A reporter interviewed the neighbors and friends of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s victim and paints a picture of a quiet, religious woman whose social network was the French African community in Harlem, NYC. Via Worldcrunch from Le Figaro…
By Renaud Girard
LE FIGARO/ Worldcrunch
NEW YORK – The alleged sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the now former head of the International Monetary Fund, has been major worldwide news. But it has hit especially hard in New York’s French-speaking African community, home to the Guinean woman employed as a maid at the Sofitel Hotel where she says the 62-year-old French politician sexually assaulted her.
In the heart of Harlem, a small grocery store offers a flavor of Africa. The plump 45-year-old woman owner, Ms. A, who gives her customers a warm welcome in impeccable French, wears a long traditional green-colored African dress, and a turban made out of the same fabric is wrapped round her hair. Born in Guinea, she is a Muslim woman who belongs to the Mandinka ethnic group. The alleged victim is from northern Guinea, and her ethnicity is Fulani.
Reporters have claimed that DSK’s friends are in Africa, trying to bribe and pressure the victim’s family to get her to drop the charges. It’s said that the family is very religious, not susceptible to bribes, and heartbroken about what is happening to their sister. It seems at first glance that she is resolute, and supported by a family that is poor in money but rich in respect.
But Renaud Girard puts a troubling spin on this story. The victim has had the misfortune to embarrass a man whose social power is felt in Africa as well as France– a man whose financial reach allows him to invade every aspect of his victim’s past and find any weakness in her social network that he can exploit…
“Make no mistake, this affair brings shame upon her family. In Africa, the parties involved would have solved this problem in secret,” says [victim's friend, Amadou] N’Diaye. “From now on, two lives have been unnecessarily ruined, (the victim’s) life and DSK’s life. DSK is a man who the French-speaking African community appreciates a lot.”
At Restaurant 2115, people show solidarity with the alleged victim, but nobody is eager to condemn DSK. Africans who live in New York think that the charges “will not hold up.” “How could a 62-year-old man, who is not athletic at all, have forced a 32-year-old woman, who is tall and muscular from her manual work, to have sexual relations with him?” one wondered.
Amadou imagines a scenario in which “three very different cultures clash.” The French culture of DSK, who made an extremely inappropriate move in suite 2806, but who called the hotel while heading for the airport, unaware that he had committed a crime. The culture of modesty of a pious Funali woman, who did not expose the crime and who did not confide her shame to the Sofitel Hotel’s management, but was rather found sobbing by her coworkers, who then called the police. The “Prussian” culture of the American police in which things are either black or white, with no gray areas.
This is so telling. Some of the French women who have come forward with stories of DSK’s abuse of power were clearly prevented by social pressure from speaking sooner. Great social pressure will be brought to bear on the victim and her family, even if they are not tempted by money.
Although she did no wrong, she and her family are ‘shamed’. That it was such an important man who attacked her is more shame. Did she fight back hard enough? Was it necessary to ‘ruin his life’? Should she have borne her shame in silence? Should he have been set free to victimize more women?
And the American police– was it for them to decide that this affair should be covered up? Show due deference to a very important person? Perhaps take a tip for services rendered? Would that be less ‘Prussian’ and more ‘French’?
I asked someone who knows a lot about sexual assault cases whether the accused can give a victim money to drop the charges. She said that it’s not legal to do that outright, but that the state would have a much harder time prosecuting a case if the victim refused to testify, and it was not uncommon for this to happen in fact. Offering a victim’s family a bribe is witness tampering.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proved guilty. I thought that given the evidence and the conduct of the victim he would eventually be convicted. But considering the misogyny that exists in so many communities, and its power to isolate and blame victims, I have more doubts now. The social power DSK used on high-status French women might be brought to bear on a poor working community until they are willing to sacrifice one of their own.
‘Do you know who I am?’ he allegedly asked as he assaulted his victim. She didn’t then, she only feared for her dignity and her job. This man could do her more harm than she ever imagined. No one should have that kind of power. If the law means anything, it must protect the humble against the arrogant and ruthless.
LEGAL MOVE OR THREAT? DSK’s lawyers, angry about leaks to the press, have sent a letter to the prosecution claiming they have information that will discredit the victim. The DA’s office does not sound intimidated–
Assistant DA Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said in a response letter that prosecutors were “troubled that you chose to inject into the public record your claim that you possess information that might negatively impact the case and ‘gravely’ undermine the credibility of the victim.”
“We are aware of no such information,” she added. “If you really do possess the kind of information you suggest that you do, we trust you will forward it immediately to the District Attorney’s Office.”
I think we passed the point where any woman alleging rape had to have her whole life examined for purity. I don’t think there’s much in the victim’s past that will change the picture, but everyone has trouble in life, and the letter from the defense sounds like blackmail.
Standard question in victim-blaming is ‘what was she doing there alone?’ It’s made me kind of crazy to see that applied to a maid whose job it is to go into rooms and clean them. When I first heard this awful crime story– and my sense is that it’s a crime that happens to be so politically entangled that smart people can’t think straight– I noticed the time it was reported.
A hotel or motel around noon can be pretty quiet. I don’t know the checkout and arrival times at the Sofitel, but usually guests follow the rules so they don’t get charged an extra day, and staff does most of the maintenance around mid-day. People don’t book a hotel room to sit around in it. They’re tourists, or working, or on their way somewhere.
One question I have is what the suite looks like. Writer Wendy Kaminer answers that basic question, and debunks some of the dumber statements going around…
Bernard-Henri Levy asks “how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York’s grand hotels of sending a ‘cleaning brigade’ of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet.” Ben Stein can’t understand how an unarmed man might “force” a woman to have oral sex, adding that Strauss-Kahn was “in a hotel with people passing by the room constantly.”
Well, the Sofitel is a good hotel but not quite a grand one (it’s not the Four Seasons or the Mandarin) and, as a regular guest there, I can attest that it is not common practice to send a “cleaning brigade” into the room (although fortunately, I am not among the “most-watched figures on the planet.”) Having spent a night in the same suite or a similar one occupied by Strauss-Kahn (it was complimentary, the hotel was overbooked), I can also attest that people are not “passing by constantly.” In fact, virtually no one passes by. The suite is at the end of a hall, and it is expansive, with a foyer, large living room, bedroom, and a long hallway between bedroom and master bath. A maid might easily knock loudly without being heard, enter in the belief that no one was home, and find herself trapped.
It helps to have some facts. Another fact is that the Sexual Assault Evidence Kit that is used in the state of Rhode Island includes a set of swabs to be used for oral DNA collection. If this kind of assault was so implausible, why is there a written procedure for evidence collection?
I appreciate Wendy Kaminer’s post, though I think she under-estimates the personal cost the victim is suffering for her testimony. She has had to leave her job and apartment and go into hiding with her teenage daughter. Any friendships and connections she has made since coming to the US are disrupted, her daughter can’t safely go to school. She is already been named and accused of being foolhardy, a prostitute and other things. She will have to face the best lawyers money can buy. She has been described as a shy, devout woman who came to the US as a refugee.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, if innocent, has been terribly wronged. But I think the facts will work against him. I’m grateful that Wendy Kaminer has applied some firsthand reporting and cleared away some of the nonsense and speculation.