eyes on the U.S.

Strauss-Kahn's Accuser: A Visit With Those Who Know Her Best, In NYC's French-Speaking African Milieu

The alleged victim is an immigrant from northern Guinea, and her ethnicity is Fulani, who are known as pious, hardworking Muslims

Renaud Girard

NEW YORK – The alleged sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the now former head of the International Monetary Fund, has been major worldwide news. But it has hit especially hard in New York's French-speaking African community, home to the Guinean woman employed as a maid at the Sofitel Hotel where she says the 62-year-old French politician sexually assaulted her.

In the heart of Harlem, a small grocery store offers a flavor of Africa. The plump 45-year-old woman owner, Ms. A, who gives her customers a warm welcome in impeccable French, wears a long traditional green-colored African dress, and a turban made out of the same fabric is wrapped round her hair. Born in Guinea, she is a Muslim woman who belongs to the Mandinka ethnic group. The alleged victim is from northern Guinea, and her ethnicity is Fulani.

Julien Baba Sylla, a telecommunications engineer who introduces himself to us as the leader of New York's Guinean community, which counts some 5000 people in total, gives us a lift in his Ford Expedition. He says the grocery owner had become like a big sister to the alleged victim. The two woman talked to each other in a mixture of Bambara and French.

Ms. A loses her composure when we enter, appearing like a lady who needs to think before telling what she knows. Maybe she acts in this way because she is a smart shopkeeper, and knows she is sitting on a pile of gold: someone will pay for her secrets. But she has already told some important information to Julien Sylla, which contradicts one point about the alleged victim: she is married, not a widow as has been widely reported. Her husband is still living in the U.S., but not with her, and may have had trouble with the law.

Journalists investigating this case come up against a wall of silence, imposed both by investigators and defense attorneys for DSK (as Strauss-Kahn is referred to in France), and followed by the Sofitel Hotel's management, and the victim's attorney. Reporters have no other choice but to glean information from the accuser's family and friends. Are these people speaking because truth is their sole concern, or because they want to show off in front of the television cameras? Because after all, not every day do journalists from around the world go poking around Harlem and the Bronx.

The African Restaurant 2115, located on the corner of 119th street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard (Eighth Avenue in Harlem), is another place where the Sofitel maid often went to eat. The owner is a Senegalese man who belongs to the Fulani ethnic group. His name is Blake Diallo, a friend of the alleged victim and regular customer, who liked lamb stew and fried plantains. In Restaurant 2115, most of the customers are French-speaking Africans: from Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast or Mali. In this restaurant people don't drink alcohol and they don't swear. Soccer matches are aired on TV, world events are discussed. In the evening, many men get up and go out for about 10 minutes, to cross the boulevard and go to the Islamic center al Aqsa to pray. Al Aqsa is a mosque without a minaret run by people from northern Ivory Coast called the Dioula.

When we talked to Senegalese people who often go to Restaurant 2115, we learned that the alleged victim was a serious and hardworking young woman. In no way was she wild or provocative. "Her family is very pious, because it is Maraboutic, in other words, religion means everything to them and money nothing," explains Amadou N'Diaye, the owner's childhood friend from Senegal. "You must understand that in the Fulani community, love is not to be treated lightly. Fulani people try to marry off their daughters very early, when they are still teenagers. For them, if someone from their family has sexual relations before marriage, it brings shame upon the whole family."

Like many Fulani people, who could not occupy key positions during the reign of Sekou Toure, the first President of Guinea from 1958 to 1984, the accuser's family emigrated to Casamance, in southern Senegal. Then, the young woman went to Dakar to get a US visa. "Make no mistake, this affair brings shame upon her family. In Africa, the parties involved would have solved this problem in secret," says N'Diaye. "From now on, two lives have been unnecessarily ruined, (the victim's) life and DSK's life. DSK is a man who the French-speaking African community appreciates a lot."

At Restaurant 2115, people show solidarity with the alleged victim, but nobody is eager to condemn DSK. Africans who live in New York think that the charges "will not hold up." "How could a 62-year-old man, who is not athletic at all, have forced a 32-year-old woman, who is tall and muscular from her manual work, to have sexual relations with him?" one wondered.

Amadou imagines a scenario in which "three very different cultures clash." The French culture of DSK, who made an extremely inappropriate move in suite 2806, but who called the hotel while heading for the airport, unaware that he had committed a crime. The culture of modesty of a pious Funali woman, who did not expose the crime and who did not confide her shame to the Sofitel Hotel's management, but was rather found sobbing by her coworkers, who then called the police. The "Prussian" culture of the American police in which things are either black or white, with no gray areas.

Read the original article in French.

Photo – DennisInAmsterdam

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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