Issue 11.1-11.2 | Fall 2012/Spring 2013 / Guest edited by Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen

Getting the Hang of It

In the opening scene of Iquo Essien’s short film, The People vs. Aissatou Ba, we look in on a dimly lit, nondescript room of the type one imagines police interrogations take place in. There, seated at a small table, we see a slim, fair-skinned African woman who is being coached for an important upcoming interview. “Are you listening to what I’m saying?” the preparer asks her. “Millions of immigrants seek asylum in America. No one will care that a soldier raped you. It must be many more than one.” He restates the practice question, “How many soldiers raped you?” Deux soldats, she says. Cinq soldats? The preparer grows frustrated and clasps his head in between his hands as Mrs. Ba averts her eyes. She struggles to mouth a number that might be gruesomely high enough to convince a genuine immigration officer that she had suffered; and that she had suffered in just the sorts of ways that could get her admission into a first-world country. “Neuf soldats,” she whispers. Nine soldiers. “Now you’re getting the hang of it.”[1]

Although the filmmaker may not have intended this reading, her central character’s motivations for migrating are ultimately ambiguous. Is she leaving her country because of a rape? Is she leaving for other reasons? In the end, the scene’s power does not lie in the question of why she is trying to leave. What is truly remarkable about this scene is the way in which it stages the education of Mrs. Ba. As her responses graduate from “deux soldats” to “cinq soldats” to “neuf soldats,” we learn along with her that she can only travel in the world as an abject, victimized subject. We learn that in the case of her body in particular—a black, female, and African body—her victimization must be one of the body, it must be of a sexual nature, and it must be grotesque—neuf soldats, minimum. Now you’re getting the hang of it. Only a tale of the most grotesque violations might help her escape humiliating and unanswerable inquiries about the motivations or the circumstances that bring her to be an African woman seeking a point of exit from her “place-in-the-world,” hoping for a green light from the capricious keepers of the gates to the first world. Here I am extending James Ferguson’s notion of place-in-the-world, which seeks to describe a “categorical system within which countries and geographical regions have their ‘places,’ with a ‘place’ understood as both a location in space and a rank in a system of social categories (as in the expression ‘knowing your place’),” to include bodies, made synonymous with places, as being located within the same categorical system.[2]

Essien’s fictional Mrs. Ba references the real-life Nafisatou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant to the United States, who famously took Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund and a then Socialist party candidate for the French presidency, to court for sexual assault in May 2011. As soon as the case went public, critics in the French and Francophone mediasphere went after Diallo, accusing her variously of entrapment, blackmail, and even of deracination for making a supposedly un-African public statement about her experience of assault.[3]

By August of the same year, Diallo’s legal team had dropped their criminal charges against Strauss-Kahn, citing her compromised credibility as the undoing of their case. As it turned out, in order to gain admission to the United States, Diallo may have told immigration officials stories about being gang-raped by soldiers in Guinea.[4] The possibility that she might not, in fact, have been traveling in the world as an abject, victimized subject, whose victimization was of the body, sexual in nature, and grotesque, rendered her into a literally incredible figure in the court of public and legal opinion.

Guinea is a mineral-rich country, but like too many other countries in West Africa, it has a largely impoverished population. According to Africa Economic Outlook, one third of young Guineans, who comprise 74 percent of the country’s population, are underemployed or unemployed. Given its stunted private sector, the country’s external debt burden, and the interventions of the IMF, the World Bank, and other international financial institutions in Guinean government spending policies, unemployment, poverty, and the social problems that accompany them have been and will be with the country for some time. Thus, even without the threat of sexual violence at home, one can readily imagine the allure of wealthier climes for an ordinary person from that part of the world. Economic migration becomes a logical strategy for coping with such a situation, yet it is not equally viable for people all over the world since citizens of poorer countries face far stricter migration controls than their first-world counterparts. Since the face of global poverty is overwhelmingly female, this means that more women are geographically and economically confined to a poor place-in-the-world. The restrictions on migration faced by two-thirds of the world can thus be understood as a form of gender violence. Some would-be migrants from the two-thirds world will have experiences of rape or other forms of sexual violence. But many more will have experience of the ravages of neoliberalism on their countries’ economies crossed with the restrictions of the global apartheid system on their own bodies.

