On September 23, an American-led campaign was launched to attack different targets that belong to the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant, referred to as ISIL. A number of Arab countries announced their participation in the campaign, among them Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.
Two days later, FOX News discussed the participation of Emirati Major Mariam Al Mansouri in the fight against ISIL. In a video posted on September 25, one presenter was joking and asking whether Al Mansouri’s presence in Syria could be referred to as “boobs on the ground.” Another presenter, Greg Gutfeld, continued the sexism with a joke that “The problem is after she bombed it, she couldn’t park it.”
Since then, Al Mansouri’s story has been covered by CNN, New York Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, and a long list of other Western media sources. My Twitter and Facebook timelines were flooded with her pictures and the stories about her. So I decided it was time to dig and find out who Mariam Al Mansouri really is.
Mariam Al Mansouri is an Emirati woman born in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, to a family of six girls and three boys. She graduated from the UAE University with a bachelor’s of English Literature. Soon after graduating, she joined the armed forces, to become later the first Emirati women to fly an F-16 Block 60 aircraft.
After going through almost all the articles posted by some of the most renowned western newspapers and television networks, I started looking for stories about Al Mansouri in some Arab newspapers, but found nothing. On September 26, the first article on Al Mansouri was published in Al Ittihad newspaper, the number one state-owned newspaper in the UAE. Here is a translation of the first paragraph:
The first Emirati women in the Air Forces participated in the international campaign to attack ISIL. Citing an Emirati source, the AFP said that Mariam Al Mansouri did not only fly the F-16 aircraft and hit ISIL targets on Monday and Tuesday, but that she was also leading the Emirati force.
So, the Emirati newspaper is taking this piece of news from AFP, while the story is happening next door? In my opinion, this is just nonsense. While such media outlets should be taking the lead to uncover the story of the first Emirati F-16 pilot, they decided to leave the scoop to other platforms such as FOX and CNN to talk about Mariam Al Mansouri from an Orientalist perspective. Not only were they late in posting such an interesting story, but they also failed to take the lead in talking about Ms. Al Mansouri from a different angle.
Digging more, I discovered an article about Al Mansouri on Al Hayat Newspaper. It felt like the piece was translated into Arabic and written by someone who was collecting pieces of news about her from around the web, creating a story that was spiritless and had no real meaning. The title of the piece was “The Emirati mission against ISIL was led by…. A woman.” The way the words are ordered in this title gives the feeling of underestimation to women and their capabilities. The editors might have instead chosen something like “An Emirati Woman leads her Country’s mission to Fight ISIL,” or “Mariam Al Mansouri, the First Emirati F-16 Pilot, Leads Military Mission to Fight ISIL.” Such titles honor the achievement made by Al Mansouri, and at the same time venerate her country’s first steps towards giving women the chance to be in similar positions to their male counterparts.
So why is it important that the Arab media take the lead in writing this story? Because Western media generally represent women’s rights in Third World countries, especially in the Arab world, as a hot topic that attracts a lot of attention. Starting with Hollywood, women were usually portrayed as sex objects, belly dancers, fully veiled human beings with no voice or opinion. The post September 11-era has been the golden age for stereotypes: all Muslims are terrorists, and all Muslim women are victims of their Muslim men abuse. When the Bush administration tried to play the role of the savior during the so-called war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, Western media also took up that role by focusing on issues related to women, minorities, freedom of expression, and foreign workers, even when these issues had not been of significant interest before.
On the other hand, Arab media should take the lead in addressing issues related to women, thought platforms that employ journalists who know the culture, the language and the people, and hence, have a better understanding of the achievements, capabilities and negative signs of their communities. Instead of focusing on only one aspect regarding women and dealing with it in a shallow orientalist way, they could be more creative in digging deeper, and finding the angle that interests their audience. One good example is a show on Saudi owned and Dubai-based MBC channel: Kalam Nawaem, a program similar in its setup to the American show “The View.” This show is hosted by four ladies coming from different Arab countries, and they discuss issues related to Arab women, their success stories, and problems.
Going back to the Mariam Al Mansouri, I think the use of an unusual element, a woman, in this kind of war, glorifies it. It takes away from what is really happening, and what other consequences this campaign has in the region. For example, since the minute I read about Al Mansouri’s participation, I have rarely found any article that talked about the number of civilians casualties, the humanitarian situation in the areas being bombed, or other news coming from hot areas in the region, like Gaza or Egypt at that time.
For me, it feels good to see a woman such as Al Mansouri become the first female in the UAE to do something so outside of the norm, and anything happening for the first time will definitely sound interesting, surprising and intriguing (in a good way). But for me, Mariam Al Mansouri is the hero as much as the elementary school teacher in Abu Dhabi, the nurse in a Dubai Hospital, or a housewife in northern Ras Al Khaima. If we are to compliment Al Mansouri for what she has accomplished, we have to compliment every single women doing her job inside and outside her house. For me, Mariam Al Mansouri is not a hero or a champion; she is just a woman doing her job.