DSK, the maid from Guinea and ‘agency’

Robert Thornton is an anthropologist who teaches at Wits University in South Africa. He also maintains  a blog: An Anthropologist in South Africa. In this guest post, he gives his take on Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Guinean-American hotel staff member who accused him of rape. What’s different here, from the thousands of other analyses you’ve read? Thornton argues that it is important, here, to include an analysis of global economies (both the ‘legitimate’ and the ‘black’) showcasing complex, interdependent power relationships between seemingly oppositional sets of people. He also posits that gender, race, and other binaries beaten to death in the popular media may be secondary to the most significant issues relevant to this case. We at AIAC found Thornton’s positions to be provocative, innovative, and yet, simultaneously problematic and needing engagement. Contributor Neelika Jayawardane takes up some of the points raised by Thornton in the second half of the post.*

Robert Thornton:

The most extraordinary aspect of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case is the remarkable similarity between DSK and his accuser: they are both global players. Each deploys gendered power in different ways within radically different but intimately linked frameworks. Far from being the exemplar of the powerful against the powerless, each shows agency in extraordinary ways.

Commentators have focused on the fact that they represent the polar opposites of global political and gender categories: a predatory and powerful male against a powerless and virtuous woman, one rich the other poor, Jew and Muslim, White and Black, European and African, French and American immigrant, a manager of vast wealth and a hard working cleaner who was there to pick up his tissues and wash his sheets.

The affair seemed to personify the great dialectical oppositions of race, class, and gender. What brings this affair to international notice, however, is not just their difference but that fact that both operated in global markets, each successful in their own terms.

DSK was the head of the International Monetary Fund, while the Guinean hotel maid was an international multiple fraudster. According to the reports in the press, she had faked her appeal for asylum status by memorising a tape that she had bought from a man who specialised in sad stories of abuse and trauma.

These were not just any sad stories, but stories that Americans, and American immigration officials in particular, would believe. Her story revolved around being a devoutly religious woman who had been gang raped by out-of-control African men in the violence-torn streets of yet another African failed state.

The apparent back story is that this is where terrorist train and hide from American forces, but where good women who fear god, but who can also change bed linen and run a vacuum cleaner, also live in precarious balance with the forces of evil.

In a continent where HIV/AIDS prevention programmes pour hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting sexual abstinence, a masculine gang had forcibly raped her. By seeking to escape this antithesis of morality and good government, and by bravely standing against the oppression suffered by all women, she stood out as a beacon of what is called ‘hope’. Except she didn’t.

Continue reading