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.
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.
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.
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.