Nameless, but not a stereotype

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A New York Times article drew a comparison between Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the connection prompted reflection on media treatment of women and girls who allege rape.

As Jeffrey Toobin reported in his 2009 New Yorker piece about Polanski, in 1977, Samantha Gailey - the 13 year-old girl who Polanski raped - was subjected to invasive grand jury questioning about her prior sexual activity and drug use.  Her lawyer was sufficiently concerned about the trauma she would suffer on the witness stand that he advocated for a resolution to the case that would absolve her of testifying.

Thirty-four years later, the woman alleging rape has been - and will continue to be, if the law prevails - afforded a much wider scope of privacy protection.  Her name has not been released in the American press (although it has been in France).  Her face was not exposed to the press when she identified DSK in a line-up at the police station.  And if she gives grand jury testimony, she will not be subject to irrelevant questions about her prior sexual activity.

Nonetheless, although our law has made some strides, our discourse seems to have a way to go still.  Speaking to the press, the woman's lawyer, Jeffrey J. Shapiro, referred to her as "simple," as in "She is a simple housekeeper who was going into a room to clean a room."  Considering that Mr. Shapiro also offered this gem - "Her story is her story, which she has told to everyone who asked her" - legitimate questions arise as to who is simple.

Mr. Shapiro also admitted ignorance about the facts underlying her asylum claim (which was granted despite the stringent interpretations given by U.S. judges to already high standards), and - even more unprofessionally - answered a question about her immigration status by saying he was "unsure," thereby potentially opening his client to a visit from the INS.

I know only the barest outline of this woman: she is 32.  A widow.  She is refugee from Guinea.  She was granted asylum in the U.S.  She has a 15 year-old daughter and a brother who owns a restaurant in Harlem.  She has been employed at the Sofitel in Times Square for 3 years.  She is a Muslim.  She speaks French and English.

Although not mentioned in any media I saw, one reason U.S. courts grant asylum to Guinean women is that they have been subjected to - or fear they or their daughters will be subjected to - female genital mutilation.  Apart from this concern, Guinea is a politically unstable country, overrun with cocaine and violence.  An example: in 2009 security forces controlled by junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara opened fire on protesters, killing many and brutally raping women.

Even this scant information suggests that the woman in the center of the DSK storm is not a "simple housekeeper," but a human being who has weathered intense experiences, a survivor with capacities for adaptation and resiliency, a person who has known pain and grief, a mother, a believer - in short, a woman entitled to dignity, respect and the assumption of individual complexity that we enjoy about ourselves and that we extend to others for whom we care.

Regardless of the outcome of the legal inquiry into her accusation, whether the law vindicates or castigates her, she is not Aunt Jemima.  If our discourse cannot capture her more accurately, the stereotype will not be her, but us: racists.

(Image of Jeffrey J. Shapiro from his website)

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on May 18, 2011 3:48 AM.

IMF, international aid: screwed was the previous entry in this blog.

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