For women from the two-thirds world, engaging in economic migration may win them various forms of condemnation, while engaging in humanitarian migration, particularly linked to sexual violence, may win them various forms of sympathy and solidarity. In her 2011 article tracing the genealogy of gender and human rights regimes, Pamela Scully identified the figure of the “vulnerable African woman or woman of African descent” as a recurring trope in international human-rights work from the abolitionist campaigns of eighteenth-century Britain to the transnational twenty-first-century campaigns against gender-based violence. In the early antislavery movement, Scully writes, abolitionists frequently called up “the figure of the black woman vulnerable to terrible depredation on the plantations of the Caribbean” in order to buttress moral arguments for the abolition of slavery.[5] During the colonial period in Africa, missionaries working in various parts of the continent combined ethical and economic justification for their labors by portraying the African woman as “a beast of burden who had to be rescued from the patriarchal grip of her husband and family.”[6] Into the twenty-first century, human rights campaigns against gender-based violence continue, Scully argues, to “achieve their sense of purpose and ethics through the figure of the abject and violated woman who needs the intervention of non-governmental organizations.”[7] Only the most flawless performance of this 300-year-old character, who Scully identified as the figure of the abject, violated African woman whose deliverance lies in the hands of distant liberal humanitarians, may win Aissatou Ba passage across the global apartheid border. She has to maintain her place-in-the-world even as she changes her location. In Essien’s fictional character we find a figure that may or may not be an economic migrant, a rape survivor, a project and/or product of neoliberal and/or humanitarian regimes, or some combination of any of the above. We learn, alongside Mrs. Ba, the sorts of metamorphoses that two-thirds world women must undergo in order to be regarded as worthy migrants within the global apartheid system.

I thought of Essien’s film, the mystery of the main character’s sufferings, and the ambiguity of narratives of sexual violence in a time of neoliberalism and global apartheid, while I was attending an event that was scheduled to coincide with the 2012 meeting of CEDAW as well as to honor the then-ongoing struggle of Nafissatou Diallo. On the evening of March 7, 2012, two New-York-based organizations that focus on antiviolence work and advocacy for black women and girls co-hosted a gathering at the United Nations Church Center to “discuss sexual violence, communities of African descent and accountability within the U.S.”[8] The two organizations were Black Women’s Blueprint and Sauti Yetu Center for African Women and Families. On their organization’s website, Black Women’s Blueprint is described as “an organization committed to amplifying the voices of women of African descent in all their diversity,” providing the “personal and political spaces as well as the resources needed for women to engage in intersectional advocacy at the grassroots and societal level,” and providing “the tools for community members to hold each other as well as policy-makers, elected officials, and community leaders accountable for the personal, social and economic rights of Black women and girls.”[9] The organization’s largest initiatives are its truth commissions on sexual violence, poverty, and criminal justice abuse, its gender justice fund and a black herstory project.[10] The cosponsoring organization, Sauti Yetu Center for African Women and Families, is a nonprofit in New York that works with African immigrant women and their families. They began their advocacy work with a focus on FGM, and later branched out to address other forms of gender violence, and to support their heavily Muslim and non-Anglophone clients with accessing and navigating the school, health, and legal systems in New York City.[11]

That evening, both organizations—one seeming to represent diasporic black feminist and queer perspectives, and the other African, immigrant perspectives (not that the two are mutually exclusive)—came together to begin designing a justice project that would “demand justice for all manner of sexual violence against women and girls of African descent.”[12] Generally speaking, the meeting was structured so that the sponsoring groups took turns addressing the gathering about their mission, the challenges faced by their constituencies, and their goals going forward. Afterwards everyone was invited to participate in an open brainstorming session on how to design a justice project that would make the US government more accountable to black women.

