Nafissatou Diallo and DSK: the #MeToo Case Before the Movement, 10 Years Later
It’s been nearly four years since the first accusations against Harvey Weinstein broke, opening the floodgates on revelations of sexual assault in the workplace.
When a hashtag, #MeToo — first used in 2006, by social activist and community organizer Tarana Burke, to empower black and brown women and girls — went viral in 2017, it ignited a global movement of women sharing their stories of harassment and violence.
It was a virtual truth commission in 140 characters.
The perpetrators had gotten away with these crimes for years; and, for those they harassed, it seemed as though they would never pay the consequences. But suddenly survivors were speaking out, overcoming the culture of silence that surrounds assault and statutes of limitations that hinder prosecution.
Since then, more than 200 influential men — and some women — have been forced to resign from high-profile positions. Bill O’Reilly. Al Franken. Roger Ailes. Mark Halperin. Kevin Spacey. Louis C.K. Matt Lauer. Charlie Rose. Les Moonves. Bill Cosby. And some, like Weinstein and Cosby, were even prosecuted and convicted in court.
Organizations like the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund sprang up to help survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse seek justice. But the conversation largely centered the experiences of wealthy white women — namely actresses and white-collar career women — dwarfing the stories of women in blue- and pink-collar jobs, who are more vulnerable to assaults with less income and access to legal avenues for justice.
Ironically, the whole movement came eerily close to being started by a low-wage woman’s complaint.
In 2011, six years before #MeToo, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) — then head of the International Monetary Fund, and a likely candidate for the French presidency — was arrested for assaulting an African immigrant maid, Nafissatou Diallo, at the Times Square Sofitel hotel.
Diallo was born in Conakry, the capital city of Guinea in West Africa. She moved to the U.S. in 2003 and was granted asylum for herself and her daughter.
By 2011, 32-year-old Nafissatou had a steady job as a hotel housekeeper. On May 14, she accused DSK of emerging naked from the bathroom of a suite while she was cleaning and forcing her to perform oral sex on him. “She told police she fought him off, but he dragged her into the bathroom, where he forced her to perform oral sex on him and tried to remove her underwear.”
By the time authorities caught up to him, Strauss-Kahn had checked out of the hotel and was sitting in a plane at John F. Kennedy Airport about to take off for Paris—when authorities pulled him off and later arrested him.
There was physical evidence that something had happened — semen on her housekeeper’s uniform, as well as on the walls and carpet of the room. But as time went on and the case unfolded, prosecutors weren’t sure they could trust Diallo over Strauss-Kahn, who claimed that the encounter had been consensual. They also believed that Diallo may have lied on her asylum application about being gang-raped by soldiers in Guinea, an allegation that threw her credibility into question.
Who do you believe? A powerful, wealthy white man with his hands on the purse strings of development aid in Africa? Or a hotel maid?
When the case hit the international news, I was in Lagos, Nigeria, on leave from NYU grad film school. I sat glued to the news, amazed that a would-be French President, who held the purse strings on development aid in Africa, was being accused of assault by a single mother, the daughter of an imam from Guinea, raising a teenage daughter in the Bronx.
Though union housekeepers rallied support around Ms Diallo, as did a coalition of NYC women’s and immigrant rights organizations, many people didn’t believe her — especially after DSK’s legal team went on a media blitz calling her a liar, with news outlets, such as the New York Post, claiming she was a prostitute.
With none of today’s support for survivors, what might have become a watershed cultural moment was muddled in doubt. And with the case falling apart, Ms. Diallo did the only thing she could — and took her story straight to the court of public opinion.
I was spellbound by her courage to come forward and watched her life implode afterwards. I had several friends, working in NYC’s African immigrant community, who watched first hand as opinions divided along ethnic and religious lines. There were media reports that Ms. Diallo was humiliated and depressed, that the DA had refused to let her move even after death threats.
And when the criminal case was dropped by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Ms. Diallo was left to pick up the pieces of her life.
Diallo’s case makes one wonder what privacy means. Her name, and that of her daughter, have been published in France since the beginning; anyone who has followed the case knows of medical reports describing the state of her naked body, in great detail. We know about her taxes and her income and asylum application (subjects on which, according to prosecutors, she was not honest). We know that she was subjected to ritual genital mutilation as a girl in Guinea. We know that some of the men she knew in the Bronx had criminal dealings. (What she may have said in a phone call with one of them is a subject of dispute.) But that is only part of it. We have been told many things about her, and had so many images and theories conjured up; many of them are contradictory, to the point that her simple apparition, in human form, dispels some. — Amy Davidson Sorkin
Before this single event happened, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever go back to film school; but it struck me that this was a story that needed to be told.
