How High Can Pakistan’s Air Force Women Fly?
By Bina Shah
Karachi, Pakistan

Flight Lt. Ayesha Farooq, Pakistan’s only combat-ready female air force pilot, has become both an international celebrity and a symbol of a new Pakistan, where women are breaking barriers and taking on roles traditionally closed to them. Yet Pakistan is also known as a country where women’s place in society yo-yos up and down. For example, in the 1990s it entrusted the leadership of the entire nation to Benazir Bhutto while still resisting girls’ education and advances in women’s rights.

Given this contradictory attitude, how far can Pakistan’s female air force officers expect to go?

That’s hard to answer. The air force has been more progressive than other branches of the military. At its inception, it modeled its service environment after the British Royal Air Force. In the late 1950s, while receiving an increasing amount of American equipment and mentorship, its chiefs turned more toward the ethos of the United States Air Force, and women began serving as air force doctors and nurses.

Then, in 1977, Group Capt. Shahida Perveen joined the force as a psychologist in a prominent role; she did psychological testing for the recruitment center, then helped establish an Institute of Air Safety to research how human error led to air accidents. She describes receiving “red carpet treatment” on joining the air force, and credits Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — the prime minister at the time, and Benazir Bhutto’s father — with opening doors for women who had ambitions beyond the medical units.

Still, women remained barred from other branches of the air force until 1995, when Ms Bhutto, as prime minister, persuaded Air Chief Marshal Abbas Khattak to think about women joining branches of the air force beyond the medical branch, “now that women were being considered for everything — thanks to her influence,” says Riazuddin Shaikh, a retired air marshal who served under Air Chief Marshal Khattak.

Female cadets were then recruited into administrative and accounting departments. They became air traffic controllers, worked in law, logistics and education. They were trained for aeronautical engineering, avionics and information technology; they played huge roles in designing specialized avionics software and managing hardware at air force bases. Despite some reservations among male officers, Air Marshal Shaikh recalls no serious adverse reactions.

Nevertheless, a decision to allow women to become fighter pilots did not come until 2002, under Air Chief Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir. By then, women were serving as pilots in the American military, and that precedent influenced the decision. But it took the voices of the women themselves to persuade Air Chief Marshal Mir. “Every time the women met him, they demanded that they be allowed to become pilots,” Air Marshal Shaikh recalled. “And because their inclusion had been progressive, it actually happened quite smoothly.”

The induction of female pilots into the Pakistani Air Force began in 2005, with one of the first, Aviation Cadet Saira Amin, winning the coveted Air Force Academy Sword of Honor for best in class during training in 2006. Today, 21 women serve as pilots, and while Lieutenant Farooq is the only one in a fighter squadron, five more are undergoing training for that at the air force academy in Risalpur. Others serve in transport, helicopter, electronic and drone squadrons. In total, there are now 339 women officers in the air force, 196 of them in medical positions — a traditional route for women that still has broad appeal.

When Benazir Bhutto was first elected prime minister in 1988, some Pakistanis questioned whether it was religiously correct for a woman to head a Muslim country. In the end, the questioning died down, at least in part on the basis of Qur'anic verses referring to the Queen of Sheba. So far, nobody prominent has raised similar objections on religious grounds against women taking combat roles. Captain Perveen recalls facing small indignities in a heavily male environment. “We were expected to smile,” she says today. “Was that really our role as lady officers?” Still, the force remains free of reports of sexual assaults like those that have plagued the United States Air Force.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani Air Force offers no exception to the expectation that Pakistani women must fulfill their age-old roles of wife, homemaker and mother. This helps explain why so few female cadets continue on a path to combat roles. It also explains why many women marry colleagues, since military men can better understand and support their career paths.

Eight years ago, Lieutenant Farooq’s extended family saw her choice to join the air force as an aberration from a woman’s normal path, and they tried to dissuade her, she related in a recent lecture. But, she took their criticism as a challenge that drove her harder to succeed. Today, she said, she is happily married to a fellow air force officer, and her once-skeptical relatives now ask how their own daughters can join the air force.

In the force, Lieutenant Farooq was trained like the men. When fuel fumes made her nauseated her first time up in a Mishaal propeller plane, her instructor simply passed her the controls and ordered her to fly. Only later, on her first solo flight, she related, did she really feel in control in the air, with the “entire world beneath my feet.”

These days, the Pakistani Air Force eagerly trumpets her rise as a symbol of its modernity. But Air Marshal Shaikh is realistic. “It will take time before a woman can ever become the head of a branch, or even the head of the air force,” he says — the implication being that we may never live to see it. Still, growing numbers of Pakistani women view an air force career as an option, not just to serve their country but to gain the ultimate feeling of control over their lives.

(Bina Shah is the author of several books of fiction, including, most recently, “A Season for Martyrs”. - The New York Times)

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