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When Khizr Khan, a Pakistani Muslim immigrant to the US and the father of a soldier killed in Iraq, critiqued Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban as unconstitutional at the Democratic Convention earlier this year, his wife Ghazala stood beside him, dignified and resolute. To many, she represented a silent strength as only a Gold Star mother could, but President-elect Donald Trump mocked her silence.
“Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say,” he had remarked, playing on the stereotype that Muslim women must necessarily be subservient. All too often, western perception of Muslim cultures is one where women are treated as second class citizens and routinely denied rights. There is an element of truth in this perception, but misogyny isn’t the exclusive problem of a certain region or religion.
In fact, it is a pervasive predicament for women globally. The difference lies only in how it is manifested. Women in Muslim-majority countries, for instance, may feel compelled to wear burqas, niqabs and hijabs, not because they choose to do so of their own free will, but because it may be a partial safeguard against sexual harassment in public spaces. On the other hand, in many western countries, more open displays of female bodies may result in pressure on young girls to conform to a certain image and potentially lead to eating disorders and mental health issues.
Sadiq Khan, the recently-elected Muslim mayor of London, moved to ban body-shaming ads from London transport earlier this year, stating that, “As a father of two teenage girls, [he was] extremely concerned about this advertising which can demean people, particularly women, and make them ashamed of their bodies.” Of course, for the right-wing press, that could not fathom that London had elected a Muslim mayor, this was a prime example of creeping Sharia, never mind that the moderate-minded Sadiq Khan is also not keen on hijabs and niqabs.
Shrouding women in burqas and erasing their physical presence from society certainly hampers their emancipation and empowerment, but so does parading them as trophies and beauty pageant contestants. In his past life, Donald Trump, executive producer of the Miss Universe beauty pageant, did not think twice about body shaming Alicia Machado, just as he did not think twice about mocking Ghazala Khan. The truth is that neither a hijab nor a bikini will protect women from misogynists.
Islamists and the alt-right in fact agree on matters of abortion and contraception. It wasn’t that long ago that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested, to the dismay of Turkish women’s rights groups, that women should have at least three children and that a woman’s life was “incomplete” if she failed to reproduce. Steve Bannon, of Breitbart fame and now Trump’s chief strategist at the White House, feels “birth control makes women unattractive and crazy”.
Yet despite the Republican base’s historic focus on family values, this election cycle they were led by a twice-divorced man not averse to “grabbing women by the pussy”. Lewd comments or gestures by ordinary men are commonplace in every society, but when such crass language is used by an authority figure aspiring for the highest office in the land, and he does not suffer any consequences for his indiscretions, but wins the presidency with a majority of white women also voting for him, that indeed is scandalous. As a university student in the United States, I recall being culturally shocked by Howard Stern’s radio show and wondering if mainstreaming such vulgarity was taking free speech too far.
Back in my country, Pakistan, a woman, Benazir Bhutto, had already been elected Prime Minister twice. Certainly, she had to face her share of misogyny, but no male opponent could have called her a “nasty woman” or claimed he “wasn’t too impressed” when she walked in front of him and expected to do well with the electorate. I do remember hearing odd chants of “Benazir. Disco Lady. Lady Diana,” at opposition rallies, trying to slur her as a westernised decadent woman, but those were slogans emanating from a charged and semi-literate crowd. The opposition leaders, no matter how much they had backstabbed her politically, maintained a public decorum and respect for a lady, of the kind Donald Trump never showed Hillary.