The XX Factor

Trump’s Smear of the Khan Family Shows How Islamophobes Use Feminism to Stoke Fear

Ghazala and Khizr Khan address the Democratic National Convention on July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

Say what you will about Donald Trump’s treatment of women, but the man has learned a thing or two from Western feminism. In an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on Saturday, Trump wondered whether Ghazala Khan, who stood solemnly next to her husband Khizr as he delivered what has been widely hailed as the most moving speech at the DNC, had been silenced by the Islamic patriarchy. “She had nothing to say. She probably—maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say,” Trump said. “You tell me.”

The Khans appeared onstage Thursday night at the DNC in memory of their son, Humayun, a Muslim American soldier who was killed while serving Iraq in 2004. Ghazala told the Guardian that she can’t look at photos of her son without breaking down, that she didn’t speak because she’s still wracked with grief. After Khizr’s speech, a bitter rebuke of Trump’s Islamophobic brand of so-called patriotism, Trump told Maureen Dowd “I’d like to hear his wife say something.” Khizr said Trump’s blithe criticism of a grieving mother was “typical of a person without a soul.”

Ghazala, a picture of unimaginable strength, responded to Trump with a Washington Post essay published Sunday morning. In it, she explains why she declined to address the DNC:

I cannot walk into a room with pictures of Humayun. For all these years, I haven’t been able to clean the closet where his things are—I had to ask my daughter-in-law to do it. Walking onto the convention stage, with a huge picture of my son behind me, I could hardly control myself. What mother could? Donald Trump has children whom he loves. Does he really need to wonder why I did not speak?

No woman should have to publish an opinion piece in the Washington Post just to prove her strength and autonomy to a man who thinks the nation would be greater without her. There are a million nonreligious reasons why Ghazala might not have spoken: Maybe she and Khizr decided that he was more comfortable in front of a crowd, or better at speaking into a microphone. Perhaps Ghazala, who immigrated from Pakistan, doesn’t have a toastmaster’s grasp of the English language. She didn’t owe any of us an explanation. Trump didn’t consider any of these possibilities, nor did he choose to acknowledge the Khans’ terrible loss or ignore them altogether. Instead, he used the Khans’ public expression of grief as an opportunity to smear the couple as Muslim extremists who believe in the systemic subjugation of women.

This is how Trump thinks he can win over women: with narrow-minded stereotypes perpetuated by an outdated school of white, Western feminism. He’s not alone. Recently, anti-immigrant conservatives have claimed feminist bona fides to portray Islam as a woman-hating force that teaches men to rape. In 2013, Islamophobes used feminist rhetoric to scare people about Islamic speakers at universities. Scores of right-wing German men became unexpected anti-rape activists this year after police announced that many of the hundreds of public sexual assaults perpetrated in Cologne on New Year’s Eve were committed by North African and Middle Eastern men. When Germany finally updated its archaic rape law, which previously required a victim show proof of fighting back against physical force or threat, it also added a stipulation that makes it easier for Germany to deport foreign nationals who commit sex crimes.

In the U.S., too, Islamophobic anti-immigrant activists are suddenly becoming women’s rights advocates. In Idaho, where right-wingers have used a horrific sexual assault case to gin up fear of outsiders, one man said of Syrian refugees, “they want to live Sharia law. And those are the ones we don’t want here, where they believe rape is acceptable, and a woman’s place is underneath their feet.”

In arguments over religious head coverings, gender segregation, and wars, white, Western feminists have made unlikely allies of right-wing activists. Muslim women have been portrayed as victims in need of Western liberation as a justification for the war in Afghanistan. It helps their cause (and Trump’s) that, as a Muslim Slate staffer found in multiple interviews with Trump supporters at the RNC, the vast majority of people who condemn “Sharia law” have no idea what that term actually means.

Around the world, Muslim women have used markers of their religion as tools of resistance against cultural imperialism and Islamophobia. When Muslim Republican Saba Ahmed appeared on Fox News in November after Trump promised to shut down American mosques, she wore an American flag hijab to protest Trump’s xenophobic narrative of Islam. “I just wanted to share that we are patriotic American Muslims,” she told me at the time. Saba Mahmood has done remarkable work chronicling a dispersed global movement of women using their Muslim faith as a means to challenge gender norms and barriers to women. In her Washington Post essay, Ghazala took issue with Trump’s characterization of her faith:

Donald Trump said that maybe I wasn’t allowed to say anything. That is not true. My husband asked me if I wanted to speak, but I told him I could not. My religion teaches me that all human beings are equal in God’s eyes. Husband and wife are part of each other; you should love and respect each other so you can take care of the family.

If Trump cannot conceive of an Islam led and practiced by autonomous, empowered women, it’s because he refuses to acknowledge the power of women anywhere. When it comes to Roger Ailes, an actual man who’s weathered dozens of accusations that he’s harassed, abused, and silenced women, Trump can barely muster a shrug. Trump has said of women, “you have to treat ‘em like shit,” that men who change diapers are “acting like the wife.” He kept an employee at Trump Tower from greeting visitors because he didn’t think she was attractive enough and humiliates the women of his own family with demeaning sexual remarks. Islam’s treatment of women varies in practice as much as Christianity or any other faith. Its degree of capitulation to misogyny is open to interpretation. Donald Trump’s isn’t.