Islamic State: Arab female F-16 pilot stirs debate in Muslim world

UAE fighter pilot Mariam al-Mansouri shot to fame last week for her role in a US-led bombing campaign in Syria. While Americans hailed her pluck, for Arabs it's more complicated.  

Emirates News Agency, WAM/AP/File
Mariam al-Mansouri, the first Emirati female fighter jet pilot, prepares to take off in United Arab Emirates, June 13, 2013.

Last week Mariam al-Mansouri, a F-16 pilot from the United Arab Emirates, was introduced to the world. Smiling out from under her helmet and hijab after launching air strikes in Syria, part of a US-led campaign against Islamic State, her image went viral.

For some Americans, she was a sort of Katharine Hepburn meets Amelia Earhart who had shattered prevalent stereotypes of Arab women. A popular Internet meme reads: “hey ISIS. you were bombed by a woman. have a nice day.” 

Her mission has aroused considerable “you go girl” sentiment in the Arab world as well, from Twitter to newspaper editorials.

“This woman has overcome obstacles and challenges with her determination and capability,” mused @BoZayed_9399, whose Twitter handle uses a Gulf term for father, suggesting he has roots in the region. Another tweet mockingly contrasted her feat with a Saudi sheikh’s opposition to women driving a car, saying it would damage their ovaries.

But her role in an American bombing campaign in a Muslim country also caused tremors along another fault line: the conflict between so-called moderate and more fundamentalist schools of Islamic thought in the Middle East. On one side of the fault line, Ms. Mansouri is depicted as a traitor to Arabs struggling to overthrow evil dictators. On the other, she’s an archetype of Arab society advancing into the future, in contrast to the backward-looking caliphate declared by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  

“This is a symbol of the eternal conflict between modernity and backwardness, between goodness and evil,” wrote Egyptian-born scholar Mamoun Fandy in an Asharq al-Awsat column titled, “Mariam and al-Baghdadi … heaven and earth.”  (Arabic)

Others stand aghast at the fact that a pretty woman has so blithely killed fellow Arabs, and is being championed in the West for doing so.

“I ask God that you suffer exactly the pain that you caused to everyone whom you killed, sooner than later,” tweeted @missprestige888.

Ibrahim Abu Marasa, who identifies himself as a Palestinian web designer in Gaza, voiced frustration that Mansouri – who he refers to pejoratively – has captured such global attention when the “slaughter” of close to 200,000 Syrians and the “massacre” of more than 2,100 Palestinians in Gaza this summer failed to galvanize Westerners or their armies.

“The people of Arab nations whose armies work to help America and kill Muslims, don’t they feel ashamed of themselves? Don’t they feel like mice?” he tweeted.

Mice, with their little hideouts and penchant for stealing crumbs and cheese, are seen here as lacking dignity, courage, and self-reliance.

But perhaps the most vivid imagery came from @mohalwber, who spoke of Mansouri as a lioness igniting a fire for the sake of her country, not only referring to revving up her F-16 but also evoking an age-old symbol of protection in desert cultures. Debate over everything from the role of women to differing interpretations of Islam has stoked that fire further, but maybe that is better than sitting in the darkness of silent complacency.

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