By Anjum Altaf
What can the affair of Dominique Strauss-Kahn tell us about stereotyping and our biases? I intend to present for discussion five biases pertaining to religion, nationality, gender, communalism and civilization.
Imagine a role reversal in which the man who allegedly emerged naked from the bathroom of a $3,000 a night hotel room in Manhattan had been an Arab Sheikh who attempted to flee after the incident and the maid who was allegedly pounced upon, dragged around and forced to perform oral sex had been a French Jew. Would the media coverage, including the commentary on the blogosphere, have been the same? Or would religion have been a much bigger issue, with extensions to its relationship to the oppression of women, respect for law, the clash of civilizations, and latent hostility to Judaism?
It is impossible to say for sure but it is difficult to imagine such a complete absence of the religious dimension from the coverage. It is barely even known that the woman was a headscarf-wearing Muslim from Africa which is as it should be but might not have been if the roles had been switched.
Instead of the religious bias, there is lot more of an obvious stereotyping pertaining to nationality. It is being suggested that the French are much more permissive of the exploitation of women while Americans would never allow a public figure to get away with the lifestyle for which DSK is known. Would statistics confirm that there is, on average, greater exploitation of women in France than in the US? Is there a conflation here between consensual sex, on the morality of which there can be different personal opinions but which is not a crime in either country, and sexual harassment, which is?
There is an implicit acknowledgement of the multi-dimensionality of the male personality. Yes, it was known that DSK had a history of sexually harassing women but, it is stressed, he is an extraordinarily brilliant mind and a global financier of the first order. The two dimensions need separation in the case of DSK just as we separate the personal behavior of a Kennedy or Clinton from their accomplishments as Presidents. But would this same consideration be extended to a woman? Or would a woman, in similar circumstances, be the object of a much more one-dimensional portrayal?
Friends of DSK have rallied around him some going so far as to impute motives to the woman even before the facts of the case have become known. This is quite like Americans rallying around Raymond Davis or Pakistanis rallying around Afia Siddiqui without quite knowing the specifics of what really happened. Are friends or members of a community obliged to stand up for their acquaintances or fellow members quite regardless of the facts of a case? And is there an even greater obligation when the incident takes place outside the frontiers of one’s community?
It is often claimed that the institution of the veil emerged for the protection of women. Some go so far as to claim that the veil persists in many Muslim communities because Muslim men are not to be trusted in the presence of unrelated females (see the discussion on an earlier post, Burqa: Principle, Prejudice and Preference). By extension, it is claimed that women-only trains are needed in India even today because Indian males can’t help but grope females if they can get away with it (see the earlier post, The Sexual Divide).
What does this tell us about civilization? Is the male urge to subjugate the female a fundamental drive that is as prevalent as ever? Have human beings been able to ‘civilize’ this propensity in any way? Or, has it just been masked, at least in some places, in the behavior exposed to the public eye leading to manifestations in private of even greater intensity. One French woman has described DSK in private as akin to a ‘rutting chimpanzee.’
All this and more is the fallout of l’affaire DSK. It makes one reflect on the human condition and the ways in which the mind works. Incidentally, and perhaps this is the only amusing aspect of the episode, it also marks the present state of machine translation. The BBC news website, like quite a few others, now offers a button for instant machine translation. On translating from Hindi to English, I was startled to read the following about the International Monetary Fund Chief, Dominique Strauss Ear: According to police, “no chargesheet has been filed yet against the ear.” And, referring to an earlier incident in 2008, the translation refers to the IMF board as saying “the relationship between ears and women were made by mutual consent.”
While the credit for the invention of oral sex is fiercely disputed, that for aural sex certainly belongs to the French.
There go our biases again!
Thanks to YS for the term ‘aural’ sex.