Flying Through the Glass Ceiling: Sexism and the UAE’s First Female Fighter Pilot

Maj. Mariam Al Mansouri is the first female fighter pilot in the history of the United Arab Emirates’ air force. She joined the army in order to take part in the air strikes against ISIS militants in Syria, and the media reacted with a highly gendered discourse on the role of women in conflict. I aim to assess critically the narratives built around Maj. Mariam Al Mansouri and its mediatisation, especially through one infamous Fox News report.

Image courtesy of Rodrigo Sepulveda Schulz ©2010
Image courtesy of Rodrigo Sepulveda Schulz ©2010

Becker’s article in the IJReview argues ‘It’s about time more women joined the fray against an adversary who is a threat to their very existence, in addition to that of helpless children’. Through her statement, the journalist is drawing upon the often seen victimization of women in war and conflict, also associated to ‘helpless children’. There is an implicit assumption which suggests women to be ‘helpless’ in their natural state and threatened by organisation such as ISIS. Elshtain talks about the idea of the ‘Beautiful Soul’ where women are the ‘one[s] who should be protected from war’ (Elshtain 1987) and men are the ‘Just Warrior’ defending them, and Gentry & Sjoberg characterize women as ‘innocent of the war’ (2007: 3). In her piece Becker suggests violence as the solution to the victimization of women in war.

Fox News further glorifies this exhibition of violence through the female presenter Kimberly Guifoyle. ‘This is really incredible,’ Guilfoyle said, ‘Major Mariam Al Mansouri is who did this. Remarkable, very excited. I wish it was an American pilot. I’ll take a woman doing this any day to them. I hope that hurt extra bad from you because in some Arab countries, women can’t even drive. Her nickname, per Jennifer Griffin? “Lady Liberty,” baby.’

This news report was followed by sexist comments from her two male co-hosts. Greg Gutfield first stated: ‘Problem is, after she bombed it she couldn’t park it.’ Eric Bolling continued the myriad of sexist jokes adding: ‘would that be considered boobs on the ground?’.

A theoretical feminist approach would analyse the dismissive and patronizing tone of the men to the story. The notion of ‘boobs on the ground’ sexualises the fighter pilot and focuses on her female body and sexuality, rather than her military achievements. The sexist reaction of the men shows the stigmatization still present for women participating in the army. Gentry & Sjoberg argue that gender is an important part of military identity for female soldiers, who are often defined not as soldiers but ‘women soldiers’ (2007). They explain the distinction exists ‘because women who commit these violences have acted outside of prescribed gender role, they have to be separated from main/malestream discourse of their particular behaviour’ (2007: 9). Indeed, women are often perceived as ‘peaceful’ and violence would be contrary to their ‘natural state’ of being (Elshtain 1987).

Due to her gender, the men have sexualised and dismissed Maj. Mariam Al Mansouri in order to limit her agency. However, this critique of the sexism exhibited by journals such as The Guardian, albeit correct, is a simplistic approach to the Fox News broadcast.

Guilfoyle’s statements glorify violence and display an orientalist perspective. Firstly, the title of the Fox News segment–‘Hey ISIS! You Were Bombed by a Woman. Have a Nice Day’–is extremely gendered. The title constructs a gendered hierarchy of violent enactments. It seems that being ‘bombed by a woman’ is more shameful than being bombed by a man. Violence perpetrated by women in the military is therefore inferior than that exhibited by male soldiers. This goes back to women portrayed as ‘peaceful’ stigmatizing their violence in narratives challenging their motivations and agency.

Furthermore, the female anchor stated that she wished ‘she was an American pilot’ and ‘I hope that hurt extra bad from you because in some Arab countries, women can’t even drive’. Homogenizing Middle Eastern countries with the word ‘Arab countries’ draws on a neo-orientalist view of the world. Wishing for an American woman to do same suggests that white women’s violence is better than ‘brown women’s’ violence. Moreover, passing cultural judgement suggests a superiority of American women as ‘liberated women’ compared to ‘Arab women’ who are victims of social, political and cultural practices and stigmas related to religion and political regimes. It constructs the assumption of all Muslim/Arabs being inferior to Westerners (Nayak 2006). Nayak describes political orientalism by the United States as using nexus of power and knowledge to be able to securing the state against ‘the Other’ (2006). Arab women are often used as a reason to intervene in Middle Eastern states as they are portrayed as victims of the subjugation of Arab men. Therefore, the axis created by the reporter between ‘American women’ and ‘Arab women’ suggests an intersectional approach to the news story where the hierarchical framework of the military is further transcended by not only gender, but also ethnicity and race.

Finally, the glorification of violence is due to the UAE fighter pilot being a woman. If she was a man, the story would have never made it to the news. Therefore there is a double standard when it comes to violence perpetrated by women. Maj. Mariam Al Mansouri has become a figure embodying gender equality in the military, however, not once do we stop and think about the implications of such violence. I would question the moral implications that would go beyond a simple glorification of women’s violence in global politics in the name of gender equality. Although her achievement in military ranking is honourable and is a step towards equality in the UAE air force, do violence and killing become more acceptable when they are enacted by a woman?

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