I know women like Nafissatou Diallo. Women who, like me, are West African but, unlike me, do not have the privilege of education or a middle-class upbringing. On television, she was familiar: the skin tone that suggested cheap bleaching creams, the ambitious hair weave, the melodrama. An American friend of mine thought her interview too theatrical and therefore unbelievable. Instead, I saw a woman speaking a non-native language, and so compensating with gestures; a woman both grateful and intimidated to finally tell her story; a woman whose way of looking at the world is vastly different from that of most of her viewers. Diallo comes from a place where melodrama is not unusual, and often suggests truth as much as lies.
And as an African immigrant who lied to get her green card, a certain carefulness, even caginess, about her past is necessary in order to preserve her present situation.
When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested and accused of raping Diallo in a hotel room, I applauded the American justice system: a powerless woman had reported an assault by a Big Man, and the Big Man had immediately been apprehended. In Nigeria, where I come from, this would not happen. Nor would it happen in Guinea, where Diallo comes from. Although I cringed at DSK’s “perp walk,” his arrest reminded me of what I admire about America. But the case was dismissed—not because the prosecutors were certain that DSK was innocent, but because Diallo was not a saint.
Prosecutors had evidence of a “hurried sexual encounter.” Diallo consistently said that she did not give her consent. He was a man she’d never seen. Minutes after they met, she was spitting out his semen on the floor. Colleagues who saw her after the incident confirmed that she was upset. His lawyers suggested that the encounter was consensual. How does consensual sex between strangers happen in 10 minutes? It’s not impossible but is unlikely, and a trial might have clarified this.
But there was no trial, because Diallo reportedly lied. On television, DSK’s lawyer called her “evil or pathetic or both.” He repeated “she lied”—and by saying it over and over, as many commentators did, turned it into an all-encompassing truth. She became nothing but a liar. What did she lie about? Prosecutors said she lied about what she did after the rape, which room she went into and for how long. But it is not inconceivable that a person in trauma would be unclear about what she did, or would want to appear to have reacted in the “correct” way. She lied on tax returns, but America is full of people and corporations who lie on tax returns. She lied about a rape in Guinea that never happened, a story she had planned to use in her asylum application and ended up not using, but nonetheless recounted convincingly to prosecutors. An odd thing to do, but traumatized people do odd things. Perhaps she was so entangled in her caginess about her past that her stories, too, became entangled. Prosecutors say she lied about money deposited in her account by her fiancé, but that is not so surprising, since her fiancé’s business appeared dubious.
We were told that because of these lies, a jury would not believe she was raped. Surely a reasonable jury would know that a woman who lies, even pathologically, can also be a victim of rape?
In America, there are narrow ideas of what rape is and of how a woman should react in its aftermath. She must fight the man, the more violently the better, so that his DNA will be found under her fingernails. But rape can happen in different ways, especially when power is involved. A Nigerian domestic worker once told me of a Big Man who raped her—he happened to be her employer. He asked her to come into his room and take off her underwear. And she did.
For Diallo to be an acceptable victim, she was expected to be blameless. As a working-class African woman, she was particularly expected to be blameless, because only then could she be worthy of sympathy. But Diallo was not pristine, nor should she have had to be. Ours is a messy world where people can be victims in one sense but not in others.
I am now puzzled by the American system that I earlier applauded. Rape seems to be the only crime in which the standards applied to the victim are much higher than those applied to the alleged perpetrator. If you accused someone of stealing from you, or trying to kill you, you would not be required to demonstrate saintliness in order to win over a jury. All that would really matter would be the facts of the case. The judicial system is designed to give Diallo a chance for redress, and DSK a chance to be judged by a jury of his peers. The prosecutor’s unilateral decision to truncate this process, even though he admitted that he does not know the truth, suggests how deeply steeped in power the Diallo case was.
Because DSK is an educated, powerful white man, he is assumed to have an inherent logic. We are told he is charming, competent, and knowledgeable, as though these exclude the likelihood of rape. Why would he call the hotel, a crime scene, to ask for his phone? Perhaps because it was, in his mind, not a crime scene at all, and he saw what happened as the mere harmless raising of a maid’s skirt. Because Diallo is illiterate, poor, female, and black, she is not assumed to have any inherent logic. We are told it was very unusual of her to have gone public. But it was also unusual that the prosecutor’s office leaked information about her “credibility,” which led to her being labeled a prostitute by the press. Her actions were questioned, and the questions reflected a privileged worldview, a middle-class model of how people should behave in order to be believable, and one that Diallo does not necessarily live by.
I was astonished by the vitriol directed toward Diallo in public forums. Compensatory justice is a very American idea, and the judicial system addresses wrongs, even murder, with money. Yet many people seemed more appalled by the ethics of possibly making money from a rape than the ethics of possibly forced sex with a hotel maid. Others resorted to a cynical equating, a “they deserve each other,” as though if in fact she had been raped, then it was the moral equivalent of lying—or as though she, by having lied, somehow deserved to be raped. Many suggested a conspiracy, even though prosecutors believed that Diallo had no idea who DSK was until after the encounter. There was an underlying feeling of: How dare she? How dare a “nobody” bring down an important man?
It puzzles me that, to prosecute DSK for rape, the character of his alleged victim was considered relevant but his own character was not. A French journalist accused him of attempted rape years ago. A French female politician, apparently echoing many others, said she would never be alone in a room with him. A former mistress said he had “a problem that may make him ill equipped to lead an institution where women work under his command.” These statements do not point to a “grand seducer,” as his friends proudly proclaimed, but to a possibly dangerous man. Perhaps there is nothing to any of these stories, but if we are to accept that a jury would disbelieve Diallo because she lied, then why would a jury believe DSK, since he had previously been accused of rape?
The American system does not require that he provide his side of the story, only that he convincingly poke holes in hers. But the system should require as much from him as from her. There is something demoralizing about a prosecution so heavily dependent on a victim’s character. We should presume him innocent, but we should not presume her guilty. That her dirty laundry was so publicly aired constituted a tawdry humiliation. She is now known around the world by a single word: liar.
There was a knowingness in Diallo, a necessity for a person who has lived the kind of life she has, but also a naiveté. That she would, instead of simply reporting the rape, first ask her supervisor whether guests are allowed to force themselves on maids rings sadly true to me. That she did not fight back because she did not want to lose her job also rings true. Power manifests in subtle ways. Perhaps this, if well argued, might have convinced a jury. Perhaps not. We’ll never know now.