A high-achieving Arab woman has been the cause of media frenzy over the last few days, though mostly for the wrong reasons. Major Mariam al-Mansouri, the UAE’s first female fighter pilot, led the joint air strikes on ISIL targets in Syria by the US and its five Arab allies last week. Her contribution to the war effort was widely publicised and admired, but quickly took a wrong turn when two male presenters on Fox News made sexist jokes about Mansouri.
In the now notorious segment, an initial report by Kimberly Guilfoyle paid tribute to Mansouri’s achievement.
“I wish it were an American pilot – I’ll take a woman doing this any day to them,” she said, though it was unclear whether she was more impressed by Mansouri’s professional achievement or the humiliation she assumed would be inflicted on the ISIL fighters because of the pilot’s gender. “I hope that hurt extra bad,” she said, “because in some Arab countries women can’t even drive.”
To the driving, I will return. Guilfoyle’s report had barely ended when Greg Gutfeld joked: “Problem is, after she bombed it she couldn’t park it,” provoking groans in the studio. Eric Bolling upped the ante with: “Would that be considered boobs on the ground or no?” The sexist jokes instantly undermined the entire report and its celebration of Mansouri’s achievement. It also punctured the female journalist’s achievement, as Guilfoyle clearly felt when she repeatedly complained: “Oh my God, why do you have to ruin my thing?”
Fittingly, Bolling and Gutfeld made public apologies when the comments provoked an outcry on social media and in news outlets, and were even told off in a stern open letter from veterans of the US armed forces. But the story should not end there. There is a lot more going on in the coverage of Mansouri’s professional achievement, and the sexism of a right-wing, dumbed-down channel is an easy target that distracts from other issues.
Patronising and incorrect
The initial report by Guilfoyle is hardly straightforward. It is hard to miss the gung-ho pleasure she takes in what she sees as the humiliation of sexist Muslim extremists because they were “bombed by a woman”. Others were at this too. A headline in Stars and Stripes proclaimed female Kurdish soldiers were ISIL’s “worst nightmare”, despite the fact that ISIL itself uses female fighters, even if only to impose a misogynist regime.
Mansouri is seen to be particularly remarkable because it is assumed that her achievement emerges from a backward region where women are suppressed. In this light, praise of her achievement is patronising rather than sincere. You don’t have to be a Muslim to notice the implication that Islam is inherently sexist…
And what of the claim that Mansouri is so pioneering when “in some Arab countries women can’t even drive”? This is not only patronising, it is factually incorrect. There is only one country in the region that forbids women from driving: Saudi Arabia. Other Arab countries find this, and many other Saudi laws and customs, completely unacceptable. And within Saudi, many brave women are struggling to change things.
While Mansouri’s professional achievement is obvious and admirable, she is not the only pioneer. The achievements of Arab women over the last half-century have been remarkable, in several contexts overtaking American women in education rates and professional achievement. Arab women have achieved international success in many fields, and include Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, Lebanese chairwoman of the Swatch group, Nayla Hayek, and Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif.
Mansouri is seen to be particularly remarkable because it is assumed that her achievement emerges from a backward region where women are suppressed. In this light, praise of her achievement is patronising rather than sincere. You don’t have to be a Muslim to notice the implication that Islam is inherently sexist, nor an Arab to see that the Arab world is being subjected to racist assumptions.
Of course, women do not enjoy equal opportunities in many aspects of life in Arab countries, as well as in non-Arab Muslim countries. But rather than simplistically attributing such inequality to inherent cultural or religious backwardness, we should see it as stemming from the policies and laws imposed by specific governments and leaders, as well as from a complicated, but explicable, combination of historical, political and socio-economic factors.
Such complexities are beyond a lot of mainstream US media outlets, however, and do not serve the more direct purposes of governments in situations of war. So, for now, Major Mansouri is the UAE’s poster girl as much as she is for the US. Through her, the UAE shows its legitimate and progressive face, using western interest in women’s rights to make another bombing campaign in the Middle East acceptable. At the same time, it cements its role and image as a western ally.
Meanwhile, parts of the US press are happy to defend Mansouri from schoolboy-style sexist jokes, while allowing less overt sexist and racist assumptions about Islam or Arabs to slip by, and stopping short of pragmatically confronting the nuts and bolts of legal, political, and social discrimination in the region.
Finally, questions of women’s rights are perhaps used to obscure the crux of the matter – the bombing campaign itself. ISIL is hated by almost everyone, but there is disagreement about the best means by which to counter it, and some have argued that air strikes are not the way. Can a bombing campaign alone be effective in the expressed aim of “destroying” ISIL?
John Nichol, the British Royal Air Force pilot who was shot down and captured during the first Gulf War in 1991, thinks not. On BBC radio, he pointed out that it would be impossible to “destroy” – that is, kill – by air, some 30,000 fighters who have no base but move around in vehicles and can disperse into cities and villages. So what chance is there of its effectiveness in the long run, without an accompanying political commitment to the region and help in building up state institutions, infrastructure, education, health, and the economy?
Lana Asfour is a journalist based in London and Beirut. Her articles and photographs have been published by the Times, BBC online, the New Statesman, Observer, New York Review of Books, Daily Star Beirut, OpenDemocracy and Granta, among others.