woman was likely assaulted on May 14.  And while her surrounding narrative may raise reasonable doubt, her story about the violence that occurred on that day has not waivered.  Again, it is of course her word against his. Unfortunately, she lacks the money, power and respect for many of us to really hear her (entire) story.  Somehow, I believe there is much more to this narrative than what meets the eye, and there are details that we will never know.  To be sure, this case is about as complicated as they come.  One thing is for sure, it serves as a definitive reminder of who actually “runs the world,” and unfortunately it’s not us girls…

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