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Stereotypes and the Strauss-Kahn case

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Esther Cepeda
August 28, 2011
Ladieeees and gentlemen: As one of the year’s greatest media circuses on Earth draws to a close, please direct your attention to the center ring to gape at one of the absolutely most spec-tac-ular villains of the year—drum roll, please— the immigrant woman, Nafissatou Diallo!

I’m exaggerating, of course. No media outlet has gone so far as to make such a statement after the news that criminal sexual assault charges against International Monetary Fund bigwig Dominique Strauss-Kahn were dropped because “the maid” was found to be an unreliable.


In the end, the he-said/she-said drama that put a much-needed spotlight on the dangers our low-paid, hardworking sisters, mothers and daughters face in hotel room cleaning jobs ended up being just another object lesson about slandering she-devils and citizenship-grubbing immigrants.


In three months, Diallo went from being “a hardworking African immigrant,” whom police believed was telling the truth when she reported that Strauss-Kahn had sexually assaulted her in his swanky hotel room, to a compulsive liar with a disturbing pattern of cheating on taxes and telling vivid, tear-filled accounts of a fake gang rape.


Diallo still has the sympathy of those who understand that just because she made up stories about her past, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t actually victimized by Strauss-Kahn in that hotel room this past May—there is, after all, DNA evidence that something intimate happened between them. But few others care about whether that encounter was consensual or forced because Diallo is the girl who cried wolf.


It will always be a severe blow against women when one of us lies about rape. If there is a “woman code,” item No. 1 must be that you can never falsely claim to have been sexually harmed. In addition to hurting the victim of the lie, it casts suspicion on other women who find the strength to come forward to report real assaults.


Thus the “taken-advantage-of hotel maid” joins the hall of shame that includes stereotypes—true and sometimes imagined—of those who have lied about rape to exact revenge, gain access to an abortion or make money off someone else’s celebrity.


Also, at a time when immigrants—legal or illegal, and in many cases anyone who merely “looks” like he or she might be an immigrant—are coated with the sheen of otherness or outright criminality, Diallo’s immigration scheming has become just another example of a carpetbagger looking to game the system.


It was, in great part, Diallo’s made-up stories of brutal gang rape and beatings by soldiers in her native Guinea, and her flip-flopping claims that she had included the testimony in an application for asylum in this country, that led prosecutors to the decision that she was an unfit witness. Diallo eventually admitted that she had not included the stomach-turning gang rape story in her written statement to immigration officials but had considered using the rehearsed narrative to advance her asylum case.


“It would be completely unfair to use this one case as an example or make far-reaching implications about asylees or our asylum system because of it,” Annie Sovcik, an attorney for the refugee protection program at Human Rights First, a nonpartisan human rights organization, told me.


Stories about the lengths to which immigrants go to stay in this country are plentiful. From marriage fraud to faking claims of political persecution, asylum fraud is a real concern. Rarely, though, has it been as high-profile as in the Strauss-Kahn case. And as with false rape claims, it makes the real experiences of people with legitimate claims to U.S. protections seem less credible.


“This plays into the perception that seeking asylum is an easy process and easy to game because most people don’t understand just how much scrutiny, investigation and invasive questioning goes into it,” Sovcik said. “There are so many protections in place to address concerns about fraud and curb it while still allowing bona fide refugees to gain protection. It’s not like you walk into an office, say ‘I’m afraid to go home,’ and all of a sudden you have a green card.”


In a world where the “not guilty” aren’t exactly innocent, it’s worth considering that not all lies represent universal truths about the people who tell them.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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