Why Is Business Insider Whitewashing the Women's Rights Record of a Mideast Monarchy?

Major Mariam Al Mansouri, the United Arab Emirates' first female fighter pilot, made global headlines this week as she took part in air strikes in Syria as part of Obama's newly formed coalition.

While the idea of a female combatant taking on militant groups with misogynistic views has a truly newsworthy irony, many press outlets are inflating the story by using it to whitewash the Emirates' human and womens rights records, which is far from exemplary.

Take this story by Business Insider. BI's Amanda Mancias writes glowingly:

Al Mansouri said she was not given special treatment during training because of her gender. “Everybody is required to have the same high level of combat competence,” she said.

Earlier this year, the Social Progress Index ranked the UAE No. 1 in the world for treating women with respect and equality.

The last sentence here is a huge leap, claiming not only that the UAE elevated this woman to rank of fighter pilot, but that it is actually first in the world in terms of treating women with “respect and equality.”

I looked at the Social Progress Index report cited. In the methodology section, you can see that the section about treating women with respect is ranked by the Gallup World Poll, meaning that it's self-polling. The report explains why it chooses to use self-polls:

"In an effort to measure solely outcomes, not inputs, we have focused on results that matter to the lives of real people, not whether certain things are legally permissible or how much money the government spends. In some cases, this requires survey data. For example, six indicators are used from the Gallup World Poll in the 2014 Index that measure peoples’ perceptions of living conditions in their country. For instance, same-sex sexual activity is legal in Tajikistan, but according to the Gallup survey, only 1 percent of the population replied yes to a question on whether Tajikistan is a good place for homosexuals. Because of divergences like this, we concluded that survey data, as a representation of peoples’ lived experiences, is the better outcome measure."

While this logic may make some amount of sense in the example cited, it makes less sense on the topic of womens' rights. Look, for example, at the overall rankings on the question of respect for women. Saudi Arabia, which has a notorious regime of gender apartheid, ranks higher than the United kingdom, Ireland and Norway.

This is very problematic in the case of the UAE. As Human Rights Watch documents, women are still subject to a host of oppressive laws there, including a law that allows men to physically abuse their wives to “chastise” them. Additionally, the UAE “excludes domestic workers, almost exclusively migrant women, denying them basic protections such as limits to hours of work and a weekly day off.” Migrant workers make up 88.5% of the Emirates' actual population. Meanwhile, the nation refuses to democratize and continues political repression of both men and women who seek to change government policy.

It is understandable that the case of Mariam Al Mansouri would be exciting, particularly to Westerners who may not understand the degree to which women have served in the militaries and police forces of the Muslim world. But it is hardly an excuse to whitewash the UAE's poor record of offering women true equality, and not just an opportunity to take part in a murky military campaign.

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