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.
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Immigration officers understood political persecution as the result of male participation in an explicitly political sphere, done in traditionally political ways. They didn’t recognize how women with little means might also have experienced profound political persecution – and that this persecution was often undertaken in less than public ways.Skip to next paragraph
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Women must tell the same story, but it can't be too similar
So how does a woman who has few resources and little education convince immigration officers she is a candidate for refugee asylum? Immigration officers believed that most asylum seekers were not telling the truth, and so often the asylum hearing was adversarial, even if there were no lawyers present. In such a situation, the dice were loaded against poor women.
Women seeking asylum were stuck in a catch-22, with their very lives on the line. To appear credible, they had to tell the same story of rape. But asylum could be denied if the story was too similar to another woman’s story, which happened often.
For women, rape is the story that will be convincing to US immigration. There are widespread stories about rape in poorer countries, especially in some African countries such as Guinea or Congo. For women globally, the story of rape is often the only story that can elicit real sympathy and make news headlines. Poverty, which often makes women (or anyone, for that matter) vulnerable to violence, is not a valid reason for asylum.
From my observations, poor women seeking asylum faced additional obstacles to their credibility. If a woman mentioned that she had sought help from a member of her “community” or brought a “community” person to support her, she had less credibility than if she brought a lawyer who was not of her community. To the government, the “community” was seen as a place where fictional narratives were produced, rather than as a place for support. The problem was that for most women without many means, the community was the only source of support and help.
Being “credible” meant being a victim who was apolitical, blameless, and suffered violence only because she belonged to a community or a family who was targeted with violence. Women who were experiencing violence because of political action were less credible because they could not be blameless victims that needed to be saved in the eyes of US immigration officials. Any association with leftist politics, for instance, can be seen as action that cannot be protected through asylum.
Why not question DSK's credibility as well?
For an African woman from a developing country who had to seek asylum, credibility was always an issue. In that sense, the credibility of the chambermaid in the Strauss-Kahn case has always been suspect, even though she was able to gain asylum. Leaving the violence of war and poverty requires desperation and struggle. This woman did what she and countless other women have had to do in a system designed to keep her out and to doubt her story from the onset.
That is why we need to separate the asylum credibility issue from the alleged rape of a hotel housekeeper that afternoon in May. While her credibility has been doubted from the beginning, what has never been considered is the credibility of a wealthy and powerful man. And that is why we need to ask also if DSK is credible as well.
Inderpal Grewal is a professor and chair of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. She researches and writes on the connections between culture, feminism, colonialism, and globalization in South Asia and the West.