I had to buy The New York Post this week. It’s something I never do because, as the letters page reminded me, it’s something of a Zionist rag. But Tuesday the cover caught my eye: a story called “Got it maid” claimed that people working for disgraced ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn had gone to Guinea to try to buy the silence of the young Guinean hotel maid who has accused him of attempting to rape her in New York. A seven-figure sum was bruited. Some of her relatives—two men and a few boys—were on the cover, and a page five photo showed their solidly middle class house, which her wages must have helped build. This was something new in the media clutter around the story.
A befuddled French press had already turned its attention on the woman—whom its journalists shamelessly named—after shuffling from disbelief to hazy conspiracy theories to a comfortable anti-Americanism (French indignation about the perp walk was justified, but due to a bad translation, many thought that Strauss-Kahn has to prove his innocence, rather than the state his guilt). Some trotted out the old line that she’d brought the rape on herself. French feminists girded their loins for a debate about “DSK” and the sexual habits of the French haut-bourgeoisie.
From Paris, this is a story about sex, France, and—at its most profound level—the failure of French democracy that a complicitous press represents. It’s also about champagne and a smug but shaken elite, as Philip Gourevitch reports from the front lines in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town.” In New York itself, the DSK affair is being domesticated, transformed into a parochial story about real estate and co-op boards—the former front-runner for the French presidency has lots of money to spend, but no one wants him for a neighbor. Leave it to The Post—of all papers—to suggest that this was also a story about West Africa and its place in the world. African working-class women in Paris—from janitors to nannies—see it that way, as does the West African blogosphere.
As we shared a platter of yassa poulet on their lunch break last week, Jolie and Amie, two Malian maids, argued that the woman might have made a mistake. Jolie used to work as a maid in a fancy hotel in Paris, and now she cleans dormitories with Amie. She says she and the other maids were told never to enter an occupied room alone, and that if the door was ajar or anything seemed out of place, not to go in. Go straight to security, they were told, so no one accuses you of stealing. You’ll lose your job. But the fact that this element of the story didn’t make sense to them didn’t mean that the woman was right or wrong. For them, she was just a bit player in a bigger plot to bring down DSK. That’s how politics works, and it must have been French President Nicolas Sarkozy trying to get rid of a rival. But then didn’t DSK, like all other French politicians, have a marabout in Mali? He ought to be able to take care of things… In other words, these two women argued, both maids and politicians put themselves in dangerous situations, but the maids do it because they have to. They need the wages, and they too could use a little spiritual protection.
Chatting at a playground in the 16th arrondissement while their charges ran wild, Ivoirian nannies (southern Christians all) couldn’t understand the maid’s logic. This was about sex, and therefore money. “IMF?” they said, slapping their thighs. “IMF?! If you come to me and you say ‘IMF,’ the door is open. That’s cash!” Let’s not forget that the IMF is a hell of a lot more powerful in West Africa than it is in Manhattan. Still one of the Malians murmured to me later, “The Ivoirians have no shame. That woman is a Muslim. She is a Muslim.” There too the story was about the maid’s comportment and about the dignity of refusal.
But the story is also about rape, power, and impunity. The intersection of those three things in Guinea has a history that is very recent and very dark. Hundreds of women—especially Peuhl women—were gang-raped, beaten and abducted by soldiers and militiamen loyal to Captain Moussa Dadis Camara during a political rally in Conakry’s stadium on September 28, 2009. That mass atrocity was more dramatic, more visible, and more urban than dozens of other collective assaults in the course of the region’s wars. It certainly made bigger waves than the everyday harassment of girls and women by teachers, employers, and aspiring sugar daddies. Maybe because of it, this singular case of a Peuhl woman standing up to such a powerful man, accusing him of rape and bringing him down makes her a hero to some in West Africa. She refused silence, while so many other victims of sexual abuse by more powerful men go unheard. Even in Guinea, where Camara is long gone from power, the new president doesn’t want to pursue justice against the Captain and his henchmen. Alpha Condé doesn’t even want reconciliation. He wants resignation. No wonder then, that for a certain number of people posting to West African chat rooms from Guinea, Mali, and Cote d’Ivoire, this hard-working Peuhl woman is a hero. She won’t be a victim, even faced with one of the most powerful men in the world—and even if she needs her job, just like Jolie and Amie need theirs, and just like the Post says she told Strauss-Kahn. She remembered the lesson of Samori Touré, the nineteenth-century Guinean anti-colonialist: Quand on refuse, on dit ‘Non!’.