Black Women’s Blueprint presented first. In their presentation they emphasized various types of speech as tools for dealing with violence. The BWB presentation emphasized speaking out, listening, and seeking emotional and psychological healing in the aftermath of sexual violence. In the course of their presentation several women in the audience as well as the presenters themselves spoke out about their own individual experiences of sexual trauma. Incorporating confessional rituals from antiviolence and LGBTQ activist traditions, presenters and audience members alike came out as survivors of violence.

Next we heard from the Sauti Yetu presenters. They, too, introduced their organization and its mandate, and they described the characteristics of the populations that they served. The Sauti Yetu presenters talked about the limits of speech by highlighting the shortage of translators who could help their clients access basic services. They talked about the patronizing and sometimes traumatizing reactions that “cut” clients faced at routine medical exams. They talked about the paucity of research on African immigrant communities and the limiting impact this had on the organization’s ability to fundraise. This in turn increased the organization’s reliance on cooperation with immigrant communities, even those that were sites of harm. The presenters spoke poignantly about the necessity and the challenges of combining an antiviolence agenda with one that sought to keep immigrant communities together; in short, of adopting a restorative justice framework.

Listening to the two presentations back to back, I was struck by the complexity of Sauti Yetu’s engagement with the issue of sexual violence, particularly as the basis of a justice project. On one level they highlighted the discrimination against cut women by the medical establishment, underlining experiences of stigmatization by ostensible allies. Further, by bringing migration politics into dialogue with the question of sexual violence they prompted me to think about the correlation between different meanings of sexual-violence histories and different migration histories. Their presentation intimated hints of a critique of the hierarchy that had been established between sexual/bodily violence and the other forms of injury that immigrant or marginalized women might experience. It suggested a broadening of our discussion of gendered injury beyond the body to include political status, economic vulnerability, familial fragmentation, and the anomie of communal exile.

Off stage there was a third group that proved to be really important in re/shaping the discussion and distilling the subtle tension between BWB and Sauti Yetu’s approaches to the politics of sexual violence. There was a large constituency of older, seemingly Afrocentric women and a few men who had organized and taken part in decades-long struggles for the rights and survival of black people, including the American reparations movement. Their members were in the audience, having not, as one archly noted, been invited to play an official role in the proceedings. A leading figure in the group spoke briefly on their activist work and her observations of what was being attempted that night. She argued that any justice project that sought to hold the US government or international community accountable for violence against black women and communities had to have as its starting point an understanding that black people were not supposed to have survived for as long as they had in this part of the world and that the social, political, cultural, and economic systems that exist in the western hemisphere are actively hostile toward us. As an example, she referred to the incarceration of black men as one of the more significant challenges facing black people in the United States today, and suggested that black male imprisonment might be symptomatic of a broader project for hindering the survival of black people. In short, the group resisted our specific focus on women in particular, and they also brought the issue of reparations into the accountability project.

In the course of the discussions, multiple, overlapping, and competing understandings of justice, injury, and gendered violence emerged. Between Black Women’s Blueprint, Sauti Yetu, and the third group, we were talking about reparations for the Atlantic slave trade and its legacies, setting up gender and sexual justice commissions, and the more quotidian needs of recent African immigrants. Here we had the injury of the forced importation of enslaved African workers being placed alongside the migration experiences of individuals from economically crippled countries in contemporary Africa. The shared ravages of globalization and neoliberalism, in the eighteenth century as in the twenty-first, through systems of Atlantic slavery and European colonization, brokered the tensions between the three groups.

