Sexism and Islamophobia: An Under-Reported Link in Strauss-Kahn Coverage

This was written by Kevin Healey and originally published on the USC blog Trans/Missions.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s religious identity has made news since 1991, when the Jewish Tribune reported that each morning he asks himself how he can be “helpful to the state of Israel.” He should have refuted the quote, he says, since it has only emboldened critics who deride him as “a leading French Jew” and a “devout Zionist.” Such views, coupled with allegations of aggressive womanizing, would surely trouble his political future. Just a few weeks before his arrest on rape charges, he told Liberation that he anticipated three problems for his Presidential bid: “Money, women, and my Jewishness.”

Indeed, after his arrest French officials argued that “the thought of a trap” or “smear campaign” could not be ruled out. Columnists suggested anti-Semitism might be a factor, citing comments from right-wing opponents like the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, who condemned his behavior as “pathological.” Noting the relative lack of concern for Strauss-Kahn’s accuser, The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch quipped, “It seemed a good measure of the depth of France’s political malaise that it took a Le Pen to show solidarity with the working woman against the Socialist Party’s favorite son.”

And what about that “working woman”? Mainstream sources offer mostly brief descriptions: She is a 32-year-old, French-speaking immigrant from Guinea, a single mother living with her teenage daughter. Many reports mention her religious background but only in passing, describing her as a “good Muslim,” a “devout Muslim,” who “wears a headscarf.”

But as her neighbors and family invoke her religion in her defense, online discussions seethe with sexism and Islamophobia. At Free Republic, alongside discussion of whether his alleged victim is attractive, one commenter suggests “Strauss-Kahn should insist on Sharia rules. Four male witnesses or it never happened…” Another asks rhetorically, “Would a muslim [sic] lie to bring down one of the most powerful infidels on earth?” Indeed one commenter argues that “the maid might be in the employ of… some Muslim extremist group” that wants exploit escalating tensions by keeping Sarkozy in power.

As media coverage shifts to the rising backlash against the chauvinism of Strauss-Kahn’s defenders, journalists should remember that in France, as in the U.S., sexism is rarely separable from racial and religious prejudice. While journalists rightfully dismiss conspiracy theories from anonymous bloggers, they would do well to heed the insights of scholars and op-ed writers who highlight the relationship between male chauvinism and anti-Muslim prejudice in French culture.

Joan Scott, author of The Politics of the Veil, argues that it is misguided to cite the “headscarf ban” as evidence of French commitment to gender equality, as one columnist does in a retort to Gourevitch’s above-mentioned quip. In fact, French elites have often rejected feminism as a “foreign import,” arguing that women’s power lies in their willing sexual objectification. Proponents of this view see “the sexual modesty implicit in the headscarf as proof that Muslims can never become fully French,” says Scott. Thus the headscarf ban encapsulates both misogyny and anti-Muslim prejudice, not their opposites. “How ironic, then, that the victim of Strauss-Kahn’s alleged sexual assault was a Muslim,” Scott writes.

It is understandable that media coverage should expound on the implications of the demise of Strauss-Kahn, an international figure, for French politics and for Jewish communities around the world. But it would only compound the tragedy of this working woman’s fate if coverage ignores the link between sexism and Islamophobia that his alleged attack has thrown into sharp relief.

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  • Dina

    I fullheartedly agree with the critique on chauvinism in strauss kahn’s defence.
    I do not agree that sexism in France can seldomly be separated from racism. The first woman to (halfheartedly and discouragedly) bring strauss kahn’s very similar sexual assault on herself to public in 2007 (with his name bein beeped out, but from a “notorious socialist” it was quite clear that s.-k. was the one accused by her) was full french, white and blonde. the non-reaction to those allegations and continued euphemisms of him being a “womanizer” instead of sexual aggressor and at least attempted rapist can be called sexism, and that against white victims.
    also i do not agree with those anti-French and very simplistic Anglo-Saxon critiques of the ban of the veil in France. Yes, there is a very chauvinistic part of the French intellectual elite, and that chauvinistic left elite may see sexual promiscuity as a positive part of french culture and it may see women’s strength in exploitation of their sexual charms. an equally strong antagonistic part of the french left intelligentsia does not agree, especially the feminist part of it. The Anglo-Saxon “anything goes” is quite problematic in egalitarian perspectives, too, which such commentators omit: If French elitist circles sexualize women, so does the requirement of hijab. both set women and men apart in their physiology and sexuality, both believe doing it in a positive way while the antagonistic perspective, respectively, rejects this view of the respective other view. “anything goes” is not always egalitarian in nature, and as much as one can criticize the French way for ethnic and white domination reasons, in hijab there is a male domination aspect and a sexism/biologism aspect inherent which the French are about the only people or one of the few peoples to adress.

  • Tec15

    Shorter Dina: The French may may be sexist but since they are clamping down on hijab (the biggest evil in the world), I am still supporting them wholeheartedly.

    Hey Dina, didn’t you say that Ni Putes Ni Soumises was the only organization capable of confronting “the raging machismo violence and harassment problem” ? Well, have they issued a statement regarding Strauss-Kahn or is he the “wrong kind” of harasser and rapist?


    I thought it was strange that the French media was more upset at Strauss-Kahn’s bedraggled image being splashed all across the news, thus invading his privacy, than they were about trying to not only publicly name but also splash images of the alleged rape victim and her daughter!!

  • Emma

    Wow, I didn’t know the victim was a Muslim! It wasn’t reported in the maninstream media last week.

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