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Separate DSK accuser's asylum story from her New York rape story

In Strauss-Kahn case, we must separate questions about the credibility of the accuser's asylum story from her account of assault at the hands of DSK. Women seeking asylum in the US face a system designed to keep them out and to doubt their credibility from the onset.

By Inderpal Grewal / July 14, 2011



New Haven, Conn.

The New York rape case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn now hangs in limbo – with the next hearing postponed until early August – after questions about his accuser’s credibility have come to light. The Manhattan district attorney’s office recently announced its concerns about the case, citing among other points, the fact that the African immigrant hotel housekeeper who alleged that Mr. Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted her lied about being gang-raped on her application for asylum in the United States.

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The center of the story isn’t just what this woman said about sexual assault in the Sofitel hotel in New York; it’s also about her story of past sexual assault in another country. And that’s a story that sheds unflattering, but needed, light on the United States and its treatment of women applying for asylum within its borders. To give this case a fair reading, prosecutors, pundits, and the public must separate questions about the credibility of her asylum story from her story of events at the hands of Strauss-Kahn in a New York hotel room.

While we many never know what happened in that hotel room, we can surmise a lot about why Strauss-Kahn’s accuser said what she did when she arrived in this country: For many women, a story of rape is their only way in.

For women seeking asylum in the US who come from developing countries, entry into the US requires them to be credible. At the same time, their credibility is always suspect. Immigration officers assume that the story that they are telling is not the truth. As a result, the asylum hearing is often a trial.

Women seeking asylum face doubt from the beginning

In research that I did in San Francisco in the 1990s examining the asylum process for Sikh women from India, I found that refugee asylum requires women asylum seekers to have to tell a certain kind of story to be believed.

To be sure, US immigration officers are concerned with doing the right thing and giving asylum where necessary, but they also have to reject a lot of people. Refugee laws are as much designed to keep people out as to bring them in.

Those who make it to the United States face an uphill climb from the onset. The 1980 US Refugee Act defines a refugee as any person who is “unable or unwilling to return” to their country of origin because of “persecution or a well-founded fear or persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”

In the last two decades, sexual abuse as human rights violation has become a legitimate reason for women to gain asylum to the US. In key cases, female asylum seekers and their advocates argued successfully that women constitute a social group – one that is systematically and disproportionately victimized by sexual assault and gender violence.

But this shift only came about under the Clinton administration, when, because of the work done by the Women Refugees Project in Cambridge Massachusetts, sexual violence as a human rights violation came to be included in new “gender-based” guidelines for asylum.

Prior to this change, political asylum cases were most often made by men. The political refugee was, for the most part, a male, abused by a state for his political views or activism. Women were a minority in that process, and many lawyers working with women found that it was difficult to convince immigration officers that women could be political refugees. In particular, poor women from Africa, Latin America, or Asia were not believable as political refugees.

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