Thursday, August 4, 2016

Ghazala Khan and the power of not speaking: #CanYouHearUsNow

One woman on the podium at the Democratic National Convention this year connected with the audience and caused a stir, not by speaking, but by remaining silent.

Ghazala Kahn, mother of slain soldier Capt. Humayan Khan, stood silently at the side of her husband Khizr Kahn, as he delivered a blistering attack on Donald Trump and his promise to bar Muslims from entering the United States. The Khans immigrated from Pakistan and raised their children in the United States. Their son died serving in the U.S. armed forces in Iraq.

While the speech didn't fall during the late prime-time hour, it quickly caused a sensation. The contrast of the silent wife--clearly fighting to hold back tears--and the husband's forceful words and delivery stirred the crowd in the hall and beyond it, with many calling it the best speech of the convention. I've shared the photo, above, of the Khans on the podium so you can see the setting, intimidating for any speaker. The audience was estimated at 50,000 just in the arena.

As many women speakers do, Mrs. Kahn accurately gauged what would happen if she spoke and took decisive action: She would be on stage, but would not speak, since just seeing her son's photo can make her cry. In an interview after the speech, her husband said, “Emotionally and physically — she just couldn’t even stand there, and when we left, as soon as we got off camera, she just broke down. And the people inside, the staff, were holding her, consoling her. She was just totally emotionally spent. Only those parents that have lost their son or daughter could imagine the pain that such a memory causes. Especially when a tribute is being paid. I was holding myself together, because one of us had to be strong. Normally, she is the stronger one. But in the matter of Humayun, she just breaks down any time anyone mentions it.”

And then the silence of Ghazala Khan became an issue. In an interview with ABC, Donald Trump said, "If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me." The remarks reflected surmise on Twitter from conservative sources.

This was a step too far, however. The backlash against Trump's remarks gave the speech even more play, and the Khans spent the next few days giving interviews together.

Far from being forbidden to speak, voiceless, or lacking something to say, Mrs. Khan shared her trepidation about maintaining composure on the convention stage in this interview with her husband on MSNBC (the video also is posted below, and a warning: you'll want tissues handy) and in this opinion article in the Washington Post. In the article, she said, "without saying a thing, all the world, all America, felt my pain. I am a Gold Star mother. Whoever saw me felt me in their heart."

She also addressed the mistaken idea that being a Muslim woman meant she was not allowed to speak--something readers of this blog know from the many Muslim women we've featured. "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."

So much of this speaking situation is understandable, and that, I think, is what powered the backlash against Trump's criticism of Mrs. Khan. Anyone can guess the difficulty in speaking before such a large crowd at such a high-stakes event. And most people can imagine that grief or strong emotion might keep a person from being able to speak. It's the most-often mentioned concern I hear from speakers at weddings, funerals, and other emotional-laden events where we ask others to preside so we can avoid crying while we speak, so why not here?

At the same time, one might well say that her silence spoke volumes. We didn't need words to comprehend her loss. As we've said here before, when your story is compelling, there's no need to overcompensate. Women and men use silence all the time to "speak," conveying disapproval, a desire to avoid participation, an understanding that anything they say might well be used against them, or simply strong emotions, ranging from grief to happiness. Introverts hold back. But silence doesn't mean you have nothing to say. It seems instead that Trump was making a clumsy attempt to criticize Khizr Khan and suggest he was silencing his wife, when nothing could be further from the truth.

The backlash has a great benefit for women and public speaking: a new Twitter hashtag, #CanYouHearUsNow, which Muslim women are using to describe how they are speaking and speaking up. It's a great collection.

Here's the full speech at the convention, so you can see the crowd's reaction and the Khans on stage:

Here's the MSNBC interview with the Khans, in which Khizr Khan describes how his wife contributed to his speech, calling her "my coach." You also will hear her speak for herself about what happened:

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both, and you'll get the best discount if you sign up by August 1.