The mirage of the meek Muslim woman

 
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By Khaled Diab

Incurable misogynist Donald Trump has Muslim women all wrong. They are not silent and submissive.

Ghazala Khan

Ghazala Khan

Wednesday 10 August 2016

George Washington once opined that “offensive operations, often times, is the surest, if not the only… means of defence”.

In his campaign to become president of the United States, Donald Trump seems to have been inspired by Washington’s idea – common in modern warfare – but, with his questionable command of the English language, has misinterpreted the word “offensive”.

Ever since he began his bid for the presidency, the Republican nominee has managed to offend an untold number of individuals, not to mentions groups as diverse as women, Muslims and Mexicans – and yet, somehow, stay ahead.

The latest victims of his outrageously offensive campaign are Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the bereaved parents of Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed while serving in Iraq.

In response to Khizr Khan’s criticism of Trump’s politics of hatred and division at the Democratic National Convention, all the Republican candidate could rouse himself to say was “I’d like to hear his wife say something.

“If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say,” he elaborated in a later interview. “She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”

Unsurprisingly, such a callous attack against a grieving “gold star” mother, in a country where the military is regarded as sacrosanct, sparked outrage, even amongst conservatives.

In a moving article, Ghazala Khan explained that her silence was not because she was some kind of downtrodden Muslim woman but was down to grief. “It has been 12 years, but you know hearts of pain can never heal as long as we live,” she wrote. “The place that emptied will always be empty.”

Offensive and insensitive as Donald Trump’s comments were, he was bringing nothing new to the table. Tapping into what seems to be his family’s penchant for “borrowing”, Trump was recycling one of the most common stereotypes about Islam in Western Islamophobic circles: the notion that Muslim women are silent, submissive, subservient creatures living under the thumb of their menfolk.

Earlier in the campaign, Republican hopeful Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who was out to prove, but failed, that running for president wasn’t brain surgery, made a similar point:  “[Muslim] women must be subservient,” he insisted.

I wondered if Carson would have the guts to tell Hend Wagih, Egypt’s first female bodyguard, that she is subservient to men to her face – I should warn him that she is a champion martial artist and a bodybuilder.

While Islam, like all major world religions, is patriarchal, Muslim women – who come in all shades of conformity and rebelliousness – are far from silent and submissive.

Were my maternal grandmother around today, she would have shown Trump and Carson just how coy and obedient Muslim women are with a few deft, well-targeted lashes of her tongue.

Although my grandmother was raised in a traditional Egyptian milieu, she was a formidable character who was queen of her castle, and woe betide anyone who trespassed on her turf.

My gran raised birds on her rooftop. One time, a burglar had the audacity – and misfortune – to land on my grandmother’s roof. Sensing that her precious birds were in mortal danger, my grandmother grabbed a knife from the kitchen and a stick. Looking out of the window, she ordered the burglar to stay where he was because she was coming to teach him a lesson. The terrified man leapt to a neighbouring rooftop and ran as if his life depended on it.

Her daughter, my late mother, perhaps partly inspired by this role model of strong womanhood at home, and how it belied the idea that men were superior, grew up to become a firm believer in gender equality.

A promising young writer and activist, my mother, in the 1960s, was inspired by the leftist, pan-Arabist dream of female emancipation. My mother’s was the first generation of Egyptian women to gain equal access to higher education, employment, the right to vote, meaningless as that was in Nasser’s Egypt, and the right to run for public office.

Slain blogger Qandeel Baloch. Source: Her Facebook page

Slain blogger Qandeel Baloch.
Source: Her Facebook page

While many Western critics of Islam are convinced that Muslim women must either choose Islam or feminism, for my mother, this was a false choice. Although I believe that all religions are intrinsically sexist, mum was convinced that the essence of Islam was one of egalitarianism and equality between men and women.

She attributed the gender inequalities in Islam to centuries of male scholars being the main interpreters of the faith. “Why do they ignore the stories of the prophet Muhammad darning his own clothes and helping out with the housework?” mum was fond of asking.

The high hopes of full women’s liberation entertained by my mother’s generation hit the rocks of a conservative backlash and an Islamist cultural counterrevolution. Nevertheless, women have been fighting hard, in recent years, to regain the momentum and press for complete equality – in every walk of life and profession, even if it occasionally costs them their lives, as it did the Pakistani blogger and activist Qandeel Baloch.

Donald Trump’s snarky, ignorant, bigoted remarks are an insult not just to Ghazala Khan but also to the millions of Muslim women around the world bravely fighting for their rights every day.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 2 August 2016.

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