It was a David meets Goliath story pitting the rich against the poor; the West against the developing world; and entrenched patriarchy against the women’s rights movement, years before #MeToo and #believewomen.
I dove into researching the case, contacting Ms. Diallo’s attorney, (the now late) Kenneth Thompson, to schedule an interview. She had stopped granting them, so I talked to representatives at UNITE HERE, her hotelworkers’ union; contacted court reporters for transcripts of DSK’s appearances before the records were sealed; and devoured every article and motion I could get my hands on.
I learned that hotel unions report that sexual harassment and assaults go underreported because housekeepers — largely immigrant, single mothers — are scared to lose their jobs. They suffer in silence at the hands of systems created to perpetuate inequality.
I had several friends, working in NYC’s African immigrant community, who watched first hand as popular opinion on her guilt or innocence divided along ethnic and religious lines. Pundits called for her deportation over her asylum application. Her identity was revealed in the French press, her family members back home contacted for interviews. There were media reports that Ms. Diallo was humiliated and depressed, that the DA had refused to let her move even after death threats.
In Mrs. Diallo, I saw my aunt, deported after living and paying taxes for decades in the U.S., working to provide for her children; I saw countless friends driven to despair by institutionalized racism, sexism, abuse, and patriarchy that stifles their financial, health, and occupational outcomes; I saw my late mother, an immigrant woman whose cancer was misdiagnosed by her doctor so long that her most valiant battle to survive could not save her life.
In short, I saw myself.
So I wrote, produced, and directed Aissa’s Story, a short film about a single mother who must decide whether to give up or fight when the case against her assaulter is dismissed.
Like Mrs. Diallo, my lead character spoke truth to power about being assaulted by a powerful man. And just like her real-life counterpart, she suffered a secondary assault at the hands of the American justice system; and a third assault in the court of public opinion, losing her privacy, community, home, and the life she fought hard to build.
At its core, Nafissatou Diallo’s story illustrates what so many immigrants know in their bones: that the American dream is but a whisper away from a nightmare. (For more on Diallo’s story with regard to economic migration, worker exploitation, condemnation, and solidarity amongst African women, see: Getting the Hang of It, by Dr. Abosede George.)
In the aftermath of the DSK case, there were more high profile assaults and hotel companies started installing panic buttons in guest rooms. DSK paid Diallo a multimillion-dollar settlement in civil court. His arrest led to François Hollande winning the 2012 French Presidential election and, upon returning to France, he faced and was acquitted of “aggravated pimping” charges. While some say he lost everything, he subsequently started a hedge fund worth $1.5 billion euros. (Though, tragically, his business partner Thierry Leyne later committed suicide.)
As for Nafissatou Diallo, she left housekeeping and opened a restaurant in the Bronx where it’s reported she still doesn’t grant interviews. But when the gag clause of the settlement lifted earlier this year, Diallo granted her first interview in 10 years.
In it, she touted DSK’s money and power as the reasons why he was still enjoying his freedom:
“I assure you, if [Mr Strauss-Kahn] had been poor, homeless, a tramp, he would be in prison today.” —Nafissatou Diallo
In the #metoo era, it’s legitimately hard to remember what things were like before the movement began. Now, in most cases, women are believed and their formerly all-powerful abusers are frequently ousted from their thrones.
But, ten years after the DSK case, we still need to center the stories of women in low-wage industries or risk perpetuating cycles of abuse and worker exploitation, alongside inequities of class, race, socioeconomic, and immigration status for decades to come. Amplifying these women’s voices, like that of Nafissatou Diallo, will not only bring their assaulters to justice, but will also help create a safer, more equitable, and just world for us all.
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Iquo B. Essien is a writer, director, and business consultant with an MFA in film from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. You can watch Aissa’s Story on Amazon. The film was a semifinalist in the Student Academy Awards, Best Student Short at the Africa International Film Festival, and Best Short Film nominee at the Africa Movie Academy Awards. Iquo is currently adapting the film into a TV series. To learn more, visit: www.aissamovie.com. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.