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Up, up and away

September 01, 2013
Female Pilot of Pakistan Air Force Ambreen Gul standing with plane during training.
Female Pilot of Pakistan Air Force Ambreen Gul standing with plane during training.
Twenty-four officers of Pakistan Army successfully completed the first ever lady officers para trooping course at Peshawar.
Twenty-four officers of Pakistan Army successfully completed the first ever lady officers para trooping course at Peshawar.

Flight lieutenant Ayesha Farooq, 26, had already been in ‘combat’ seven years ago, when her family, especially her mother, had voiced disapproval of her joining the air force. But after June this year, she will be remembered as the very first combat-ready female fighter pilot. Ayesha was the first of six women fighter pilots in the force to pass the final exams to qualify for battle and flies missions in an F7PG fighter jet.

Once any aircraft takes off, it leaves a lot behind, including gender bias. Ayesha flies alongside her 24 male colleagues in Squadron 20, and flies just as well as anyone else. In the air, everyone is equal.

“Not many women think of flying,” were her words as she conversed with the media after her selection. “I am however happy to see that I am treated just like anybody else in this place, and have never felt any kind of bias towards me or against me just because I am female.”

While there are 18 other female pilots among the 4,000 women in Pakistan’s 1.4million-strong armed forces, these female recruits mostly do desk jobs and medical work. Not many want to be in the field, even fewer want to be able to fight combat. But a growing number of women have joined Pakistan’s defence forces in recent years as attitudes towards women have changed. Over the last decade, women have become sky marshals, defending Pakistan’s commercial liners against insurgent attacks, and a select few are serving in the elite anti-terrorist force too.

And like many others Ayesha also recognises the meaning of entering a world very different from what she may have seen throughout her life. “Because of terrorism and our geographical location it is extremely important that we stay on our toes,” she said, referring to Taliban militancy and a sharp rise in sectarian violence.

It has mostly been about never going against the wishes of their families. Pressure from home against the traditionally male domain of the armed forces has continually dissuaded women in general from taking the next step of their training, to become combat ready. Instead, they end up flying slower aircraft, ferrying troops and equipment around the country. But some young girls are also supported very much by their parents.

Flying Officer Saira Batool, one of the first six women to be selected, described her training as tough but “very thrilling”. “My parents, their prayers and my instructors have all helped me achieve this success,” she said.

And Squadron 20’s wing commander Nasim Abbas remarks: “More and more women are joining now and as they are coming in, it is seen as less of a taboo. There’s been a shift in the nation’s, the society’s, way of thinking.”

True enough, social networking sites and even street interviews reveal that instead of demoralising them, the public has appreciated this new face of the armed forces.

“I am very proud of these young girls,” says Nadeem Ahmed, 40, a taxi driver. “I want to give them a big salute.”

“I praise my sister on her selection and hope more such brave females enter our armed forces,” says Abbas Khan on a fan page on Facebook. “I want my daughter to be in her place one day.”

Such praise and appreciation especially from the male section of the population points to a major advancement in seeing women in more physically challenging fields. Even though wing officials say that the women were initially physically unprepared for combat, because of lack of muscle mass, a lot of gym training gave them the required amount of mass and so they met the criteria.

Pakistan now has 316 women in the air force compared to around 100 five years ago.

“In Pakistan, it’s very important to defend our front lines because of terrorism and it’s very important for everyone to be part of it,’ says a female avionics engineer, as she sets out for work on an F-16 fighter aircraft, her thick long hair tucked under a baseball cap in a boyish way. “It just took a while for the air force to accept this.”

But it is important to remain grounded. While a lot of positivity is flowing regarding this development, Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc and an expert on military affairs in Pakistan voices her concern for the future of these women.

“This is a great initiative but my experience is that these women are trained for combat but later on, given side jobs like administration. It is a nice island but does it ultimately change the attitude towards women?” she questions.