Racial identification seemed to produce forms of solidarity in the room that smoothed over underlying tensions. One of the key tensions that was put on the figurative table, but left to sit, unexplored, was the importance of the different routes that the diaspora and new immigrants had traveled to the Americas, and how those different migration experiences gave different forms of meaning to their respective narratives of sexual violence. African women who had been trafficked in the Atlantic slave trade were first and foremost valued as workers, albeit enslaved workers, and until the recent economic decline that has disproportionately impacted black communities, so were their descendants. The historical prioritization of their economic value went along with historical denials of their sexual victimization. At the end of the twentieth century into the beginning of the twenty-first, as manual labor seems to have become all but redundant in the United States, new generations of African women are largely restricted from traveling to the first world; yet humanitarian exceptions are granted to those who have been marked by histories of sexual violence. For one group, histories of sexual violence increasingly form the basis for being allowed to migrate between the third and first world, and for securing recognition from activists in wealthy countries; for the other, histories of sexual violence, particularly the nonrecognition of their experiences of sexual violence, have been central to the critical stance that many activist black women have adopted against the US government; one group has suffered systematic denials of sexual violence over generations, even as they were exploited as workers, and the other has, by the same states and societies, won sympathetic recognition when cast as abject victims of sexual violence, but not as economic migrants.

Critical work on the global apartheid system traces its ideological genealogy to twentieth-century apartheid in the settler colony of South Africa and, to a lesser extent, its contemporary—the Jim Crow system in the United States. William Minter and Salih Booker of the advocacy group Africa Action define global apartheid as “an international system of minority rule whose attributes include: differential access to basic human rights, wealth and power structured by race and place; structural racism embedded in global economic processes, political institutions and cultural assumptions; and the international practice of double standards that assume inferior rights to be appropriate to certain “others,” defined by location, origin, race or gender.”[13] The model that was the South African apartheid system of governance proceeded not just by defining populations according to location, origin, race, or gender, but crucially through separating people using the same criteria and strictly defining the terms under which persons placed in different locations on the apartheid map would be able to encounter and engage with each other; in other words, by controlling migration and its meanings.

The global apartheid system, which restricts the migration of the people from the two- thirds world, is an organ of the neoliberal economic system. Its peculiarity lies in its relative invisibility to most of us on the rich/right side of the global apartheid borders. Looking from the perspective of a woman at a table in a nondescript room of the type migration interviews take place in, we can all begin to more fully recognize our assigned places in the world and how we have been positioned in structural opposition to each other. We may be able to wean ourselves from addictions to the abject, victimized African woman figure and to follow in the tense, cautious, yet stubbornly optimistic footsteps of Sauti Yetu, BWB, and the anonymous Afrocentric activists who gathered together, having traveled widely varied paths, to construct historically aware but viable and organic new bonds of solidarity.

  1. The People v. Aissatou Ba, dir. Iquo B. Essien 2012. [Return to text]
  2. See James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Durham,: Duke U P, 2006) 6. [Return to text]
  3. Julie Owono, “Africa, France: Who is Nafissatou Dialoo? Victim or Conspirator?,” GlobalVoices Online, 30 May 2011. Accessed on 7 Dec. 2012. [Return to text]
  4. Geraldine Baum and Tina Susman, “Prosecutors drop rape case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn,” Los Angeles Times 23 Aug. 2011. Accessed on 7 Dec. 2012. [Return to text]
  5. Pamela Scully, “Gender, History, and Human Rights,” Gender and Culture at the Limits of Rights, ed. Dorothy Hodgson (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2011) 21. [Return to text]
  6. Scully 2001: 24. [Return to text]
  7. Scully 2001: 31. [Return to text]
  8. “Seeking Justice: Communities of African Descent Discuss Rape/Sexual Assault and Accountability Within U.S.” Accessed on 11 Jul. 2013. [Return to text]
  9. Black Women’s Blueprint. Accessed on 12 Dec. 2012. [Return to text]
  10. Black Women’s Blueprint. [Return to text]
  11. Sauti Yetu. Accessed on 12 Dec. 2012. [Return to text]
  12. Sauti Yetu and Black Women’s Blueprint, “PUBLMEETING—Seeking Justice: People of African Descent Discuss Rape & Accountability Within the U.S.,” email to the author, 5 Mar. 2012. [Return to text]
  13. William Minter and Salih Booker, “Global Apartheid,” The Nation, 9 July 2001. [Return to text]