“We lock onto each other’s planes in the air and fake a battle, until one of us proclaims ‘I’m dead,’” says the 24-year-old Flying Officer, Ayesha Omar Farooq.
She is one of the many female pilots who now bolster the ranks of the Pakistan Air Force. When she takes off from the tarmac, the responsibility of flying a multi-million dollar fighter is hers and hers alone. Gone are the days when women in the military were only restricted to the fields of medicine and engineering. With the passage of time, women in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) have branched into different units and today, they are even inducted as frontline Fighter Pilots. Dressed in crisp uniforms with embellished stars on their shoulders and smiles on their faces, a group of female officers gather at the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) to talk about their experiences. They are the conquerors of the skies, and the pride they take in their positions and achievements is visible in their demeanour. Their faces, radiant with courage and confidence break into smiles and laughter effortlessly. It is easy to forget that, in order to get to this much sought-after position, each and every one of them has had to put in countless hours of hard work and have had to make many sacrifices.
For these pilots, the sky is not the limit. When it comes to flying fighter jets, the higher you soar, the greater are the heights that you discover. It is only when you push both yourself and your aircraft to its limits that you discover what you are capable of. 23-year-old Flying Officer Anam Faiq, was the first in her family to join the military. As a little girl, she would attend the annual parades with her father on the 23rd of March in Islamabad. “I was so fascinated to see those planes soaring high. I always thought to myself that one day I will also fly a plane.” Back then, her image of pilots was that of tall, dashing and muscular men. “But of course that’s not the case anymore,” she says with a laugh. Anam has now spent six years in the air force and is now in charge of her own F-7 fighter plane.
Even after years of being a pilot, she says that there are times when her parents cannot believe that she actually flies a fighter jet. “Every time I am about to take off, I speak to my mother. She says whenever I’m up in the air, her heart sinks. But I do see the pride in her eyes,” she says. Her training has been demanding, but Anam is proud to have made it this far at a young age. “I am proud to say that I am a fighter pilot today. I feel amazing when I am in the air, at the top of the world. There is no feeling that matches the adrenaline rush of when we take off. Hearing my heart beat in my head, the excitement is unmatchable,” she says.
But it is still a fact that, all over the world, the armed forces are largely a boy’s club. So how do these young girls blend in this macho environment? Anam says that they have never felt discriminated against or threatened by their male counterparts. “If anything, they have been extremely supportive” she says. Missions in the Air Force are not allocated on gender basis and everyone gets an equally tough assignment. The simulated war patterns in the basic fighter maneuvers are what excite her the most. “We risk our lives, early mornings or late at night, but it is all worth it!” she says. Adding to that, Ayesha Omar Farooq says that she enjoys her training in bombing the most. “The jolt felt in the aircraft once the bomb lands on the ground is just exciting. My mother is a really strong woman and I look up to her. After losing my father at an early age, I now feel like I am the man of my family and I feel that the Air Force has made me stronger than ever,” she says. Both Anam and Ayesha fly their own fighter planes today and are amongst the few handpicked fighter pilots in the PAF. “The scope for women to enter this profession is high; it is demanding but rewarding” says Ayesha.
Squadron leader Sania Iqbal, a member of the Administration Branch, says that women are now present in almost every unit of the PAF. A Masters graduate in English literature, Sania never wanted to be a typical housewife. Owing to her family background in the military service, she always aspired to be a part of the PAF and jumped at the opportunity as soon as she heard of it. “There was no turning back after that point” she says. With eleven years of experience in the administration of different units at the PAF, she believes that women are the best managers, and she’s certainly glad for the support that having other women around gives her: “We have seen tough times together and we support each other. You don’t feel alone, and you know someone will stand up for you in difficult times. The pride, the comfort, the perks aside, serving in the Pakistan Air force is a serious challenge that we battle everyday”, she says.
While these women endure strenuous work hours and tough training regimes in the air, those on ground-duty don’t have it easy either. Many of these women are also mothers and wives on double duty. Standing tall and confident among the officers is Flight Lieutenant Munazzah Akbar Khan, who works at the Air Headquarters in Islamabad at the Directorate of Safety. As a mother of two, she has more than one responsibility on her shoulders. With eleven years of work experience, she calls her present posting “the most stressful job in the world.” “We have to leave our worries and personal matters outside the tower. I am a mother but at the same time I am an officer, so once I enter the tower I cannot think about anything else. I feel like a super woman at times,” she adds. Along with the Air Force, she is also in-charge of military and civil traffic. “But that’s not all,” she says, “one must also take care of flight safety, in air and on-ground emergencies, and rescue and fire services. We cannot afford a single flaw. Lives are at stake and it is a huge responsibility especially when we deal with VIP and VVIP movements.” Like her colleagues, Munazzah says there is no discrimination when it comes to work and women have to work just as hard as the men. “Quick decisions, high attention level, stressful night duties are all very challenging but a great learning experience,” she says.
Though it may be a struggle to remain at par with the men, it is just as challenging, and sometimes amusing, to keep up with the women outside the Air Base. Squadron leader Shakeela Naaz, a training officer at the Faisal Base Engineering Wing, comments on the difference between themselves and the women of other professions. “We are dressed in uniform the whole day and don’t even know how it feels to wear heels anymore” she laughs. “We have to pick up magazines to learn the latest trends.”
But if training in the Air Force keeps them away from the changing fashion vistas of Pakistan, it certainly inculcates in them iron-clad confidence. Shakeela, who has been working in the Air Force for the last 12 years, says that her job, taxing as it may be, has given her the confidence to embrace any challenge that comes her way. “Everyone is always on rotation,” she says, “from learning to manage the electronics of aircrafts to manning the Air Defence setup. Everything needs to be maintained without any error, and quality checks are very important.” Sharing similar views, Squadron Leader at the AHQ Islamabad, Ayesha Waheed says that the Air Force experience has transformed her as a person. After eleven years of experience in the training of teachers and the staff, she is now working with the Air Force’s Flight Safety Magazine. “If I had lived the normal life of a housewife, my life would feel empty,” she says. She recalls being a shy girl who had no confidence to speak to anyone. “I think my experience has added so much to my knowledge that today I work on various issues for the Magazine. It helps me grow as a person each day. I talk to people with confidence now and confront them whenever I feel the need to,” she says, and adds with a smile: “It is good being in uniform.”
As years go by, more and more women are entering the PAF in front-line positions. Squadron Leader Amber Raza, who is currently working as an Assistant Director of Civil Contract Management, says that all assignments given to her as a lady officer were challenging at first. But in the past few years there has been a sudden boost in the number of women entering the profession. “Twelve years ago there were 46 Lady Officers in our course and they have now crossed over 200 officers working in different units. There is not a single unit that does not have a lady officer,” says Amber.
These frontline female fighter pilots may be in an unconventional profession in Pakistan, but they believe that the social taboos they encounter as women are no different from those in other professional fields. Opting for a profession in the PAF may take a lot of their time and energy, perhaps even at the expense of their families, but it rewards them with pride and honour. There is a lot that goes behind their smiles and their calm exterior. Salute to these brave women who are serving the country so dedicatedly, those who tell us confidently as we doze off: “Sleep tight! The Pakistan Air Force is awake!”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 24th, 2013.
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