The media sometimes has trouble conjuring a feel-good story out of an airstrike, but not now. In the last few days, news outlets across the world have fallen all over themselves to champion Maryam al-Mansouri—the first female combat pilot in the United Arab Emirates—who flew in a nighttime sortie over Syria on September 22. An Arab woman bombing ISIS! Pew, pew, pew! There she goes, shooting down the patriarchy, one missile at a time.
The story is an American war planner’s dream come true. War against the so-called Islamic State, often known by the acronym ISIS, has proven an easy enough sell on its own. The group’s fundamentalist dogma and brutality happens to match the picture of jihadi terror the US has been painting for decades. And this time around, the “coalition of the willing” is comprised entirely of Washington’s regional clients. Lest anyone have lingering doubts about the prudence or justice of this military operation—backed as it is by governments with views of women, minorities and apostasy almost as retrograde as the enemy’s—look, there is one woman involved.
Individual stories of triumph can be compelling, and al-Mansouri’s achievement in a fantastically unequal society is, indeed, a (small) step toward legal equality for Emirati women. She is, however, one of four women in the UAE air force, all of whom have been flying since 2008. So the interest in al-Mansouri now springs from the pathological interest in the plight of Arab and Muslim women, real and perceived, that attends US military engagement in the Middle East. It used to be, in the imperial imagination, that brown women had to call on white men to liberate them from brown men, but now a pioneering Muslim woman has signed up to save her sisters (and her country).
Al-Mansouri’s participation in the airstrikes seems to be the sole justification for a five-minute segment of Morning Joe featuring the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yusuf al-‘Utayba. Straight out of the imperialist feminist playbook, the conversation pits “moderate” non-democratic Arab regimes against fundamentalist non-democratic Arab regimes, and, in this case, a fundamentalist militia with state-like ambitions. As host Joe Scarborough put it, “In some countries, women can’t drive, and you guys are, like, putting ‘em in charge of fighting missions.” (Never mind that the implied foil here, Saudi Arabia, is also part of the coalition.) Al-‘Utayba swings hard at that softball: “The whole campaign and coalition on ISIS—and extremists in general—boils down to, ultimately, this: Do you want a model or a society that allows women to become ministers in government, female fighter pilots, business executives, or do you want a society where if a woman doesn’t cover up in public, where she’s beaten, or she’s lashed, or she’s raped?”
The problem is, Mr. Ambassador, that rather disquieting forms of gender inequality remain entrenched in the UAE. In its most recent World Report, Human Rights Watch notes that violence against women is legally permitted when it occurs within families, and that women who survive sexual assault are vulnerable to criminal charges for extramarital sex. Emirati women who marry foreign men without state approval forfeit their citizenship, as well as that of their children with non-citizen fathers. As for pressure that might be brought to bear on the issue of women’s rights by powerful allies, the report notes that the US mutes criticism of discrimination and state repression of political dissent because it is “seeking multibillion-dollar fighter jet contracts” with the government. The UAE also has the distinction of being one of only three states (along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) that recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, despite international campaigns about their treatment of women. And it is likely that early support for ISIS in Syria came from donors in the UAE and other Gulf states. Needless to say, Scarborough didn’t bring these items up.
Much easier and morally satisfying to repurpose al-Mansouri’s story to promote a military campaign that, yet again, is poised to rescue damsels in distress from forces of darkness. Much easier, certainly, than investigating how well women’s-liberation-from-10,000 feet has gone in Afghanistan or Iraq. And much more morally satisfying than contemplating how low the bar sits for Arab women’s equality.