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.


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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Good grief!

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By Christian Nielsen

There is something of an inner circle to mourning whose circumference varies from culture to culture. Knowing where you fit in takes some research.

4 November 2009

You never greet the ‘real mourners’ at a Jewish funeral. Only the closest family at a Swedish funeral wear a special white tie. And you bring condolence money in a special black and silver decorated envelope to a Japanese funeral.

The news of death is never easy to take but for those not in the inner circle it can also be confusing and awkward, from what to say on the card to what to wear at the funeral, or even if you should attend the funeral or send a card.

Attending funerals in a foreign country, with different traditions and mourning practices, is really a minefield. Do you send flowers? If so, what kind? Do you attend the ‘party’ afterwards – what do you call the party?

Grief seems to be a universal response to death or loss, but just how it is expressed – ritually and emotionally – differs between people, communities and cultures. The Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying – it really exists – even notes a scholarly distinction between grief and mourning on a cultural level.

“Grief is a subjective state, a set of feelings that arise spontaneously after a significant death,” it says, “whereas mourning is a set of rituals or behaviors prescribed by culture’s tradition.”

But the concept of grief is a modern construct, it goes on. “Grief as a real subjective state grows from a culture that prizes and cultivates individual experience.”

In Japan, for example, grief can be considered an expression of social harmony – within the family or community – not an individual expression. Hitan, the nearest equivalent word for grief in Japanese, doesn’t necessarily imply a response to death or loss – just sadness or sorrow.

The Irish, on the other hand, appear to embrace both grief and mourning for its individual and ritual significance, typified in the Irish wake where kin and community come from near and far to pay their respects to the departed and his family.

Outward expressions of grief like keening – a mix of wailing and chanting – are less common nowadays, but still form part of the Irish myth. The Catholic religion also obviously plays its role in traditional wakes, with mourners taking turns to kneel by the body to pray or offer a Rosary. After the funeral, people gather again at the deceased’s home or a venue to remember and celebrate his life.

“There’s grief and sadness, but there are also anecdotes and shared memories that collectively celebrate the person’s life, not his death,” an Irish friend tells me. “And then there’s the Guinness – the elixir mediating grief and gaiety,” he adds.

Protestant and private?

Now take the Swedes, whose mourning is more private and inward – more Protestant, dare I say. Only the closest of family and friends attend the funeral. It is altogether more discrete and sombre.

An Englishman recently posted a question on an online forum in Sweden to find out how he should respond to the death of a colleague’s father. The responses were mixed. Many said, yes, he should express sympathy to the colleague (a card, message of condolence) but that it would not be appropriate to attend the funeral or other arrangements.

A similar question was posed in which the person wanted to know how to behave when his girlfriend’s father died… what to say, wear, do, etc. He didn’t feel he could consult anyone close to the deceased, as it felt out of place. The answer he got speaks volumes about the different cultural responses and rituals even from one side of Europe to the other.

And I quote: “It is usual to ring the number on the press announcement to the funeral home and inform them you will be attending (catering). It is usual to take a single flower (like a rose or something) as well as any other flowers you might send to place on the coffin at a particular moment in the service where the vicar asks people to come forward and say their goodbyes.

“Sometimes there is a clue in the press announcement about whether the family want a donation to a charity instead of a funeral bouquet from relatives (although you should still take the single flower).

“There is usually a ‘do’ afterwards – often in the church hall or a nearby restaurant. Usually it is something simple like open sandwiches/salad [sic]. Close relatives and friend[s] make speeches.”

Grief, not all human

Just for interest’s sake, apparently grief is not strictly speaking a human preserve, according to the wonderful Death and Dying Encyclopedia.

“In every culture people cry or seem to want to cry after a death that is significant to them,” it says. Grief could also be an instinctive response shaped by evolutionary development. “Primates and birds display behaviours that seem similar to humans’ in response to death and separation. Instinctual response in this sense is a meta-interpretative scheme programmed into our genetic inheritance, much as nest building or migration is hard-wired into birds.”

It goes on: “Culture, of course, influences how people appraise situations, yet similar perceptions of events trigger similar instinctual responses. A significant death, then, might be regarded as a universal trigger of grieving emotions, although which death is significant enough [to] spark such a response depends on the value system of a particular culture. Universal instincts, then, might provide the basis for concepts that could explain behavior in all cultures.”

So, there you have it.

Published with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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