culture shockers: The DSK case sheds light on violence against immigrant women and the role of men

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Earlier this week, Nafissatou Diallo, the accuser in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) rape case, came forward to share tell her version of what happened in May at the Sofitel Hotel in New York City in a print interview with Newsweek and also on television with ABC News.

Yesterday, she gave a press conference sharing more of her story.

We believe strongly in due process and that DSK is indeed innocent until proven guilty. However, the way this story has unfolded thus far and the way Ms. Diallo has been discussed in the media, both before and after she came forward with her account gives us an opportunity to talk about violence against women, especially those who are immigrants to the US.

We are less concerned with trying to prove that Mr. Strauss-Kahn is innocent/guilty or whether Ms. Diallo is honest/not telling the truth. What’s illuminating is the way that the media and our culture have responded to this woman, to her accusation of sexual assault made against a powerful man. Furthermore, let’s pay attention to how those responses changed when details about her identity were revealed. Who is Nafissatou Diallo? She is a 32-year-old immigrant woman from Guinea who sought asylum in the United States, who is raising her 15-year-old daughter, and has been working at the Sofitel Hotel in New York since 2008.

The first batch of reporting on the story portrayed Ms. Diallo as a hardworking immigrant in search of the American dream. Soon enough, that story changed. The majority of aspersions on the legitimacy of the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) are based on attacking the credibility of the woman who has accused him of sexual assault. Some feminists have eloquently brought our attention to the fact that her case against DSK is based on her being seen as a legitimate victim – perfect in all other aspects of her life, unimpeachable in her character. How many people like that do YOU know?

This is a common occurrence in sexual assault cases and a well-documented fact. From a roundtable sponsored by The United States Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women, The White House Council on Women and Girls, and The White House Advisor on Violence Against Women:

“One in six women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted during the course of their lifetime. However incidents of sexual violence remain the most underreported crimes in the United States, and survivors who disclose their victimization—whether to law enforcement or to family and friends—often encounter more adversity than support.”

So what are the women’s human rights lessons in this story?

For one, it enables us to highlight the rapidly growing issue of sexual assault among immigrant women here in the US. Secondly, we get the chance to assess the ways in which we must change our immigration policies that impact women, like Ms. Diallo, who experience domestic violence in other countries and seek asylum in the United States. It can also serve as a reminder that undocumented women remain more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

Also, we can take this chance to remind everyone how important it is to engage men and boys on the issue of stopping violence against women. Where are the outraged men, who are constantly being dragged into the mud by those who coerce and assault women? Will we hear from male world leaders on the issue of violence against women? Some have spoken out, but many more need to join their ranks.

Ultimately, Ms. Diallo’s willingness to come forward, and share her story should remind us that there are many women who face detention and consequent violence if they come forth about their experiences of violence and assault. The risks are great, especially for those women who are immigrants and/or undocumented. They face potential deportation, losing their children, financial struggles, potential language barriers, and a very convoluted and complicated legal system.

But, as always, there’s something you can DO to make things better!

To counter these challenges you can encourage your elected officials to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which will come before congress this year. Among other provisions to protect immigrant women who face lack of eligibility and difficulty accessing services and support. To learn more about VAWA and what’s at stake this year, click here.

To learn about the campaign to pass an International Violence Against Women Act (HR 4594/S 2982) see here. This legislation would make stopping violence against women and girls a priority in American diplomacy and foreign aid. Let your representatives know that you care about stopping violence against women in the US and abroad.

Learn about our Bell Bajao campaign that calls on men and boys to bring domestic violence to a halt.

July 29, 2011 by Eesha Pandit
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