When they're not speculating about her HIV status or ogling her ass, the media paint a consistent picture of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's accuser as naive, docile, almost without a will of her own. In so doing, they're playing into stereotypes about immigrants — and rape victims.
Descriptions of the accuser's family and upbringing have long verged on the Kiplingesque — last month, Saliou Samb of Reuters reported, "In a living room bare but for a few family photos and Islamic texts, the African man who says he is the brother of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's accuser says he has not slept or eaten properly for days." Accounts of her character have typically called "quiet" and "hardworking." Yesterday's Times profile continued in this vein, only more so. Some highlights:
She was born in a mud hut in an isolated hamlet in Africa with no electricity or running water, a 10-minute hike to the nearest road. Unschooled, she was married off to a distant cousin as a teenager
"She is a village girl who didn't go to school to learn English, Greek, Portuguese, what have you," said her older brother, 49, whose first name is Mamoudou. "All she learned was the Koran."
As a girl, she was shy, sheltered and raised to respect authority.
"Before she left here, nobody even knew if she could speak up for herself," Mamoudou said. "She never got into any arguments, with anybody."
The woman melted into this community. She did not seem to be well known even in the neighborhoods where Guineans often lived.
One day, the woman told Mr. Jabbie that she was leaving the restaurant for a better paycheck at the Sofitel hotel.
With that, she entered a new world, with a grand, golden canopy and wood-paneled suites, blocks from Times Square. She was considered a good employee there.
And we all know what happened next. Before her alleged assault by the then-chief of the IMF, the accuser was a mom, a maid, and a person. Now she's being portrayed as a type — as a wide-eyed bumpkin in the big city, as a dutiful working-class woman, as an untutored immigrant from a mud hut. Some of these portrayals reveal enduring prejudices about Africa; there's more than a little of the noble savage in the "village girl" portrait the Times and Reuters paint. There's also a tendency to set her up as a "perfect" rape victim: innocent, guileless, silent, incapable of "asking for it" because she barely even has her own identity with which to ask. In a disturbing trade-off, the accuser appears to become more sympathetic even as she's erased as a human being.
Despite efforts by both American and European media outlets to delve into her private life, we still don't know much about DSK's accuser. The Times clearly didn't find much when it went looking, or else the paper probably wouldn't have included passages like this:
After prayers at a few West African mosques, Guineans often go to Guinean-owned restaurants to eat cooked cassava leaf and beef stew, drink homemade juice made from hibiscus flowers and watch television broadcasts of African news and sports. They shop at Guinean stores that sell West African staples like cornmeal, yams, palm oil and spices.
Absent real information, all the press have are stereotypes about hardworking immigrant women and about people from darkest Africa. This could end up being good for the accuser's case — the more prosecutors can portray her as without any agency, the more trouble the defense will have supporting its argument that DSK had consensual sex with her. But it's sad that being stripped of personhood makes someone a more sympathetic rape victim, as though anything that makes her actually human also makes her at fault. And it's sad that once she enters the public eye, a woman can so easily become a canvas for preconceived notions.