As far back as she can remember Syeda Aafia Haider used to gaze at the planes that flew over her house, admiring their flight and wondering what kept them up. Little did she know that she would soon learn the inside-out of an aircraft, tweaking engines and fixing circuits.
Aafia belongs to a conservative middle class family and was expected to get married soon after completing her basic education. But by the time she was 16, Aafia was certain that she wanted to pursue a career in aviation. Not only did she have to convince her family about wanting to study further, her career choice was a particularly problematic matter as aviation is a male-dominated career. It is one thing to fight discrimination and prove that being a female makes one no less capable, it is quite another to be the first and only girl to take up a certain course in an institute.
Aafia’s mother supported her from the get-go, and made sure that her daughter did not give up. She had sacrificed her own ambitions after an early marriage and did not want the same for her children. Knowing the kind of pressure her daughter would be subjected to, she found a clever way out.
“I figured that instead of waiting for her to do her intermediate, like most people, I would put her in her field of interest right after Matriculation exams, so that even before societal pressure for marriage started to pile up, she would have completed her course, and be in her specific vocation,” says Syeda Uroosa Naqvi, Aafia’s mother.
Right after her matriculation exams, Aafia enrolled for a diploma in Aerospace and Avionics (B.Tech ND) at the ATS Training School accredited by Edexcel International, UK.
Initially, Aafia’s father was skeptical of her pursuing an education in aviation. He thought that Aafia would not be able to cope with the strenuous work that the course required. But once again, Aafia’s mother and her own clear determination came through and her father relented.
Relatives and friends however, were another story. When they learned that Aafia wanted to work in aviation, they were shocked. When it emerged that she was the only girl in her class, they were scandalised. Naturally, they took the liberty of cautioning her parents against the consequences. “She will frequently talk to boys”, “She won’t be shareef”, “She won’t get suitable marriage proposals” and “It’s best that she did something more feminine”, were some of the not-so-helpful suggestions.
It was also difficult for Aafia’s all-male classmates to accept her as one of them. They used to bully her and tried to make her feel uncomfortable. But she found a way out to ignore all the bitter comments and stay strong — by concentrating on her studies. This, she says, was due to the encouragement and guidance she got from her teachers. Gradually she earned the grudging respect of her classmates as well.
Aafia agrees that the field of aerospace and avionics is challenging for women, since it is taxing both mentally and physically. Aerospace involves all the mechanical engineering related to an aircraft and avionics is related to the electric and electronic systems of the plane. So it can involve arduous work like dismantling engines and carrying and fixing heavy equipment, and there’s always a high chance of accidents. She recalls that when she once accidently touched the engine fuel, it left her finger painful and swollen for a week. “Even lifting the tool box used to leave blisters on my hand, but when you have a passion for something these things are merely pebbles in the way,” she says.
Although she strongly encourages other women to join the field she cautions that it requires an element of toughness. “Anyone taking up the tools of an aircraft engineer should be prepared for broken nails and grubby hands,” she adds with a giggle.
Now at the end of her course, Aafia says it was a challenging period with many new experiences and hurdles though each challenge taught her how to tackle greater tribulations. Besides her diploma, she has also completed her Intermediate and is currently a trainee at an airline. After the completion of her course, she will be joining as an aircraft trainee engineer and start studying for her license, after which she will be taking up a career in avionics and be an aircraft maintenance engineer. It is a job that requires a high degree of responsibility as it involves repairing, modifying and testing a range of electrical circuits, electronic instruments and radio communications and certifying the airworthiness of an aircraft, she explains. A small mistake can cost lives. It is also a heavily male dominated profession in Pakistan, but she is ready to take up this challenge as well.
So what advice does she have for girls who want to blaze their own trails? “No matter how difficult any field might be, if you have the support of your family, perseverance and determination, you soon get support and respect from everyone around you, and the strength to reach your goal.”
Aafia’s story is a beacon of hope for all those women who are bound by the restraints of society and who want to be able to go where few women have gone before.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 17th, 2011.
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