On a recent trip to the United Arab Emirates, an image of the Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla) – flanked by a security team- captivated mainstream media. Camilla was photographed leaving the Emirates Palace Hotel and the picture was released by Clarence House, her official residence. As The Huffington Post described it:
“In the image, the royal is flanked by four Emiratis, each donning the traditional hijab and abaya as they guarded Camilla leaving the capital’s Emirates Palace Hotel.”
The photo garnered much attention and praise from commentators who lauded the image and the fact that these particular guards could do guard a royal. This kind of narrow-minded presentation is problematic and unhelpful. Examining the underlying tones of the language is crucial.
The juxtaposition of conservatively dressed women of colour guarding a white woman from an elite family was possibly very alluring for readers. It is a part of a constant reductive conversation that seemingly elevates or advocates Muslim women from a position of being looked at as “weak” or “submissive”. In disingenuously commenting on how “badass” these athletic and intrepid security guards are, observers might feel as if they are showing respect or giving legitimacy to the careers of Shaima al Kaabi, Basima al Kaabi, Hannan al Hatawi, Nisreen al Hamawi and Salama al Remeithi.
But these observations of the guards are sexist and patronizing. They are Gulf women, yes. But while the history of sports and athleticism in the Gulf is overlooked by Western outlets, it is not a new one. Martial artist Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid was the first woman to represent the UAE at the Olympics and was the flag-bearer at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Emirati Sheikha Latifa bint Ahmad is an equestrian and a former Olympian. Of course the case can (and should) be made that both of the most famous examples of women’s sport in UAE come from women from the royal family. There is definitely an elitist precedent. But it doesn’t ignore the fact that sports have existed before Camilla needed a security entourage.
Before this, sport was not an unknown in the Emirates – the first series of women’s-only Mixed Martial Arts classes began in 2010, although it is perhaps not considered supported enough by certain standards. Keeping in mind that the West are not free from cycles of sexism in their own programs.
It is important to remember that the Emirati women in the picture are professional security guards who have trained extensively in physical combat and martial arts. They can decimate attempted attackers in a robe or track pants. This is their job. Still, the Daily Mail called the image “utterly extraordinary” because the very idea that Muslim women are capable of being bodyguards is unfathomable for that publication.
Forgive me if I am exhausted by declarations on how excellent Muslim women are. If mainstream sports media paid attention to a fraction of the development, organization and accomplishments of Muslim girls and women’s sports, and drawing attention to the challenges they face, then perhaps, these articles would seem less vacuous.
While I support the work of the four guards, three of whom have climbed Mount Everest, their work has only been featured because it has been centered around the Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. Glossing over all of the other achievements of these women is adding more insult to injury.
Some articles highlighted how happy Camilla was to be surrounded by an all-women team of guards for the first time. In true imperialist form, Camilla’s delight lead to the women being dubbed her “angels”, a reference to pop culture favourite Charlie’s Angels.
Camilla is not the reason for their “empowerment” nor should she be lauded for the accomplishments of these women. Elle UK magazine reported that “because the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker-Bowles, is focussed on championing female body guards, after she recently hired a team of female security personnel to take care of her during her three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates.” Other outlets wrote that the bodyguards had been “handpicked”, “carefully selected” or “assigned” from among the 50 qualified women in the presidential guard regiment. But Elle and even VICE Fightland inferred that as the employer, Camilla was the one propelling the empowerment of the Emirati women. According to them, she is central to the women’s success – even though they were qualified professionals and accomplished women before Camilla came to town.
The Duchess of Cornwall represents a family that has been at the helm of brutal colonial history in many of the regions where it now claims to encourage the empowerment of women. The four guards were not volunteering for their work as security detail personnel, they are professionals. This was not a salute to the British royal family by Emirati women.
It was an assignment and they were paid.
That there was delight from media outlets is frustrating because it points to the constant erasure of Muslim women as anything beyond what stereotypes they are perceived to be. Adulation by newspapers is reductive because it frames the image of the Emirati bodyguards in a way that would have considered it otherwise impossible for them to be physically active and qualified.
At least five outlets (The Daily Mail, The Sydney Morning Herald, ELLE, marie claire and Glamour) featuring stories on this topic described the guards’ outfits in an incredulous tone. This points to a disbelief that it is possible for women to guard effectively, or be active, in abayas or hijabs. Ironic considering less than a month before, Kubra Dagli, a hijab-wearing Turkish woman won the TaeKwan Do World Championship in the Poomsae category – a fact easily learned if Googled. Middle Eastern Muslim women have been quite active for a very long time. In 2012, there were more than 3,500 women training to become ninjas in Iran.
Discussions of Muslim women’s bodies and their clothing choices seem to be popular. Overlooking entirely the obvious credentials of the bodyguards, The Daily Mail wrote: “Despite their picture-perfect make-up and fashionable ‘flatform’ shoes, the ladies’ flowing black hijabs and abayas concealed unidentified weapons ready to use at close proximity in case of an attack.”
The amount of makeup the women were wearing in the photograph seems minimal to me. I am sure their shoes are sensible. And I am confident that they are capable of performing job-related tasks in their “flowing black hijabs and abayas”.
I write about Muslim women in sport for a living. One way to avoid writing in a manner that lacks nuance is for journalists to do some basic research, so that they can present the facts without first marinating them in insufferable Orientalist sexism.
Writing about Muslim women in sport or in roles that the west considers unconventional will take more than announcing their every move to be “groundbreaking” or “badass”. The current manner in which this story was presented underlines that this is a novel concept- which is unfair to the women who have trained and fought- literally- to be qualified to guard dignitaries and royals.
Muslim women in martial arts have always been incredible, well before a rich, white woman needed their services. Perhaps some media outlets may just not have wanted to accept or recognize it.