MUSHAF AIR BASE, June 13: With an olive green headscarf poking out from her helmet, Ayesha Farooq flashes a cheeky grin when asked if it is lonely being the only war-ready female fighter pilot in the country.
Ms Farooq, from Bahawalpur, is one of 19 women who have become pilots in the Pakistan Air Force over the last decade – there are five other female fighter pilots, but they have yet to take the final tests to qualify for combat.
“I don’t feel any different. We do the same activities, the same precision bombing,” the soft-spoken 26-year-old said of her male colleagues at the Mushaf base.
A growing number of women have joined Pakistan’s defence forces in recent years as attitudes towards women change.
“Because of terrorism and our geographical location it’s very important that we stay on our toes,” said Ms Farooq, referring to the Taliban militancy and a sharp rise in sectarian violence.
Deteriorating security in Afghanistan, where US-led troops are preparing to leave by the end of next year, and an uneasy relationship with India add to the mix.
Ms Farooq was at loggerheads with her widowed and uneducated mother seven years ago when she said she wanted to join the air force.“In our society most girls don’t even think about doing such things as flying an aircraft,” she said.
Family pressure against the traditionally male domain of the armed forces dissuaded other women from taking the next step to become combat ready, air force officials said. They fly slower aircraft instead, ferrying troops and equipment around the country.LESS OF A TABOO: “More and more ladies are joining now,” said Nasim Abbas, Wing Commander of Squadron 20, made up of 25 pilots, including Ms Farooq, who fly Chinese-made F-7PG fighter jets.
“It’s seen as less of a taboo. There’s been a shift in the nation’s, the society’s, way of thinking,” Ms Abbas told Reuters on the base in Sargodha. There are now about 4,000 women in the country’s armed forces, largely confined to desk jobs and medical work.
But over the last decade, women have became sky marshals, defending Pakistan’s commercial liners against insurgent attacks, and a select few are serving in the elite anti-terrorist force. Like most female soldiers in the world, Pakistani women are still banned from ground combat.
There are 316 women in the PAF compared to around 100 five years ago, Mr Abbas said.
“In Pakistan, it’s very important to defend our frontlines because of terrorism and it’s very important for everyone to be part of it,” said avionics engineer Anam Hassan, 24, as she set out for work on an F-16 fighter aircraft, her thick black hair tucked under a baseball cap.
“It just took a while for the air force to accept this.” —Reuters