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Maryam al-Mansouri in imperial context

A 35-year-old female pilot from Abu Dhabi, Mansouri was reported to have led F-16 airstrikes against IS targets in Syria

Last week, Maryam al-Mansouri became - at least temporarily - the face of the international coalition that is bombing sections of the Middle East in accordance with Barack Obama’s alliterative pledge to “degrade and… destroy” the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL.

The 35-year-old native of Abu Dhabi and the first female pilot in the United Arab Emirates air force, Mansouri was reported to have led F-16 airstrikes against IS targets in Syria.

Following this revelation, social media entered into a fit of ecstasy; the Associated Press noted “many users taking delight in the rebuke [Mansouri’s leading role] implied toward the militants’ ultraconservative ideology.”

On 24 September, Oula Abdulhamid, a research assistant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), tweeted: “Take that #ISIS!” The attendant image was a meme featuring the text: “Hey ISIS. You were bombed by a woman. Have a nice day.”

A formidable Zionist think tank that cooks up such thoughts as that of “using covert means” to provoke a war with Iran, WINEP’s concern for women’s rights is, you might say, strategically limited. For example, the wanton Israeli slaughter of women in the Gaza Strip is not a form of female oppression that is generally recognised by the organisation.

Another tweet from a woman who defines herself as a “foreign policy professional based in Abu Dhabi,” reflects on the poetic justice of Mansouri’s sorties: “Take that, sexist terrorists! UAE ladies raining down equality from above.”

Of course, the civilian collateral damage that inevitably accompanies such protracted missions makes the current meteorological conditions look like something other than revolutionary justice. But at least women on the ground will be given greater opportunities to die.

'Lady Liberty'

In a much circulated Fox News clip, presenter Kimberly Guilfoyle announces that she is “very excited” about Mansouri’s achievements, adding in a half-gushy-half-menacing tone: “I wish it was an American pilot. I’ll take a woman doing this any day to [IS]. I hope that hurt extra bad… because in some Arab countries women can’t even drive.”

That particular country goes by the name of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which, it bears reiterating, happens to be a major partner in the bombing coalition. This, despite the small matter of the Saudis’ fundamental role in creating IS in the first place - not to detract from the crucial contributions of the US itself in this regard.

As journalist Patrick Cockburn details in his book The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, Saudi funding helped line jihadi pockets, while armed support from the US and others for “supposedly moderate” Syrian opposition groups intermittently fighting in collaboration with al-Qaeda-esque outfits meant that “Washington was effectively allowing advanced weaponry to be handed over to its deadliest enemy.”

Guilfoyle goes on to declare that Mansouri’s nickname is “Lady Liberty, baby” - an option glaringly unavailable to, among others, the Emirates’ myriad of female migrant workers. Consider this passage from a 2013 Human Rights Watch report:

“Many female domestic workers in the UAE suffer unpaid wages, food deprivation, long working hours, forced confinement, and physical and sexual abuse. The standard contract for domestic workers introduced in April 2007… does not limit working hours or provide for a weekly rest day, overtime pay, or workers’ compensation.”

Male migrant workers and female Emiratis who endure state-sanctioned physical abuse from their husbands also appear to be lacking the sense of “liberty” that the UAE is now supposedly helping to bestow upon the would-be victims of IS.

Two of Guilfoyle’s male co-presenters contributed to the Fox News discussion, one with a question about whether Mansouri’s efforts constituted “boobs on the ground” and the other with a suggestion that “she couldn’t park” the plane. In the rush to condemn the appalling remarks, many Americans apparently forgot to be appalled by war.

The right to imperial war

The headline of a 26 September Vox article by Max Fisher, “The condescension and racism behind American praise of the female pilot who bombed ISIS,” suggests that Fisher is going to provide us with an accurate critique of the noisy Mansouri-induced gloating by Guilfoyle and others. As it turns out, this isn’t exactly the case.

