As Women’s History Month in the United States draws to a close, women in the armed forces of several Middle Eastern countries continue to achieve historic milestones, with many now serving as pilots, engineers, peacekeepers, and in special forces units. While gender integration in Arab armies has generally lagged behind Western militaries, the role of women is steadily increasing as the result of new initiatives, policies, and gradually changing mindsets in the Middle East.
Continued U.S. support to advance women’s meaningful participation in partner nation defense and security sectors — through Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) initiatives and various security cooperation and security assistance programs — remains critical. Under the Department of Defense’s (DoD) 2020 WPS Strategic Framework Implementation Plan, the department can provide additional opportunities, engagements, training, and education to reinforce these accomplishments.
Lebanon’s first female fixed-wing pilot
In Lebanon, 2nd Lieutenant Jana Sader, 24, made history earlier this year by becoming her country’s first female fixed-wing pilot. After spending nearly two years training as a pilot in Texas, she stands as the most recent example of Lebanon’s pursuit of increased female enrollment in the military. Jana, like many of her peers across the Middle East, symbolizes the growing desire among women to join the armed forces. Her desires, along with those of many other fearless women, have also spurred reforms to break down societal barriers to increased gender equity in these roles.
Growing up, Jana loved chemistry but knew she wanted to take her love of science and desire to serve her country to new heights. In 2020, Jana, alongside 50 other women, became part of the first class in the country’s history to enroll women at the military academy. There, she chose to specialize and commission into the Lebanese Air Force. Her tenacity, intellect, and potential landed her a coveted seat at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. Her class, full of aspiring pilots from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Kenya, included long days with early starts, late nights, and many hours studying in and out of the classroom. On top of that, this was Jana’s first time flying a twin-engine jet, unlike the prop planes she was accustomed to in Lebanon. Her accomplishments, successful completion, and achievements, however, came as no surprise to her colleagues and superiors back home.
Lebanon is not alone in the pursuit of increased female participation in the military. Jordan has longstanding female participation in its armed forces, starting with the training of military nurses in 1962. By 1973, the country was commissioning female engineers as military officers. In 1987, Princess Aisha Bint al-Hussein was the first female from the Middle East to graduate from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. She served in the Jordanian Special Forces, championed the role of women in the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF), and achieved the rank of major general. As part of its national Gender Mainstreaming Strategy released in 2021, Jordan set a target of 3% female participation in combat roles. The JAF’s goal is to increase the percentage of females in operational units to 5%. Presently, there are 642 operational female military officers, including Princess Salma bint Abdullah, daughter of Jordanian King Abdullah II bin al-Hussein. In 2020, Salma became the first female to successfully complete pilot training, followed three years later by Sabaa Thnaibat, the first woman to fly the F-16 platform solo in the JAF. The Jordanian Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Major General Yousef Ahmed al-Hunaiti, prioritizes the entry of highly educated women into the JAF as they are more educated than their male counterparts and often underutilized in the private sector.
The Gulf and Egypt
The United Arab Emirates also prioritizes gender equity and inclusion as part of its defense strategy. In 2014, Emirati F-16 pilot Major Mariam al-Mansouri became well known after conducting aerial targeting missions against ISIS fighters. Additionally, the UAE maintains an all-female peacekeeping corps. The Khawla bint al-Azwar Military School, the region’s first women’s military college, established in 1990, hosts programs to encourage and increase female participation in military and peacekeeping operations. The UAE’s military programs are known for training women from Yemen, Jordan, Gambia, Senegal, and Pakistan.
The role of women in other Middle East militaries also continues to grow. In 2018, Sheikha Aisha bint Rashid Al Khalifa became Bahrain’s first female fighter pilot. That same year, Qatar passed a national law allowing women to volunteer for national service, although many had already been serving in administrative positions. Today, many Qatari women serve in expanded roles, including as engineers and helicopter pilots.
Saudi Arabia also opened military service to women, in 2021, as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 initiative to increase the role of women in Saudi society. The country has begun graduating female soldiers from a 14-week training course. Beyond the military, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have pursued initiatives to include women across the defense enterprise. Sara Sabry became the first Egyptian in space in November 2022, after flying on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. Her current doctorate work focuses on planetary spacesuits at the Human Spaceflight Lab, funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Saudi Arabian Rayannah Barnawi will also become her country’s first female astronaut when she makes a 10-day trip to the International Space Station later this year.
A taste of what’s to come
Jana, the barrier-breaking Lebanese air force pilot, predicts a very bright future for women in the armed forces across the region. Many obstacles that previously stood in the way for women have been eradicated or modified to increase participation. In Lebanon, women can choose assignments in the Navy, Army, Air Force, or other administrative occupations within the Armed Forces. Furthermore, Jana states that the number of women seeking combat roles is increasing, and she hopes that Lebanon is afforded additional spots to train with partner nations to grow Lebanon’s pilot talent at a faster pace. Jana wants to remind Lebanese women that there are opportunities to pursue flourishing careers in the Armed Forces at home. “Do not let the current crisis dissuade you. Do not use it as a barrier to your entry and progress,” she said. To girls and women across the Middle East, Jana wants to remind them that serving your country could become a newfound passion. “If you never try, you’ll never know. This could be what you want to do for the rest of your life.” She is currently completing ground school training and will be engaged in aerial counterinsurgency efforts in Lebanon in the near future.
For Dr. Mireille Rebeiz, who grew up in Lebanon and now serves as an associate professor of Francophone & Middle Eastern Studies and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Dickinson College, stories like Jana’s show how the resilience of Arab women allows them to shatter stereotypes. Arab women are presumed to be homebound, oppressed, and in need of saviors. This orientalist image does not necessarily match the reality on the ground, and women like Jana are leading the way and opening doors for many women to follow.
A working model for U.S. support
Jana’s story and successful completion of pilot training provide an exemplary model of international training and security assistance in building partner capacity across the Middle East. U.S. support for women in partner nations continues through WPS initiatives as well as professional military education courses funded with International Military Education and Training (IMET), which obligated over $3 million last year specifically for educating women. Other programs like the Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI) have encouraged women to take leadership roles in United Nations and African Union peace operations and trained over 12,000 female peacekeepers.
While the integration of women in Arab militaries is still far from complete, pioneers like Jana represent what is possible. And as DoD works to operationalize its WPS Strategic Framework Implementation Plan, amplifying the achievements of women like Jana and providing additional opportunities and funding to support the growing role of military women in Middle East will ultimately strengthen partnerships and bolster security in the region.
Jasmin Alsaied is an active-duty Navy Surface Warfare Officer and a Fellow with MEI’s Defense and Security Program. She is a 2023 YPFP Security and Defense Fellow. Melissa Horvath served on active duty for over 20 years specializing in defense planning, logistics, training, and security cooperation. She is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow with MEI’s Defense and Security Program. Katie Crombe is an active-duty Army Strategist currently studying in the US Army War College’s National Security Policy Program. She is a Non-Resident Fellow with MEI’s Defense and Security Program.
Photo by Laughlin Air Force Base
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