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Vox Got the Mariam al-Mansouri Story Wrong

Vox Got the Mariam al-Mansouri Story Wrong

Vox’s Max Fisher wrote a scolding piece critical of the media’s coverage of Major Mariam al-Mansouri, the first female fighter pilot for the U.A.E. In fact, Fisher’s criticism is mostly based on his own wishful thinking: about the status of women in the middle-east and about the beliefs of ISIS fighters that Maj. al-Mansouri helped bomb last week.

Fisher’s piece is a bit of a mish-mash. He wants to scold the American media for giving too little credit to Arab nations respect for women’s rights while simultaneously faulting the media for giving too much credit to the U.A.E. for the same. Here’s Fisher’s complaint:

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.

As to his first point, the U.A.E. does have problems protecting women’s rights but that doesn’t change the fact that Maj. al-Mansouri’s role as a fighter pilot represents a positive step, one which the U.A.E. obviously supports. In fact, here’s an interview with Mariam al-Mansouri saying she received support from the U.A.E. government and from her fellow male pilots and trainers. This is a positive story for Maj. al-Mansouri but also for the U.A.E. No one becomes a fighter pilot without government support. Fisher continues:

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.

Fisher quotes two people making this comparison, neither of whom said driving restrictions were the default in the Arab world. On MSNBC, Mika Brezinski said, “In some countries women can’t drive…” On Fox, Kimberly Guilfoyle said, “In some Arab countries, women can’t even drive.” Neither woman said not being able to drive was the norm. Both clearly said “in some.”

And contrary to Fisher’s mansplaining, both women were correct. Human Rights Watch notes that last May Kuwait announced, “that Saudi Arabian women would not be provided with drivers’ licenses
while in Kuwait without the permission of their male guardians.” So Saudi Arabia is not quite unique since Kuwait now extends their driving law (at least with regard to Saudi women).

Fisher claims the U.S. media has bought 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
.” In fact, this is not about expectation, it’s about reality. Women’s rights are not broadly respected in much of the Arab world. Since Fisher used a citation of Human Rights Watch’s critique of the U.A.E., I’ll use the same source, all of this comes from the 2014 annual report:

  • HRW criticized Egypt’s handling of rape and domestic violence and noted that, “laws in Egypt continue to discriminate against women in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance.” There is no law criminalizing domestic violence in Egypt.
  • In Iraq, a law which would legalize marriage for girls as young as 9 was approved by Iraq’s council of ministers.
  • In Yemen, HRW says women face, “severe discrimination” and a lack of legal protection. Child marriage is common.
  • In Jordan, “Marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslims are not recognized. A
    woman separated from a Muslim husband forfeits her custodial rights
    after the child reaches seven years old.”
  • And in Kuwait there are “no laws prohibiting domestic violence, sexual harassment, or marital rape.” Women can not marry without their father’s permission.

Add to that list Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Somalia, Bahrain and Libya–all of which were criticized by HRW in various ways in 2014 for their treatment of women–and you’ve got a significant portion of the Arab world. It’s not a condescending assumption to notice reality.

A bit later Fisher actually gets around to something which sounds a lot like defending the honor of ISIS:

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.

Fisher claims that the story about ISIS’ fears of being killed by women is a myth. He claims it is based upon a single sentence in a Wall Street Journal story. That’s false. This Stars and Stripes story about female Kurdish fighters also mentions this idea:

Karhan said she’d heard stories about the extremists’ fear of being
killed by the opposite sex. In northern Iraq, it is said that the
Islamic State fighters, who are exclusively male, believe that they
won’t be admitted to heaven if they are killed by a woman.

Does that mean the story is true? Not necessarily, but it does suggest the idea isn’t limited to one line in one publication. The story is widespread enough that a female Kurdish soldier in Iraq had heard about it.

Max Fisher then links to a story about ISIS’ own female battalions as if this disproves the idea that ISIS has a problem with women fighters. But if you read the story you learn that these are not front line military units sent to fight men. These “battalions” were formed primarily to search women at checkpoints in Syria and to enforce strict rules on women in areas ISIS controls? Why is this necessary? Because the men are not allowed to touch a woman who is not their wife.

So ISIS does not have a problem with women being used to keep other women in line. But that tells us nothing about how ISIS fighters feel about fighting women (or being killed by women) in combat. Fisher’s outrage on behalf of ISIS continues:

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.

Fisher got this wrong too. In fact, on the same day he published his piece, a site called Your Middle East published an interview with a former ISIS recruit named Sherko Omer. They asked his specifically about the 72 virgins:

What about the promise of virgin angles in heaven, is there any truths to this?

Yes, of course. We were told that as martyrs we would have 72 eternal virgins in heaven and we can save dozens of our close relatives from hell too.

So, IS promises its’ recruits 72 virgin angels and you are saying this is not “anti-Islamic propaganda” as some people may otherwise claim?

We were promised women in heaven and on earth too based on IS jihadist teaching of the verses of some Suras of the holy book of Quran and hadiths by prophet Muhammad, all of which were explained through the Tafsir (explanation) by Islamic scholars like Ibn Majah, Bukhari and Ibn Kathir. We were told all non-Muslim women prisoners will be our wives and God wills it.

To sum all this up, Major Mariam al-Mansouri is a positive story which contrasts with the truly horrifying treatment of women by ISIS. Contra Max Fisher, Human Rights Watch makes clear that the treatment of women in much of the Arab world has a long way to go and the ability to drive is really the least of that. But as for driving, no one ever said women weren’t allowed to drive throughout the Arab world. In fact the people Fisher quotes specifically said that was true in “some” places and they were correct, i.e. Saudi Arabia and, by extension, Kuwait.

As for the idea that ISIS fighters fear being killed  by females, that story appears to have spread in northern Iraq and at least two independent female fighters there mentioned it. Max Fisher offers nothing to disprove this claim except his own indignation. ISIS female battalions were not set up to fight men and tell us nothing about how ISIS feels about being killed by women fighters. And ISIS really is teaching recruits that 72 virgins await them in paradise. That’s a lot of errors for one post, even one at Vox.


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