In the three days since United Arab Emirates air force Major Maryam al-Mansouri flew in the American-led mission to bomb ISIS targets in Syria, there have been many rounds of congratulations and chest-thumping in the United States over this triumph of feminism and humiliation of ISIS.
Mansouri's accomplishment and importance as one of the first-ever female fighter pilots in the Emirates and in the Gulf is real. So is the progress she represents for Emirati women. But the American celebration of Mansouri has been grounded in some embarrassing misconceptions, and has echoed common Western prejudices and stereotypes about Arabs that are condescending at best and racist and misogynist at worst.
There are two sets of American misconceptions here. The first is to play up Mansouri as representative of the UAE as a champion of gender equality, when in fact the UAE is objectively quite bad on women's rights, and the fact that we allow them such a lowered bar represents a soft bigotry of lowered expectations. The second is to repeatedly contrast the UAE with Saudi Arabia in a way that explicitly frames Saudi gender restrictions as the default for Arab and Muslim societies, when in fact Saudi restrictions are freakishly unique and widely reviled in the Muslim world.
What these misconceptions have in common is to endorse the idea, which originates with ultra-conservative Islamists and Islamophobic racists, that Muslim and Arab countries will naturally set a lower standard for women's rights. It buys into the condescending assumption that there are Western women and there are Arab women and they should expect different tiers of liberation because the latter's societies are inherently less advanced.
Take the way that praise for Mansouri's individual accomplishment, which is indeed a very big deal and extremely deserving of praise, is frequently extended to her government. As a serial abuser of women's rights, the UAE deserves that praise only if we begin with the idea that Muslim and Arab societies are inherently backward in their treatment of women.
"The UAE is no paragon of women's rights," Ishaan Tharoor writes at the Washington Post, offering just a sample of the laws and practices that establish women as second-class citizens:
Female migrant workers in the country face harrowing conditions and abuse, while Emirati laws still don't provide legal recourse for marital rape. Men also have license to discipline their wives and children through physical violence. And extramarital sex can land you in legal trouble. In one notorious case last year, a Norwegian woman received a 16-month prison sentence after she reported being raped to the police, who did not believe her claim that the act was non-consensual. The international outcry that followed eventually led to a pardon, but it underlined how much more progress the U.A.E. still has to make, despite al-Mansouri's bravery and skill.
Yet, when Emirati Ambassador to the United States appeared on Morning Joe on Thursday to confirm Mansouri's participation in the strikes, he and his country were heartily congratulated as paragons of progressive gender equality.
Host Joe Scarborough called it "the changing face of the Middle East." Co-host Mika Brzezinski beamed, "In some countries women can't drive, you guys are like puttin' 'em in charge of fighting missions." Willie Geist, also a co-host, attempted a serious contribution, asking, "It's so significant, the UAE on women's rights … why has it taken so long for other countries to get there, longer than it has for the UAE?"
This is broadly representative of the American response to Mansouri's flight, which has been to congratulate the UAE, rather than to ask, "Okay, so when will she have equal protection under the law? Or when we she at least have protection against being beaten by her husband, for whom domestic violence is a legally protected right? Or when will female migrant workers be granted even the modest rights allowed Mansouri?"
At the same time, praise of Mansouri has often contrasted her with the rest of the Arab Middle East in a way that explicitly describes the entire region as uniformly just like Saudi Arabia. This is most commonly expressed with some variation of Brzezinski's comment that, unlike in the UAE, "In some countries women can't drive." Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, who has been characterized as "the responsible one" in a much-derided segment calling Mansouri "boobs on the ground," also said that, "In some Arab countries, women can't even drive."
In fact, there is only one country in which women are banned from driving, Saudi Arabia. Its ban on female drivers, as well as other largely unique Saudi laws restricting women, are reviled by other Arab countries, where women drive cars and go to work and serve in the government, sometimes at higher rates than do American women. Treating Saudi Arabia as the norm, and its ban on female drivers as the baseline, again buys into the idea that Saudi-style restrictions are the natural default of Arab and Muslim societies.
There is also an uncomfortable degree of chest-thumping that typically comes with American praise of Mansouri; it's common to see TV hosts, for example, speak directly into the camera and ask some variation of, "You got bombed by a woman, how do you like that, ISIS?" A large number of Internet memes make this same point.
Meet Major Mariam Al Mansouri—UAE's 1st female airforce pilot—who just bombed #ISIS jihadists. http://t.co/cYc9rcSm1K pic.twitter.com/6kfYaLkaIA
— Justice Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) September 24, 2014
This may be the subtlest but most destructive trope of all, because it treats women's progress in the Middle East as primarily something that matters when it can be used to humiliate Muslim men. It co-opts Mansouri and Muslim women generally into a sort of practical joke that we Americans get to play on our enemies. This may help explain why commentators praising Mansouri are so often ignorant of the actual facts about the status of women in the Middle East: they care about what she represents for jingoistic insults of America's enemies, not for what she represents for female advancement.
The idea that Mansouri's gender would be an ideologically crippling humiliation for ISIS is, in itself, based in racist and Islamophobic misconceptions.
Mansouri's gender is frequently described as such a big deal because ISIS fears female soldiers. The militants, it is often said, believe that they will not go to heaven if they are "martyred" by combat with a woman. This is false, and ISIS even fields its own all-female battalions in Syria, which it uses to terrify civilian women and enforce their compliance with its oppressive laws. This misconception, which actually understates ISIS's brutality toward women, is based in reassuring Islamophobic tropes about "72 virgins" and infantalizing notions of Muslim men. If we were told that any other group of battle-hardened fighters feared female soldiers, we would laugh the idea off as ridiculous, but with Muslim groups this notion is readily embraced.
These misconceptions and stereotypes all seem to reinforce the core theme of American praise of Mansouri: our conversations often begin with the assumption that Arabs and Muslims are inherently less advanced, should be held to a lower set of standards, because that is just how they are. Our praise for Mansouri, no matter how much she deserves it, only demonstrates our unconcern for the actual status of women in the Arab Middle East.