By all accounts, the Islamic State group’s treatment of women in the territories it occupies has been abhorrent. Well, if the group wanted to make women the enemy, it may have gotten more than it bargained for.
Meet Mariam al-Mansouri, the 35-year-old pilot from the United Arab Emirates who – the UAE revealed Thursday — is leading strike missions against IS targets in Syria.
Mansouri is the UAE’s first female pilot, having graduated flight school in 2007. She is now a Major and an experienced F-16 pilot.
“I can officially confirm that the UAE strike mission on Monday night was led by female fighter pilot Mariam al-Mansouri,” UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba told MSNBC’s Morning Joe Thursday. “She is a fully qualified, highly trained, combat-ready pilot, and she led the mission.”
UAE’s The National reported in June that al-Mansouri, originally of Abu Dhabi, had dreamed of becoming a pilot for her country’s military ever since her teenage years, at a time when women were not allowed to fly. She joined the military anyway, and became the first female recruit in the academy once the rules were changed.
“At that time, the doors were not open for females to be pilots. So I had to wait almost ten years for the decision to be taken,” al-Mansouri told CNN earlier this year.
She added that she had received a lot of support from her peers, trainers and commanders.
“We are in a hot area so that we have to prepare every citizen,” al-Mansouri said. “Of course, everybody is responsible for defending their country — male or female.”
Ambassador al-Otaiba sought to link al-Mansouri’s rise in the ranks and the UAE’s relatively liberal stance on women’s rights to the conflict against Islamic State.
“The whole campaign and coalition on (Islamic State) and extremists in general boils down to ultimately this: Do you want a model or a society that allows women to become ministers in government, female fighter pilots, business executives, artists…or do you want a society where if a woman doesn’t cover up in public she’s beaten or she’s lashed or she’s raped,” he told MSNBC.
“It’s important for us — moderate Arabs, moderate Muslims — to step up and say this is a threat against us,” he said. “This is more of a threat against us than it is against you (Western countries). This is not just a threat to our countries. This is a threat to our way of life.”
The reveal of al-Mansouri’s involvement in the aerial missions has brought the UAE a great deal of positive attention in the media, as well as social media, but the nation’s actual record on women’s rights remains patchy: Reuters reported in late 2013 that while women have access to education, they represent only 14 percent of the country’s work force; culturally, women continue to fill mostly traditional, conservative roles in society; sexual violence laws are heavily tilted in men’s favor; husbands are allowed to beat their wives and marital rape is unrecognized by law.
The Reuters survey placed the UAE at number 10 out of a list of 22 Arab nations in their attitudes towards women. Not great — but making progress.
And if women like al-Mansouri are leading the charge, this week seems to prove, the sky is the limit.