KARACHI: Becoming the first and only female war pilot in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) can’t possibly come easy, but Ayesha Farooq makes it seem otherwise.
Being a woman and engaging in war, undergoing rigorous training, dealing with ‘brutal seniors’, and living in a country – or world – where females are commonly known as the second sex, Farooq has indeed defied the glass ceiling.
The slim framed and soft spoken war pilot said she was inspired by her mother, a housewife and a widow, who for Farooq, is “the ultimate symbol of strength.”
“My mother raised me to be strong, to a point that if one day, I was left alone, I would be able to take care of myself,” she said while addressing a crowd at the Aga Khan University (AKU) in Karachi, adding that her achievement comes as a consequence of her mother’s support.
She also spoke fondly of a pilot who taught and inspired her, saying, “He taught me to touch the skies.”
Of her life and experience in PAF, Farooq spoke about fun-filled experiences with her juniors and seniors, rigorous training and emotional goodbyes.
“Life at PAF wasn’t just about hardcore training and brutal seniors; it included fun memories with friends,” Farooq said.
In response to a question about the physical training one undergoes at the flight school, Farooq briefly explained: “You have to wake up for a one-mile run every morning at about 4:30am – so you’d run first, and then you’d wake up.”
She added that they had to carry an MG3, a machine gun, which weighs about four kg- for two hours. “You wouldn’t think 4kg is heavy,” she said. “But carry something of that weight for two hours, and you will realise it is.”
After that, Farooq said the students would have to undergo the theory part of the course, and then take part in compulsory games, Farooq chose swimming and horse riding, then it was prep time followed by “lights off.”
Offering advice to young women, the war pilot said that instead of looking up to role models become one yourself.
She encouraged women and girls to come out of their houses, telling them that men and women could, in fact, compete on the same level.
Regarding facing gender discrimination, Farooq said, “I didn’t face that at all, but of course I had to work harder to prove myself. Being inducted as a female fighter pilot was a great experience, but all eyes were on you at that point.”
For a woman who came across as soft-spoken and who is qualified to engage in combat, Farooq also displays her sense of humour.
When asked whether she would rather have been a transport pilot as opposed to a fighter pilot, she responded with a laugh, “definitely a fighter pilot.”
“I visited the cockpit of an airline once, and when I walked in they were sitting and eating donuts,” she said, to raucous laughter from the audience. “I asked them what they were doing eating donuts, and they casually replied “oh it’s, on autopilot.”
* Correction: In an earlier version of the story, it was not mentioned that the talk was held at the Aga Khan University.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2014.