Don't give up on the vulnerable


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Category: International 10 July 11

One moment of my television career that people, especially women, comment on periodically took place when I was considerably younger. I told a health minister on national television on an early morning current affairs show not to call me “sweetheart”. We were talking about health care in T&T. I wanted some answers. I didn’t back down. Neither did he. Finally, he did what unfortunately many men do when they want to subconsciously put a woman in her place. They call her “sweetheart” or in my case, it was “darling”. In an instant I felt my blood boil and I said, “Don’t call me ‘darling’. If I was a man you wouldn’t call me that.” If truth be told, the former MP is a really nice man, who explained there and then that he thought of me as his daughter which is why he addressed me such. There were no hard feelings in private and thereafter our in-joke was whenever I met him I called him “darling”.

But even if that was the case, he was putting himself in the role of the powerful father figure and me as a daughter who needed to be corrected. He was in effect, getting rid of equality between us. I cooled down once I had made my point. The reason I had the knee jerk reaction on TV however has a bit of a history. I must have been about 18 at university and in conversation with some scary looking bra-burning feminists when I overheard them talking about a rape case. They were saying that rape didn’t have anything to do with “sex” and everything to do with “power”. That thought stuck.

Maid in Manhattan

There were grades of asserting power by powerful men. Rape was the most heinous, followed by the dozens and dozens of other grades—from withholding promotions or job opportunities until favour are granted to the odd bottom slapping and the most innocuous of them all, the “darling”. As I’ve grown older, I have more of a sense of humour about these things and put them in context. Many little endearments from men at work are harmless.

But make no mistake. Taken out of its context, the timeless ritual and language of human love and romance could become tools to assert authority and exploit women. I am not talking of consensual adult relationships. I am talking of exploitative situations. Women have come a long way but men still rule in the top jobs, and like it or not women in subservient positions remain vulnerable especially if they have families to feed. Some months back I got an e-mail from a young woman who wanted me to call her. I did. She told me she was a young, single mother who lost her job because she refused the sexual advances of her boss. She says and somehow I believe her, that she is not highly qualified, but in her line of work she is reliable and competent. 

I began doing some research but, as usual in Trinidad, bounced up with the lack of data. Then the Dominique Strauss Kahn story broke. Sympathy towards the Sofitel hotel maid in Manhattan turned to acute sympathy for Strauss Kahn for the brutality and swiftness with which he was arrested and charged with a criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment, and hauled off to the Manhattan Criminal Court building detention centre, known as “The Tombs,” where he was made to spend the night especially when the maids testimony was discredited.

My feelings were echoed by Elaine Sciolino, a New York Times correspondent in France and the author of ‘La Seduction,’ who wrote: “Until today, it was white versus black, rich versus poor, man versus woman, Jew versus Muslim.” Now it’s going to be this man who would have been president, taken down by this ‘nogoodnik’ who has a druggie boyfriend in prison and who lied from the moment she tried to get into the United States. Her column was headlined, ‘When a Predator Collides With a Fabricator’. It had all the makings of an academy award winning film set in three continents. Steven Spielberg couldn’t have improved on it if he tried. The trailer could run something like this: (voiced by a male heavy with a testosterone).

“One man, the head of an organisation with the power to change the fate of nations, an IMF chief, and French Presidential hopeful (show Dominique Strauss-Kahn in an expensive suit negotiating with world leaders, smiling with French President Nicolas Sarkozy) of millions of homeless, poor, people globally, (cut to camera speeding across oceans and vast jungles to catch the faces of people of all races living below the poverty line globally). “In 24 hours his life is not worth living. (Cut to Strauss Kahn in a tiny cell in prison on suicide watch). Can one woman, a poor immigrant working, exactly 30 years younger than her 62-year-old predator as a maid in Manhattan (cut to a dreary one room apartment, and a woman in a maid’s uniform in a luxury hotel) destroy him forever?”

No clear victim, no clear perpetrator

The world watched open-mouthed because never had an establishment been rocked this harshly. A very public story hit individuals in the gut everywhere. Opinion was divided between the people who felt that finally, exploited women were given a voice, and it was time for a very public execution of a sex offender and those who felt the man wasn’t given a fair chance to prove his innocence.

But the plot kept up its promising momentum. Mouths opened wider as reports emerged that the “Hotel Sofitel” maid, as she came to be known, admitted lying about the sequence of events following the alleged attacks. She went on to clean another room before reporting Kahn to the police. Reports emerged of connections with drug traffickers through bank accounts containing some US$100,000, and taped telephone conversations with a jailed drug dealer emerged where she discussed how much money she could make by accusing Strauss Kahn.

It was an end to a drama that, let’s face it, many men were rooting for, as a smiling Strauss Kahn was released as a result of the defence investigations from confinement from his posh lower Manhattan townhouse with electronic surveillance and around-the-clock guards, and refunded a $1 million cash bail and $5 million bond after prosecutors. But it’s never over until the fat lady sings and she hasn’t yet sung. Just as Strauss Kahn’s return as French presidential hopeful was once again being speculated upon, a young French author accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of attempted rape with a dramatic account of fending off an attacker who ripped at her clothes as they fought on his apartment floor.

Surely this couldn’t be a satisfactory end to a panoramic drama. There is no clear victim and no clear perpetrator. It just brought up a stale argument often used by people who are ambivalent about the oldest profession in the world. Exactly who exploited who? It’s even more problematic because all dramas come with a morality tale. What does this tell us? Don’t be powerful, successful, and rich as people will bring you down? Don’t work as a maid? Don’t believe anyone, ever?

Yes, Dominque Strauss-Kahn may be a man more sinned against than sinning. But he is wealthy, he is connected, he had the best lawyers and investigators, and many powerful people rooting for him. My take is that one maid’s “false testimony” must never make us blind to the almost invisible, almost expected exploitation that goes on almost every day in every profession of women in subservient positions. We must never stop being a voice for the voiceless, or give up on the vulnerable. Next week. One woman’s story of harassment in T&T.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur