Justine Benanty is a qualified pilot but as a maritime archaeologist her time is spent underwater rather than in the sky. At her first dig in Israel she realised that she hated wheelbarrows and got sunburnt too easily to work in the desert, so investigating shipwrecks became her focus. Her project for the last five years has been to tell the stories of the slaves, who were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, through archaeology. It is a science which needs an image overhaul because, she says “there’s nothing cooler than finding […] a shipwreck at the bottom of the sea that no-one has seen for hundreds of years”. She is a co-founder of the ArchaeoVenturers project, a collection of videos and blogs about issues in history and science, which also celebrates women’s work in these fields.
Salima Ikram was born in Pakistan and got hooked on ancient Egyptian artefacts through the pictures in a childhood book. Her fate as an Egyptologist was sealed when she came face-to-face, aged nine, with mesmerising statues in the Cairo museum; she decided then that finding out more about them would be her life’s work. “Archaeologists are people who never grew up” she says. When not lecturing at the American University in Cairo, Salima will be somewhere dry, dusty, and dirty, recording ancient inscriptions or X-raying mummies – human and animal. Her role models in archaeology were women who had been working since the 1940s, but, she says sexism is still a problem and more so in the west than the east. The important thing, she says, “is to do what you want to do and do it very well.”
(Photo: Salima Ikram and Justine Benanty. Credit: Salima Ikram – J. Rowland)
Check out the link for downloading the podcast or listen directly on your computer HERE!
Coming from a country like the United States, where one can easily make the argument that women have close to, if not the most rights in the world, watching countries in the Middle East, especially with what is going on now with ISIS/ISIL/IS, can be incredibly heartbreaking for many reasons. Despite our continuous political arguments over women’s issues, as a nation, the United States continues to be a champion for women’s rights globally. An article marking the eve of International Women’s Day back in March put it succinctly “From ‘honor killings’ to legal restrictions, women in the Arab world face challenges foreign to Westerners.” And yet, only in January 2013 did the USA revisit the effort to put women back into our combat forces, including special operations. Israel, Canada, France, amongst others, are just some of the few nations that already send women to combat.
The reason we did this special episode series of ‘Women Warriors/Female Fighters” for #AVProject was because we wanted to highlight some inspirational women, both historical and contemporary. Clearly, in only 2-3 minute segments each, we can only chat about a very tiny select few heroines (and we encourage YOU to send in your favorites!) but there were a few certainly worth mentioning.
This episode, “Eliminating ISIS/ISIL/IS Terror: By Air” focuses on the contribution of Major al-Mansouri- the United Arab Emirate’s (UAE) first female pilot to fly an F-16 fighter jet and lead the UAE’s air strikes against the Islamic State* against Syria. Not only is she fighting against an active terrorist group, she was one of the first women to join the UAE Air Force academy after women were allowed to join, graduating in 2007. In the media, she has been referred to as ‘Lady Liberty’ and her attack as ‘Operation Desert Maiden’. This milestone was in part due to Major al-Mansouri’s passion as well as the fact that the UAE is known to have the most liberal views on women’s rights in the Middle East. In stark contrast, Saudi Arabia doesn’t even allow women to drive cars or vote, amongst other oppressive laws.
When I first became aware of the Major’s achievements, I read that as a teenager, she too had dreamt of becoming a pilot in the armed forces. Unbeknownst to some (mentioned in this episode), I got my private pilot’s license while I was in high school at Republic Airport in Long Island. Although I never made it to the armed forces (the farthest I got was visiting the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs), because I was instead drawn to archaeology, I still always dreamed I would use my skills as a pilot for my career one way or the other. (Side note, in 2005 I did volunteer to build a life-size version of Wiley Post’s Lockheed Vega, the “Winnie Mae” for the National Park Service as part of Historic Aircraft Restoration Project). I rationalized in graduate school, once I went from air to sea with maritime archaeology, that eventually I could still fly planes for aerial remote-sensing surveys of underwater sites. Years later, it is still a goal of mine, however one that is as of yet, unfulfilled.
What I hope that our audience takes away from this episode and mini-series, is that despite impossible barriers, the human spirit finds a way to persevere. In this case, women throughout history have been often unsung heroes and it’s high time that their achievements be publicly lauded.
“A woman’s passion about something will lead her to achieving what she aspires, and that’s why she should pursue her interests.”- Major al-Mansouri
*The modern activities of IS are hereafter referred to only as ISIS or ISIL, because ArchaeoVenturers refuses to acknowledge active terrorists/jihadist militant groups as a legitimate state/entity