For a long time, we did not know her. The woman who in May accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of raping her in the New York City hotel where she worked as a maid has been many things to many people. For feminists, she was a rallying cause: “We are all maids,” went one protest slogan. To Strauss-Kahn’s defenders, she was a disposable person: French journalist Jean-Francoise Kahn said it was just “lifting the skirt of a servant.” For the tabloids, she was a target to vilify; “DSK MAID A HOOKER,” read one notorious New York Post headline, which reported this claim as fact despite no solid evidence.
And yet, even when it seemed that everyone was talking about her, no one knew who she was. For all the identities projected onto the “DSK Maid,” she was never simply Naffissatou Diallo. That has all changed now.
After months of coverage, and weeks after The New York Times first reported that her case was on the verge of collapse due to credibility and character problems, Diallo chose to forsake what anonymity she had left. In July, she granted interviews with ABC News and Newsweek, in which she described her alleged rape by Strauss-Kahn in wrenching detail; her name, face and story have now circulated widely. The first thing you wonder after you’ve absorbed her story – which is, by the way, largely supported by forensic and medical evidence – is why she would take such a risk.
It’s customary for the identities of rape accusers to be shielded by the press. There are good reasons for this. Women who press sexual assault charges routinely have their pasts publicly exhumed, and they are almost always subject to fierce assaults on their character. This is particularly true if they press charges against powerful men like Strauss-Kahn, who was managing director of the International Monetary Fund when Diallo went to the police. They’re called drunks, vengeance-seekers, fame-seekers and gold diggers; “nuts and sluts” is the rude-but-concise legal slang. This public vilification can translate to real-world threats; the home addresses and phone numbers of Julian Assange’s accusers, for example, were publicized online. The anonymity of rape accusers is protected because it is the only way for anyone to report a rape without automatically wrecking her life.
Investigating Diallo’s credibility is important, but much of what has been written about her is not about credibility, but about whether we should like her. She’s been called a liar and a career criminal. She’s currently suing the Post for calling her a prostitute. That newspaper has also alleged she lives in an apartment for HIV-positive adults (her lawyers have denied this), and gave details as to its location. Long before Diallo identified herself to the media, bloggers leaked her name.
Diallo’s team says she has gone public to humanize herself. Her attorney, Douglas Wigdor, told Reuters that “she’s being attacked … and she thought it was important to put a name and face to her account.”
This is probably true – but it’s not that simple. Whether or not Strauss-Kahn raped Diallo, the mere fact that she is pursuing a high-profile case has made her vulnerable. Diallo has considered the risks; she told Newsweek that “I watched Channel 7 and they say this is [the] guy – I don’t know – and he is going to be the next president of France. And I think they are going to kill me.” No one has tried to kill her. But for Diallo – a poor immigrant who is intensely vulnerable economically and personally – to pursue this case, she must put her safety on the line. It’s entirely possible that she outed herself because she felt she had no other way to protect herself or her case.
It’s one thing to proclaim that “we are all maids.” It’s quite another to be an actual maid, pitted against one of the most powerful men in the world. Diallo’s self-outing ultimately represents a very ugly choice. With her privacy and dignity already compromised, with public and legal support on the wane, the only way for her to regain some control was to put herself at greater risk. There was no safe option for her. In America, we can hope for fair trials. But one thing is undeniable: For women – especially the most vulnerable women – the process of getting a trial is anything but “fair.”
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.