By Viji Sundaram, NAM News Analysis
No one who has been wrongfully accused of a crime should be prosecuted.
At this point, though, it is anyone’s guess whether the hotel maid who accused former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting her this past May was telling the truth. What happened in his Sofitel Hotel room is a matter of her word that it was rape against his that it was consensual sex.
As prosecutors, who at first believed her story, dug into her past, it became increasingly clear that the maid had exhibited a careless disregard for the truth on several occasions. So why should anyone believe her now, one might ask.
Initially, women’s groups felt heartened by this woman, whose name has been withheld because she is an alleged rape victim. Apparently assaulted while working in a modestly paying job, this relatively new immigrant from Guinea seemed to take the courageous step of speaking up.
Especially encouraging was that law enforcement officials not only believed her, they went after her alleged rapist without hesitation. When investigators found DNA evidence on the room’s carpet, bed and walls showing that there had indeed been a sexual encounter, the prosecution believed it had a solid case.
“It seemed,” as Miriam Yeung, director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, put it, “a progressive moment for women.”
The maid achieved, if only for a while, what Anita Hill couldn’t two decades ago. Hill accused then–U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment when she worked as his aide at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he was chairman.
After three days at the contentious hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the all-male panel gave Thomas the nod. A New York Times/CBS News poll at the time found that 58 percent of Americans believed Thomas, while only 24 perceived believed Hill.
Time and time again, when a woman has accused a man of rape or other form of sexual misconduct, there’s an inevitable measure of victim blaming. Few today recall the Big Dan rape case, which occurred in a bar in New Bedford, Mass., in the 1980s. The victim was gang raped on a pool table while other patrons looked on and cheered. When the story broke, the knee-jerk, misogynistic reaction from some was that the victim asked for it by dressing provocatively and, earlier in the evening, flirting with one of her assailants.
“This is a typical dynamic that plays out—detractors are quick to discredit the victim,” noted Beckie Masaki, associate director of the San Francisco-based Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, talking about the Strauss-Kahn case.
The hotel housekeeper’s credibility sank as investigators found, among other things, that she had lied on her application form claiming asylum in the United States because she’d been gang raped in her native Guinea.
Her credibility further plummeted when investigators secretly taped her telephone conversation with an incarcerated friend the day after the Strauss-Kahn incident about the potential benefits of pursuing the charges against Strauss-Kahn and possibly gaining financially because “this guy has a lot of money.”
But none should forget that Strauss-Kahn himself may not have been above board in his personal life. There is much talk about his rumored sexual transgressions. “I hope those things get as much attention as the hotel maid’s” past life, Yeung said.
In a joint statement on the allegations against the former IMF chief, the Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund and 24 allied organizations nationwide questioned why it was “easier to believe in the intrinsic dishonesty, vindictiveness and opportunistic nature of alleged rape victims than to believe in a sense of entitlement and lack of respect and judgment among alleged rapists.”
The statement notes that “some are even willing to accept an elaborate conspiracy theory” that conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy had plotted the hotel encounter in order to undermine Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist widely regarded as a leading candidate to succeed him. Believing such a scheme, the the organizations stated, may be easier for some people than embracing “the possibility that a man with a documented history of sexual coercion, exploitation and, according to recent reports, prior sexual assaults, could possibly attack a woman with very little power or status.”
Sexual abuse causes the victim to feel tremendous shame and a need to keep the incident a secret. Her biggest fear is that nobody will believe her— that she will be attacked and humiliated. The hotel maid either didn’t know this or she didn’t care.
After the trial of the New Bedford woman, which led to the conviction of four of her rapists, the woman had to leave town because she was ostracized by the community. She moved with her two young daughters and their father to Miami in search of anonymity.
Just because prosecutors have been able to poke holes in the hotel maid’s credibility, they should not automatically discredit her accusations.
“Focusing attention on her credibility takes attention away from the crime itself,” Masaki said. “This kind of over-focus on the victim will have a definite chilling effect on abused women who already worry about shame, as well as fear of losing their jobs.”
Prosecutors are already saying that they might drop the serious charges against Strauss-Kahn because they will more than likely not be sustained. If that happens, he will move on with his life. Although he’s unlikely to run for president of France now, he’s apt to find a plum job somewhere.
As for the maid, if she is allowed to remain in the United States, she will probably continue cleaning hotel rooms somewhere in America — and become as anonymous as she can.