Aviation for Girls

2015

Aviation for Girls is a special annual member publication of Women in Aviation International for Girls in Aviation Day. Articles feature young girls living their aviation dreams, career ideas, and education resources.

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AVIATION FOR Girls 2015 19 t heless soon acqu i red "a reputat ion" because she studied in the library (an all- male bastion, as were virtually all facili- ties at the school) and asked questions in class, neither considered appropriate for a woman. Intimidated by the negative atten- tion, she stopped participating in class and retreated to her room, enduring what she calls "the worst four years" of her life. Yet as graduation approached, "I started to question how my degree was any different than the boys'," she says, noting women weren't hired to perform the work for which she was qualifed as most would not complete the degree, dropping out after their families found a suitable husband for them. "I was putting in the same time, the same work, for the same de- gree, and yet I couldn't use the degree for what it was worth." Shortly before her 2002 graduation, Fatima saw a recruit- ment ad for the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), seeking qualifed citizens (not just men). "I was curious about whether I had it in me to be selected," she says. She took the preliminary test, passing without preparation, and after several months of screening, gained admission to the PAF Academy. By now a suitable husband had been found, but her parents didn't want her to waste the opportunity with the PAF, but rather to "go and then come back and get married." "I never went believing this was a career, or to become a powerful woman; I went in thinking eventually I will get married, but I'm still fne with that," Fatima says. A Force to Be Reckoned With After six months of basic training, in 2003, Fatima received her commission and, like other female offcers, was assigned to a clerical job. Meanwhile, male classmates were assigned engineering jobs in hangars, aircraft factories, or on the fight line. "That's when I started questioning," she says. "'Do I have to do a desk job? Can I work on airplanes?" Her supe- riors' response: "'There's no precedent.' I said, 'Let's make a precedent.'" They told her she couldn't be placed in charge of enlisted men, as they wouldn't take orders from a woman, nor could the brass guarantee the safety of an unescorted woman at remote locations on base. She remained persistent. Transferred to PAF Base Mas- roor, a fighter base in Karachi, she was briefly able to work on the fight line overseeing Mirage fghter jets—but the task was complicated by the women's "dangerous and impractical" uniforms. "They have six or seven yards of fabric wrapped around, like a bustle, and heels. Everyone else wore a fight suit. One day I went to the logistics department and got a fight suit," she says. Before having a chance to make her mark, the base com- mander had her returned to clerical duty. Her determination to conform to protocol for (male) offcers also drew ire. They were required, for example, to eat meals at the offcers' mess. Yet female offcers ate in their rooms. Not Fatima. "I'm an of- fcer, I go out to eat at mess, and I would get a bad reputation," she says. "They'd say, 'She does it so all the men lay eyes on her.'" Same with the mandated Monday parades: "I would go and they'd say, 'Oh, my God, she's with 400 or 500 men—she has no shame!'" Fatima attended airborne school—the first woman to do so—but wasn't allowed to make a parachute jump because she couldn't perform the necessary number of pull-ups (a re- quirement since waived for women). Requests for pilot train- ing were routinely denied. Finally, she hit the jackpot. Granted transfer to PAF Base Mushaf in Sargodha, she was named engineering offcer on the fight line of PAF's most elite F-16 Fighting Falcon squad- ron, serving 12-hour shifts overseeing a few hundred techni- cians and crew chiefs. She becomes more animated talking of coordinating armaments for the aircraft, spending nights chasing down vibrations on a jet in preparation for a pre- dawn mission, and running around all day on the fight line and sweating in the 45-degree C (113-degree F) heat, calling it all "one of the best times of my life." "A lot of people supported me—that's the only way I got to do what I did," she says. But to most, "I was a joke. They would tell their families not to interact with me because I'm not a good woman: 'She has no shame, wearing a fight suit, interacting with men; she's not married.'" All that, she might have endured, but what fnally proved intolerable was "the lack of respect. I took real pride in what I did, and after fve years, day and night, giving it all I could, it just kept getting worse. I felt guilty walking around; they Fatima's story is a reminder that aviation is as much a means of transformation as transportation. Fatima with Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. She was invited to join the Pakistani delegation for the Nobel Prize awards when Malala was honored in 2014.

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