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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 May, 2005, 09:06 GMT 10:06 UK
Pakistan's first women fighter pilots

By Zaffar Abbas
BBC News, Islamabad

Cadet Saba Khan
Saba Khan could qualify as a pilot in a year
The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) academy has been all-male for more than 55 years - but now it is going through major change.

Women are now allowed to enrol on its aerospace engineering and fighter pilot programmes and are doing rather well.

To the great surprise of many men, some of the female recruits will soon start flying jet-engine planes.

Male cadets are having to come to terms with the fact that masculinity itself is no longer a condition for reaching this prestigious institute.

Up till now they have done very well
Air Vice Marshall Inam Ullah Khan

There are 10 women in two batches in the flying wing of the academy. Many more are competing with men in the engineering and aerospace wing.

These trailblazers may still be few in number, but many instructors and even some male cadets admit their presence is already being felt.

'Lifelong dream'

Until recently, most women in this conservative Muslim society would more likely have imagined marrying a dashing fighter pilot than being encouraged to become one.

"I always wanted to be a fighter pilot, and eventually with Allah's wish and the full support of my parents, I made it this far
Cadet Saba Khan

But this was not true for Saba Khan, one of four female cadets to make it through the gruelling first stages of training.

Coming from an enlightened Pathan family in Quetta, capital of otherwise conservative Balochistan Province, Saba was initially inspired by one of her uncles who had been in the air force.

And she says the first newspaper advertisement seeking female cadets was like a dream come true.

"I always wanted to be a fighter pilot, and eventually with Allah's wish and the full support of my parents, I made it this far," she said.

Rifle practice
Women must achieve the same levels of performance as men

And Saba believes the first batch of women could provide much-needed inspiration for many other girls, who may follow suit.

Beaming with excitement, another aviation cadet, Ambreen Gill, said it was impossible for her to explain how she felt when she flew a propeller plane.

She said she hopes soon to fly the jets on her own, and perhaps at some stage even state-of-the-art combat aircraft like F-16s.


The air force academy is still male-dominated, and it's not clear what the real feelings of the male cadets have been to the induction of women onto the fighter pilot programme.

Cadet Saman Ahmed
Saman Ahmed: 'Don't show us compassion.'

Officially, most have welcomed the move.

But when one male cadet said the women should be shown compassion, female cadet Saman Ahmed was swift to say they were there to compete on equal terms.

"We don't expect compassion, we don't get compassion, and we don't want compassion," she said.

And this confidence is not without reason for Cadet Ahmed has already won praise in her engineering studies, beating both men and women.

Her excellence is not confined to the classroom, either.

During a rifle exercise, I watched as she shot all five bullets right in the bull's eye.


Many senior air force officials point out that bringing women into armed forces combat units has been a difficult decision in many countries.

In Pakistan the challenges of doing so were even bigger.

It's not just about size or strength - cultural and religious matters were also to be taken into account.

It's quite important that we maintain this level of segregation, mainly because we are a Muslim society
Squadron leader Shazia Ahmed

The head of the PAF academy, Air Vice Marshal Inam Ullah Khan, admits they had to take certain cultural sensitivities into account.

But he says allowing women to enrol has been a good experience, and some of the female cadets have done better than expected.

The academy maintains a degree of segregation between genders.

Although women march should-to-shoulder with their male counterparts during early-morning parade, some parts of the training, particularly physical exercises, are carried out separately.

"It's quite important that we maintain this level of segregation, mainly because we are a Muslim society," says squadron leader Shazia Ahmed.

A psychologist by training, and in charge of the female cadets, she says "in some ways it also gives these girls the much required confidence before they take up the bigger challenges".

But there is no compromise on standards - the women must achieve the same levels of performance as the men, or face being dropped from the programme.

For the moment it seems the few who have joined the ranks are doing extremely well.

And if that continues, when the current batch passes out in a year these cadets will become the first-ever women fighter pilots in Pakistan's history.

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