It’s not that the piece doesn’t contain valid points; it does. One is the observation that the UAE is praiseworthy “only if we begin with the idea that Muslim and Arab societies are inherently backward in their treatment of women.”

Speaking of things inherently backward, however, one need look no further than the preceding sentence, in which Fisher declares that Mansouri’s “individual accomplishment… is indeed a very big deal and extremely deserving of praise.”

Elsewhere in the article, he notes the “progress she represents for Emirati women” and “what she represents for female advancement.” What happens, then, is that Fisher ends up validating imperial war, which has never been good for living things of either gender. We’re left with the feeling that war is “A-OK” as long as everyone gets to participate.

There’s obviously no denying Fisher’s argument that “common Western prejudices and stereotypes about Arabs… are condescending at best and racist and misogynist at worst.” But his suggestion that there is something uniquely sexist about American “chest-thumping” over the supposed “triumph of feminism and humiliation of ISIS” on account of Mansouri’s bellicose debut overlooks the fact that an almost identical response is often elicited when our own women bomb Arabs and Muslims.

In 2002, for example, war-mongering New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gleefully summarised an Atlantic Monthly article about a female F-15 pilot in Afghanistan who unleashes a 500-pound bomb onto a Taliban truck caravan: “As the caravan is vaporized, the F-15 pilot shouts down at the Taliban - as if they could hear him from 20,000 feet - ‘You have just been killed by a girl.’”

Equal opportunity destroyer

As I wrote in a recent essay for Vice:

“One can debate whether 20,000 feet or vaporization constitutes a greater impediment to hearing. But it’s pretty clear that gendered taunts by trigger-happy pilots and the journalists who quote them do little in the way of dismantling traditional gender barriers. In other words, because the supposedly female-empowering bomb-dropping perpetuates rather than overturns the stereotype of women as the weaker sex, the vaporized Taliban might be forgiven for missing the moral of the story.”

The “western prejudices” referenced by Fisher are meanwhile a big part of what allows us to bomb the Arab/Muslim world with such unrepentant ease - and to cast the destruction as a civilising effort to liberate women from male tyranny. Although we like to advertise ourselves as an equal opportunity destroyer (the US Army website proclaims that “the heart of a warrior [is] not limited to one gender”), institutionalised sexism in the US means that we’re hardly qualified to go around raining gender equality on other people.

Given the Emirati role as an appendage of empire, it is impossible to celebrate Mansouri’s “individual accomplishment,” as Fisher does, independent of the larger context of imperial devastation in the Middle East. Not only is the UAE a major purchaser of American weapons - including the F-16s piloted by Mansouri - it also plays host to other highlights of the military-industrial complex, such as mercenary armies set up by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of the private security firm, Blackwater.

Whereas Blackwater’s repertoire included slaughtering Iraqi civilians, the newer force has been trained to respond to threats of a slightly different nature. According to a 2011 New York Times article, the imported mercenaries “could be deployed if the Emirates faced unrest in their crowded labor camps or were challenged by pro-democracy protests.”

Perpetual cycle

A 2009 cable from the US embassy in Abu Dhabi, released by WikiLeaks, explains that Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed “sees the logic of war dominating the region, and this thinking explains his near-obsessive efforts to build up his armed forces.”

To be sure, obsessive militarisation is one way to ensure the perpetuation of this logic, while the opening up of warrior positions for women may signal a recognition of the potential numerical and image-enhancing advantages to co-ed war-making.

Reuters alludes to other logical occurrences in a September dispatch: “Support for Islamic State increased after US airstrikes began in Iraq and the militant group may take more hostages to try to force concessions from Washington, the FBI director told Congress.”

Inexplicably and presumably by accident, the Reuters website specifies that this particular article is filed under “cyclical consumer goods.” In the very least, it’s an apt commentary on how everyone’s in the market for more conflict. 

- Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Maryam al-Mansouri (AFP)