Meeting Pakistan’s female Top Gun
By Zohra Bensemra
I first came up with the idea of covering Pakistani female pilots after reading an article online that ranked four of them among the country’s 100 most powerful women. But I could not approach any of the 19 female pilots without getting permission from the military, which ended up taking six months. After nearly giving up hope on the story, the spokesman for the air force approved our request with one of the pilots. It turned out to be Ayesha Farooq, the first war-ready female fighter pilot for the nuclear-armed nation.
A month later, the day finally came to meet Farooq. I left Islamabad at 5:30 a.m., impatient to arrive after waiting so long for the approval and anxious to meet her. A few hours later, I arrived at the Mushaf Air Base in Sargodha in northern Pakistan.
They took us first to the historic hall of the air force, where we were offered coffee and tea. But we soon grew impatient, asking “Where is Ayesha? We want to meet her.” Twenty-minutes later, a smiling young woman, veiled in an olive green head scarf that matched her uniform entered the room. I was disappointed to hear that Farooq could not fly for us because of a sprained ankle.
During the interview, I realized that behind her shyness was a strong woman, who had fought hard to achieve her dream of becoming a fighter pilot for her country. She spoke about her struggle to convince her mother to allow her to enroll in the male-dominated armed forces.
As an Algerian that shares a similar culture with Farooq, I was proud of her and her accomplishments. I was glad to hear her simple, humble and confident voice about being the lone combat-ready female fighter pilot.
“I don’t feel any different. We do the same activities, the same precision bombing,” the 26-year-old said of her male colleagues at the base, where neatly piled warheads sit in sweltering 50 degree Celsius heat (122 degrees Fahrenheit). “My colleagues are very cooperative. We take the same challenges, like who will do more precise bombing and everything. So I don’t feel like there is any difference when it comes to practice, or training, or all the routine activities.”
With a look that commands respect, she attended a military briefing with colleagues. The meeting seemed miles away from the life of many other Muslim women in Pakistan’s male-dominated world. Here, she was just one of the pilots.
When I saw Farooq with her helmet in hand walking with her colleagues and later sitting with them next to a fighter jet, I wouldn’t have known she was a woman if it wasn’t for her head scarf.
She climbed into the cockpit, her movements precise. “Because of things related to terrorism, and due to our geographical location in the area, it’s very important that we should stay on our toes and get prepared for any bad activity going on around.” I believed Ayesha was a born fighter. She didn’t talk about make-up or clothes, she spoke about protecting and defending her country. The same country where women don’t have all of the same rights as men and are often treated as second-class citizens.
The next day Farooq, who was still nursing her sprained ankle, sat with us as several fighter jets took off from the base. I asked her if her future husband made her choose between him or her work, which would she choose? “I love my work,” she said. I told her, “Me too.”