Both Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the hotel maid who accused him of criminal sexual assault have appeared as victims and as villains in what even the French press now calls a soap opera. But a lot of people in the United States, most of them far from wealthy, many of them poor and powerless, have found themselves deeply and directly threatened by the revelations—or, more, precisely, the headlines.
In the days since Manhattan prosecutors revealed that the case against Strauss-Kahn was falling apart, the portrayal of those involved has been upended. Last week, the accuser was a “quiet, modest Muslim,” and by the weekend, she had been described as a liar and worse. The former head of the International Monetary Fund, meanwhile, went from monster to martyr in less than seven days.
But a pendulum always reverses its course, and by Tuesday, it had started its turn the other way. First, French novelist Tristane Banon filed a criminal complaint in Paris, alleging that Strauss-Kahn had attempted to rape her in 2003. (His lawyers, in turn, said he would sue for slander.) Then, the accuser’s lawyers filed a libel suit against The New York Post on her behalf.
And finally, late Tuesday night, Peter Ward, president of the union representing the accuser, issued a statement, throwing the union’s weight behind its member, and announcing, for the first time, that the woman at the center of the case was referred to the Sofitel, where the maid said the sexual assault took place, by the highly respected humanitarian organization, The International Rescue Committee.
“Every sexual assault case is complicated and the victims are not perfect, but this woman was put on trial by the press as if she were [on an equal footing] with Dominique Strauss-Kahn,” says Taina Bien-Aimé, a former Wall Street lawyer who now runs the non-profit Equality Now. “This is a woman who, from the time she was born, was a victim of abuse: [female genital mutilation], a child bride, possibly polygamous marriage. On her application for asylum she listened to shyster legal counsel. You’re in crisis all the time to survive and don’t necessarily know the consequences of your acts.”
The maid’s relationship with a mystery man in jail in Arizona may be a case in point. According to Bien-Aimé, who has had a detailed brief on the maid’s situation, the man was a street vendor pushing imitation designer accessories. He gave her a few bags, started seeing her, then asked her if he could have the number of her bank account.
Not willing to let stand the idea of Strauss-Kahn as a victim, the accuser and her supporters are clearly fighting back, trying to assume control of the narrative.
Meanwhile, the shock waves from the case are being felt throughout the African immigrant community in the United States, according to Sidique Wai of the United African Congress, which represents them nationally and internationally. Questions about the maid’s asylum claims may affect thousands of other approved or pending petitions. Wai and others met with the maid’s attorney, Kenneth Thompson, for more than two hours on Tuesday and came away, said Wai, with the firm conviction “the woman should be given her day in court.”
“Let all the facts come out. Let her say what happened in that room,” said Wai.
But this is no longer just a case about what happened in the hotel room that Saturday. The case has spurred a discussion about men and women; sex and power, race and class. Strauss-Kahn and the maid have become archetypes – the oppressor versus the oppressed, players in a morality play that has riveted people on both sides of the Atlantic. Americans have found proof of what they always suspected: the French are pervs. The French, for their part, had known it all along: it’s the American justice system that’s perverted. Writing for The Daily Beast, the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy described the ‘perp walk’ as “pornographic.” (Even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg reversed himself to say that the practice of parading suspects in front of the cameras was “outrageous.”)
We still do not have Strauss-Kahn’s version of what happened, apart from his lawyers’ convoluted suggestions that if there was a sexual encounter it was not nonconsensual. The French daily Le Figaro speculated this morning, apparently reading legal tea leaves, that the maid saw Strauss-Kahn naked, decided to fellate him then and there, left the room as he dressed, then discovered when she returned that he had not left the kind of tip she expected—or any at all. This same kind of story, attributed to an unnamed source supposedly close to the Strauss-Kahn defense team, fueled the headlines in the New York Post.
The narrative of the accuser and her supporters is radically different: On May 14 just after noon, a hotel maid—an immigrant single mother from the West African nation of Guinea—went to clean the room at the New York Sofitel hotel where Strauss-Kahn, a leading contender for president of France, was staying. What happened during the next roughly 20 minutes is what is being disputed. She alleges he came out of the bathroom, naked, and proceeded to sexually assault her; his defense team has suggested that whatever happened was consensual.
Since then, prosecutors have questioned the veracity of the maid’s asylum application in which she describes being raped. She has also modified earlier statements about what she did immediately after the alleged assault. Nonetheless, prosecutors have maintained they had evidence of a sexual assault.
In France, meanwhile, women used Strauss-Kahn’s bad behavior—criminal or otherwise—as an opportunity to speak up against sexism and the country’s laissez-faire attitude towards sexual harassment and assault, setting off what some said was a long-overdue national debate about sexual politics.
Housekeepers working in the United States and Canada were similarly emboldened, staging protests and speaking out against behaviors they say they’ve endured for decades.
And then there was the criticism of the press.
Late on Tuesday, Ward, of the Hotel Workers’ Union, issued a statement defiantly reiterating the union’s support for the maid. “News reports have accused this member of lying in an immigration matter and on a housing application and her tax forms, which, if true, makes her one of probably millions of people who have done the same things,” Ward said. “She reportedly told other lies, and some press outlets have said even worse things about her. That doesn’t mean these things are true. She is embroiled in an international press feeding frenzy, in which the truth may sometimes take a backseat to the desire to sell newspapers.”
But even if this “feeding frenzy” ultimately subsides and prosecutors decide to drop the case against Strauss-Kahn, important conversations have been started.