Women and war: Fighting misconceptions of sex

Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak paid tribute to her late husband Sheikh Zayed this summer, saying he encouraged ‘the advancement of women’. But as the UAE’s first female fighter pilot leads airstrikes against ISIL, the West is still confounded by stereotypes, Jonathan Gornall reports.

In a rare interview in June, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, widow of the founding President, spoke with pride and emotion of the great progress that had been made over the past four decades towards the empowerment of Emirati women.

Sheikha Fatima told Nation Shield, the journal of the Armed Forces, that Sheikh Zayed had “encouraged and supported me without limits for the advancement of women” from the start.

In 1975, four years after the foundation of the UAE, Sheikha Fatima had helped to establish the General Women’s Union, which continues to work to promote the rights of women.

Since then, she said, women had become ministers, members of the FNC, engineers, physicians, diplomats, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, professors, lecturers, officers, pilots in air defence, investors, business leaders and “other positions in which they have proved their capacity and efficiency in work and creativity, side by side with their male counterparts”.

Last week, the reality behind Sheikha Fatima’s tribute to gender equality was illustrated in the most graphic way, when the Air Force was led into action against ISIL targets in Syria by the UAE’s first female fighter pilot, Maj Mariam Al Mansouri, 35.

This bold gesture, that seized the imagination of the world, encapsulated the aims towards which the Government has been striving for decades.

They include the transfer of skills and technology necessary to ensure national independence; the Emiratisation of roles crucial to the security of the state; and the elevation of the nation to the status of good and valued global neighbour, willing to step forward and play a significant role in world events.

No single act could have more powerfully challenged western misconceptions about modern Islam, or demonstrated that ISIL’s savage philosophy is rooted in the Stone Age, representing neither modern Arab people nor Islam.

Dr Nezahat Kucuk, of the economics department of Eastern Mediterranean University in Northern Cyprus, said the announcement of Maj Al Mansouri’s role against ISIL sent a clear message of “psychological support for the women in Syria, from a sister”.

“ISIL’s inhumanity and physical violence towards women is increasing every day,” says Dr Kucuk.

“Women and girls are being sold in markets as sex slaves and some of them have committed suicide, and Al Mansouri can be seen as a saviour exacting revenge for those women.”

The significance of the role played by Maj Al Mansouri has been recognised around the world.

A fascinated western media ensured the story and photographs of the Arab world’s highest-flying woman went global, as did the story that when US military air controllers contacted the UAE fighter force over Syria they were struck dumb for 20 seconds after hearing a woman’s voice over the radio.

It was, after all, only in January 2013, that the US defence department lifted its ban on women serving in combat roles.

“Our purpose was to ensure that the mission is carried out by the best qualified and the most capable service members, regardless of gender”, said Leon Panetta, former secretary of defence.

In 2012 Australia became only the fourth nation in the world to remove restrictions on women serving in combat roles.

“This is simply about putting into the front line those people who are best placed to do the job, irrespective of your sex,” said Stephen Smith, former Australia defence minister.

“In the future, your role in the defence force will be determined on your ability, not on the basis of your sex.”

But some observers say that within the praise showered on Maj Al Mansouri and the UAE, underlying prejudices and misconceptions about the Arab world can still be detected. “Mansouri’s accomplishment and importance as one of the first-ever female fighter pilots in the Emirates and in the Gulf is real,” wrote Max Fisher in the online magazine vox.com. “So is the progress she represents for Emirati women.”

But US celebrations of her achievements were “grounded in some embarrassing misconceptions, and echoed common western prejudices and stereotypes about Arabs that are condescending at best, and racist and misogynist at worst”.

Fisher highlighted the repeated taunting of ISIL by some US television hosts, echoed in countless internet memes, that “You got bombed by a woman. How do you like that?”.

This attitude, treating women’s progress in the Middle East as “primarily something that matters when it can be used to humiliate Muslim men and the idea that Mansouri’s gender would be an ideologically crippling humiliation for ISIL is, in itself, based in racist and Islamophobic misconceptions,” wrote Fisher. For Helen Rizzo, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, the incredulity about Maj Al Mansouri expressed in much of the western media is “an indication of how little some in the West know about women in the Arab world and in Islam”.

“I am sure the reactions of some are based on beliefs that the West is superior and that [the Arab world] is backward and not civilised, especially in terms of how women are treated.

“Some of it is pretty hypocritical given that the same commentator who believes that the West is superior to the Arab world will express sexist remarks and fails to recognise the continuing gender inequalities that women in the West face, or even justifies those inequalities in the name of family values.”

The reality, Prof Rizzo says, is that younger generations of Arab women are increasingly matching or bettering the educational achievements of men.

And “while there are still many barriers to women entering the paid labour force, you will find a significant number of women in the Arab world as engineers, entrepreneurs, journalists, politicians, ministers, ambassadors, academics, managers, factory workers and so on,” she says.

“If [western commentators] knew how much was changing in the Arab world, then perhaps they wouldn’t be surprised that some women want to enter the military and succeed.” = =But Dr Kucuk says such seeds of ambition require fertile ground in which to thrive, and the remarkable story of Maj Al Mansouri has its roots in the progressive policies of the UAE.

“The United Arab Emirates is the leader among the Arab countries in empowering women and respecting them,” she says.

Yet there is “a big misconception by western countries about the UAE” which, because of the shared religion of Islam, “is most commonly seen as [the same as] other Arab states in terms of freedoms for women and gender roles”.

Dr Kucuk says: “Religion is not responsible for holding women back in Arab and Muslim majority countries.

“When we improve institutional quality, laws and economic development and information and communication technology, we provide equal opportunities and outcomes for both women and men.”

Maj Al Mansouri was “really following her dreams, and the Government has provided the necessary environment for her to do so”. “This is the way of providing gender equality in society,” says Dr Kucuk.

Prof Rizzo believes that, from a feminist perspective, Maj Al Mansouri’s achievement will be greeted in one of two ways.

“More radical feminists, who critique the militarisation of society and the hyper-masculinity that it promotes, would not see women entering this type of institution as a great achievement,” she says.

On the other hand, “if you are an advocate of liberal feminism, which advocates for equal opportunity and the end of gender-based discrimination, then this would be seen as a victory for breaking down the barriers that prevent women from joining militaries and other male-dominated occupations around the world”.

There is nothing new about women in combat. It is the supposedly progressive modern world that struggles with the notion, whereas in fact Maj Al Mansouri is part of a tradition that extends back thousands of years.

Although frequently hard to separate from myth, ancient history offers many examples from the Arab world.

There was Queen Samsi, who in 732BC took up arms in northern Arabia — ultimately in vain — against the Assyrian empire, and Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, who in the third century led her troops into battle against the Romans and for a while conquered Egypt. And of course, the Queen of Sheba, who is thought to have ruled over a powerful kingdom situated in modern-day Yemen.

Islam, of course, has its own example in Umm Ammarah, the early follower of Prophet Mohammed who in 625AD fought alongside the Prophet at the Battle of Uhud, sustaining a dozen wounds.

Not all observers were overwhelmed by news that an Emirati woman was leading her country’s air force into the attack against ISIL.

“I wasn’t that surprised,” says Jen’nan Read, associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University and associate director at the Duke Islamic Studies Centre, who is working in Doha.

“There are strong women in the Middle East who are doing strong things.”

All the speculation and analysis over the meaning and significance of Major Al Mansouri’s role has, Ms Read believes, overlooked one fundamental point.

“Why did the UAE send in a woman to do this? Maybe because she was the best person to fly that plane.”