Immigrant Women and Rape

July 2, 2011 § 2 Comments

It has been a month since last I wrote and there is much to discuss.  Apparently having a shady past makes it harder for you to be raped in the present.  But apparently having a shady past still isn’t that relevant to whether you are or aren’t capable of raping in the present.  The Strauss-Kahn case devolves.  All of feminist womanhood sighs with exasperation and frustration.

My initial reaction when I heard that the case was falling apart because the accuser had a history of lying about rape (she lied about rape to support her asylum case but explains she was raped under different circumstances in her past) was the very uncritical and unfeminist, “Why oh why can’t we have an open-shut case that can show the world that powerful men take advantage of disempowered women?  Why oh why does this woman have to have a shady past?”  And then I remembered that our legal system rarely does a good job advocating for the disempowered, particularly women, and that most women have a “shady past” as far as rape-case investigators are concerned.  As my favorite feminist blogger Echidne reminds us, “the legal system might take your case to court only if you taught Sunday School, never left your home without a male relative in the past and had regular virginity tests which you passed with flying colors.”  And of course, conventional wisdom says that “women lie about rape All The Time.”  Read her article.  She makes some excellent points about how issues of uneven power are inadequately addressed.  While the burden of the past is held against the victim, on the other hand, Strauss-Kahn just was just the victim of a Pavlovian bait and switch: expecting a prostitute, he only got a resistant hotel maid!  Poor entitled French politician!  And a resistant hotel maid with a history of lying about rape!

Our victim has a history of lying about rape…in the context of pursuing her asylum case in this country.  This tidbit opens up a fascinating window into the struggles of immigrants to make a case to be legally in this country and to position their oppression and need in terms that the keepers of our quadruple-bolted national portals can understand.  So tangled a skein!  How can we begin to unpack the problems inherent in making a case of asylum for a woman who possibly–and not necessarily voluntarily–was involved in illegal activity or victim of illegal activity?

I turn first to film.  Maria Full of Grace.  This is the story of a Columbian girl who becomes a drug mule to help support her family and then escapes into the anonymous wilds of Queens when she realizes that she is working with murdering gangsters who care nothing for her safety or bodily autonomy.  And that she has a chance.  She is probably better off as an illegal immigrant in this country than in her native village, where she has a prospect of only poverty and violence–probably also sexual violence.  Is she undeserving because she was a drug mule?  What would her asylum case have looked like?  Could she have successfully brought a charge of rape in American courts?

Immigrant women continue to suffer physical abuse, sexual abuse, and rape.  They are uniquely vulnerable victims of crime.   Immigrant women face insurmountable barriers to getting help, whether from police or legal system or doctors.   When I was working with the Mexican immigrant community in New Brunswick, NJ teaching English classes out of a church, I remember hearing about the discovery of the bodies of several Mexican women, raped and murdered.  These crimes revealed the darker and gendered side of immigrant experiences…and exacerbated larger tensions within the Mexican immigrant community.  Many community leaders preferred not to engage in a broader  conversation about endemic sexual violence, because they feared this it might work against broader PR efforts if these crimes were exposed as part of an endemic problem.

Unsurprisingly, these crimes remained below the notice of the majority of Rutgers college students living on the north side of the tracks.  Our crime blotter restricted itself to incidents in which people from “outside” came into our world, attacked joggers or robbed guys on a beer run outside the liquor store, or walked into our apartments and raped our neighbors in broad daylight.  Those girls called the police, they went to the ER, they got help and they received notice.

But the stories of rapes and murders that occurred within the Mexican immigrant community just blocks away may have occurred a world away for all the notice we took or the help those women could have received.  When a white college girl is raped in her apartment, flares go up.  But a poor, possibly illegal, Mexican immigrant is as likely to have learned long ago to be suspicious of the police, to read the power structures in the community, know the biases of the legal system.  As a more lurid example, take the urban legend about police-run brothels in the old apartment buildings that later burned down mysteriously as part of the endless corrupt cycle of real-estate revitalization in New Brunswick.

When I Googled “rape in immigrant communities” I discovered some sentiments recently expressed by Massachusetts Republican G.O.P. Representative Ryan Fattman, that illegal immigrant rape-victims should be afraid to go to the police.  This in response to concerns that victims of crime seeking help from police might in turn become victims of investigations into their legal status.  According to Fattman, and well, Arizona, illegal immigrants don’t deserve the same protections from crime as the rest of the public.  But many immigrants more generally are afraid to go to the police, suspicious of authorities and the legal system, which is intrinsically suspicious of them.

When Strauss-Kahn’s accuser lied about her past experience of rape to gain asylum in this country, she was engaging savvily with a very different contextual framing of rape as problem.  Americans are quite willing to recognize rape as an endemic problem facing impoverished women in outside the US.  Especially since the UN declared rape a war crime, we have become comfortable talking about rape as a systematic tool of violence and terror in other places, in other countries that are war-torn, economically blighted, unenlightened (and run by Muslims).  We condemn systematic rape that occurs on the outside.

The fact that an asylum seeker would use an incident of violence in her past to make her case with our immigrant officials demonstrates a savvy  that is currently working against her in the very different set of rules that apply to individual rape accusations, particularly against white men in positions of power.  It’s too bad that we can’t have a more nuanced conversation not just about the politics of deserving and undeserving victims, or women with “shady pasts,” but about when and how we are willing to see and care about rape, and the consequences of our own extremely uneven patterns of recognition.


P.S. Feministe also has an excellent overview and analysis about how this all went down and what is and isn’t relevant to the case at hand.

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