Fly, My Girls, Fly.
By Pervez Akhtar Khan
This is a slightly modified version of on article that I wrote for the Dawn; Published on May 28th,2006.
This ; also in response to some cynics in the Pakistani Media, who after seeing the picture of Pakistan Air Force’s first operational Woman pilot think that it is just propaganda. Far from it, it has taken the PAF almost two decades to reach this hallmark.
Sitting in front of my laptop, I was struggling to design the ad for the recruitment of candidates to the College of Flying Training at PAF Academy Risalpur. The children were in their rooms and I could hear the unending fighting. The situation seemed under control so I thought best to stay out of the fray. The air-conditioners at the PAF Camp Badaber are particularly noisy. Their whirring had drowned out the approaching footsteps of my little daughter, Hadia. I suddenly noticed her standing behind me and staring at the computer screen. There was a forlorn and pathetic look on her face. Thinking that her hyperactive brother had once again overpowered her, I put my arms reassuringly around her and asked if Zulu (her brother) had something to do with her misery. She shook her head, looked at me and then pointed to three words on the computer screen: “Male Citizens Only” under the title of eligibility criteria for pilot candidates. With a challenging look on her face, she asked me, “Why Can’t I fly?”. The emphasis was on “I”. What a loaded question!! My girl is a fighter.
In my active flying days, I used to leave home in the dark so there was never time to see my children in the morning. But I always found Hadia waiting for me on return. As soon as she saw me, she would start running towards me; arms flailing, her ponytails bouncing, gaining speed all the time. Two to three steps short of me she would take off with full confidence in her Papa’s ability to catch her in mid air. She would cling to me, her arms tightly clasped around my neck. Her face nestled in the crook of my neck. She would exhale like you do when reach the top of a staircase. I would feel her little heart pounding away. This tight embrace would last for 10 to 15 seconds. Secretly I enjoyed this rendezvous, but sometime I used to ask Naveed (my wife) if Hadia felt insecure because of my profession. Naveed assured me that she never talked of the perils of flying profession in front of the children.
Now, this little girl was demanding of her father and the director of recruitment, PAF “Why Can’t I fly”. I defended PAF’s policy but she refused to budge from her position. To bring back the smile on her face, I made a promise to her that by the time she was grown up, Pakistani girls will fly for the PAF. Her eyes brightened up as she ran away to make the happy announcement to Zulu.
Today women officers fly in the blue skies over Pakistan, a feat that a few years ago many may have thought impossible to achieve
Their squabbling receded but an intense feeling of despair overpowered me. Will I be able to honour the promise I made to my girl? Three words, “Male Citizens Only”, kept mocking me. I felt guilty about the collective injustice we had been heaping on our loved ones. It was akin to clipping the wings of a little sparrow. I was shocked. I knew that my darling will never make it to the PAF because of her asthma but there were millions of Hadias across this country that could. I promised all those faceless girls that one day they would get their opportunity to go up in the air in a PAF jet.
Next day, I floated the idea of induction of women into the PAF. Some scoffed, others thought it was high time and a few were over-enthusiastic. It was decided to make a pitch to the Air Staff; We had better be prepared for the showdown.
It might surprise some readers that despite the rigid hierarchical command structure, the Air Staff officers are pretty relaxed while discussing new ideas. If a junior wishes to make a fool of himself, they give him the required slack. They grill him but never discourage him from speaking up. I guess this is a habit from their flying days; You don’t pull rank in the air. Many uninitiated to the Air Force life are quite taken aback by this permissiveness. They call it a breach of discipline; we call it two-way communication.
Time slot for the presentation to the Air Board was half-an-hour. The Board comprises, besides the Chief of Air Staff, almost all the Air Marshals and other ranking officers of the PAF. A lot of stars , a lot of operational and combat experience; graduates scholars from international institutions like the RCDS etc. One does not dare waste their time. I knew that despite the look alike in uniforms, they were all individuals with all sorts of politico-social views. I had to win them over but not by emotional blackmail. It had to be well reasoned with all the pros and cons considered. All social, operational and constitutional issues laid threadbare. It had to be a 100% professional approach.
I heaved a sigh and started my presentation. A couple of minutes had passed when an inner staffer of the CAS said something to him. I stopped in my tracks. The CAS asked me to kindly wait as the Secretary Defence was on line in his office. Kindly wait!! ‘He is going soft’ I thought. I was looking at the clock ticking away at the speed of light. Only minutes to undo so much apathy; to fight a macho tradition ; to give a break to women in a domain considered “Male Only”.
He breezed back into the room and asked me to go on. I spoke fast enough but the damned clock kept ticking away even faster. Noticing my unease he said, “Akhtar, I am all ears. Don’t rush your presentation as I have all the time for you”. There was a lump in my throat as I realized that the Chief was on the girls’ side, perhaps his own daughter had harangued him. The first and the last question he asked me was, ‘Are we ready for the induction of women officers in the PAF?’ to which I replied “Sir, you tell me a date by which we will be ready”. Normally a retort like that in any other circumstances would have got a Wing Commander thrown out of the Air Board room for being cheeky but instead he grinned and told me to carry on. I need to explain this dialogue a little further. I was throwing a challenge to the Air Board to break loose from the obscurantist thinking prevalent in the general society after the disastrous era of Gen Zia ul Haq. The CAS knew that the entire responsibility for making a change rested on his shoulders. It was big and a difficult decision. No one in Pakistan was going to get up one morning and declare ‘OK boys, now we are ready for women in the Armed Services’. The crux of leadership IS to take responsibility and lead. PAF had to take the lead as this essential trait was instilled in it by its leaders and makers like Nur Khan and Asghar Khan. It is in their DNA.
The presentation lasted for, God knows, how many hours. I stopped looking at the clock. At the end, the Air staff’s decision was to allow the induction of women into all branches of the PAF except G.D. (P). My team was hugely disappointed but not me. The plan was working.
One year later, I rang up the Air Officer commanding of the PAF Academy to find out how the first batch of girls was doing. His answer was, “They have done as well as their male counterparts, if not better.”
Gotchaaa! I smiled inwardly. Now I was sure that very soon girls would fly in the PAF. I had honoured the promise I had made to my darling daughter, to all the daughters of Pakistan. Today women officers and aviation cadets fly in the blue skies of Pakistan. The PAF’s leadership and its officer corps have proved that if a thing needs to be done it can be done. Well done PAF.
To all the women officers of the PAF:
You are indeed very brave to break the shackles of outdated traditions; to hell with the critics. Just shrug your shoulders, chin up and keep marching. You have earned your commissions. It is not a question of a girl’s ability to fly; it is a matter of free will and the options to exercise it. Fly, my girls, fly. Soar ever higher. May God be with you — Always