The media response to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape charges is predictably horrific. The salacious gossip can maintain itself for weeks: the victim lives in a complex for HIV-positive residents (no wait! She doesn’t); wears hijab; and is “pious and respectable.” No, you say, she’s not unattractive—she’s actually got great breasts?
A full 57% of French citizens claim that Strauss-Kahn, who was set to unseat Sarkozy in the upcoming election, was set-up at his Sofitel Hotel. This, of course, is particularly concerning because the victim is Muslim.
The case has shed renewed light on France’s growing Islamophobia and general intolerance toward overt religious expression, but also on the problem of its politically, socially and economically marginalized Muslim and Arab communities and the discrimination they face. Amid speculation about whether Strauss-Kahn preyed on his victim because she is a Muslim woman who wears hijab or because he knew that her class and position made her less likely to report the crime, it’s interesting to note the extent to which her external expression of religion is being used to both lend her credibility (as her Guinean family suggested it should) and undermine her accusation.
Reading the comments of pieces that mention the victim’s religion, it’s interesting to note that of her many marginalized identities—immigrant; possibly HIV-positive; Guinean; young, single mother; black—her Muslim faith is the only one that opens the floodgates for conspiracy theorists and unconscionable victim-blaming. (There is obviously a more insidious kind of victim-blaming by the likes of Ben Stein and Bernard-Henri Levy, but I’m referring to the kind of comments that flatly deny the victim’s claim to truth on the basis of her religion, as opposed to the usual culprits of class or sex). Many of these comments reflect mistrust of Muslims and, by extension, a willingness to withhold judgment on Strauss-Kahn until the victim’s “motives” have been made clear. As one commenter says, “She probably is just a poor woman from Guinea who just wanted to work hard to support her daughter. I remember a few innocent students from Saudi Arabia who just wanted to learn to fly planes.”
This is, after all, a political case; so it’s not shocking that a lot is being made of the victim’s and defendant’s externalities. The dichotomies include French vs. immigrants, Jews vs. Muslims, and the standard rich vs. poor. And I don’t mean to suggest that any or all of these were not factors in Strauss-Kahn’s bad, bad decision to select a victim because—let’s face it—the grids of inequality in cases like this one are compelling enough to discuss for weeks.
But exceptionalizing this case the way the media has, with the many conspiracy theories and speculation of political motive (she must have been invested in the French election, tried to seduce him, etc.) belies America’s own denial of a strong rape culture. Rape happens every day, everywhere. And though it’s much easier to believe that there was a terrorist plot to seduce the head of the IMF, the fact is that someone we trust with what is literally the whole world’s future likely did something wholly vile and inexplicable.
The assumptions that come with the Sofitel maid’s external expression of Islam—she was pious, so she wouldn’t have seduced him; she was extremist, so it was a plot to kill him—only further demonstrate how far we are from what matters here: she was a victim of rape, first and foremost. In our discussion of class, race, ethnicity, background, religion, politics, and money, we seem to have let slide a more important discussion of the kind of culture that engenders victim-blaming, and, more importantly, victims of rape.
Check out an earlier post on the DSK case here.