International Women’s Day: My induction into the Pakistan Air Force

Published: March 8, 2014

We were told to carry our luggage ourselves to the residential block, which was a 20 minute walk. That was when I knew that we had become cadets. PHOTO: MYRA IQBAL AND PAF

It was August 7, 2000 when a group of 40 girls entered the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Academy for the first time, in such a large number, as lady cadets or female cadets. And it changed the course of our armed forces forever.

Until only a few years ago, females could not think of joining the coveted PAF as anything more than a doctor. The first opportunity for women to work in a ground based job came when the post of commissioned officer was opened for admissions, at one of PAF’s many ground support branches.

However, they were still not ready to take female pilots; we had to become their first test-course batch and prove that women are worthy of being inducted in every branch of the PAF.

From the craziness of the Inter Services Selection Board (ISSB) in Kohat to the Central Medical Board in Karachi, the 40 of us were finally admitted into the PAF Academy in Risalpur.

The academy is located near Nowshera in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), where women come from as far as Balochistan.

Strangers meet in the academy guardroom for the first time and forge a bond that lasts forever. The same was the case with us. Since women will always be women, most of us came loaded with fancy bags and unnecessary luggage. As the time approached to leave for the academy premises, we were given the first dose of the ‘equality regime’ that was to be practiced in the academy.

We were asked to carry our luggage ourselves to the residential block, which was a good 20 minute walk away. That was when I knew that we had officially become cadets.

Dragging our luggage we arrived, sweating and swearing occasionally, at our designated rooms – each room was to be shared by four girls. We were asked to wear white clothes, tie our pretty locks in a hairnet and take off all our jewellery.

We were divided into groups and given a conducting officer each. This is the time we realised that cadets are not called simply by their names but are accompanied with flowery titles – almost fit for Mughal kings – such as ‘Senior Aviation Cadet, Sir ABC’.

During the first few days, all sorts of complaints could be heard around the academy, from having no mineral water to lack of bedding and the likes, much to the perplexity of the male conducting cadets. However, this soon stopped since we were put into a rigorous routine that started at 4am with the morning exercise and ended at 10pm with lights off.

The entire academy, which had been all-boys until now, was still confused about our place there. The males, who used to wait impatiently for the weekend to ogle women, now had 40 female cadets among them.

Photo: ISPR/File

However, the discipline of the academy and the strict watch by our female Course Commander, Madam Shakira, who happened to be a psychologist and an iconic lady, were stronger than the urges of any male.

The authorities were in a dilemma as how to manage the introduction of females into the male-oriented academy. And so, they came up with a rule of ‘no communication with boys’, except our own course mates.

It was the funniest regime ever.

Whenever they were addressed by women, the boys would jokingly say,

“We are not supposed to talk to you.”

This regime of ‘no communication’ ended by the final term but it was clear evidence that we were truly symbolic of the process of change and everyone from top to bottom was confused about inducting women into the PAF.

However, the success of female induction was evident throughout PAF. In different parts of the academy, women were treated with understanding and there was no discrimination by the male cadets towards their female counterparts.

In any case, we looked horrible in our ‘whites’ – since our cadet uniforms were only provided to us after the saluting test was passed.

We learnt the proper way of eating chicken legs, called ‘ostrich legs’ and meat balls called ‘grenades’, in the cadet language.

Women were equal to men – perhaps even a little more than equal since we were spared from the rigorous punishments such as the tough ‘rolling over’ punishment we would often see them doing.

For almost a month after joining the academy, I yearned to run away but I couldn’t due to the shame of quitting and because I couldn’t find a way to do it. Such thoughts were common among almost all the female cadets but no one left and we all stayed to weep, laugh, live and finally, wear our ranks together.

‘Lady cadets’ had become the manifestation of the process of change.

Women who had been secure and pampered in their households were venturing into the purely male dominated world. Some of us, like me, were living away from home and travelling in local buses for the first time. On some Saturdays, a female cadet would be the only female passenger on the bus, accompanied by hoards of local Pathan labourers and these buses were the hub of cloth and hashish smuggling.

Once, a driver changed the route just to pick up his cloth-smuggling girlfriend but no one really cared since it was an accepted custom.

Soon enough, we became accustomed to the academy and were in line with the routine of morning jerks, academic classes, Rooh Afza sherbet in mid-break, lunches of ‘ostrich’ legs and ‘grenades’, evening games, milkshakes, horse riding, squash and personal training.

We began to love it all.

Finally, we passed the landmark saluting test and were awarded our first-term single tapes and the cadet’s blue uniform.

Photo: APP/File

But this was just the beginning. It was the first step in a long journey towards more and more induction of women in the armed forces. There was no makeup, no TV and no coloured clothes but it was worth the sacrifice.

When I look back at how our journey began and how a woman is now a fighter pilot in Pakistan, I realise that it all comes down to opportunities. We were given the opportunity and we worked hard.

We proved that a woman’s will can move mountains and reach the sky.

Quratulain Fatima

Quratulain Fatima

The author is currently a Weidenfeld scholar at University of Oxford. She is an ex-Air Force officer, currently a civil servant with an innate love for travel and Pakistan 's heritage. She tweets @moodee_q

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ace

    “The entire academy, which had been all-boys until now, was still confused about our place there. The males, who used to wait impatiently for the weekend to ogle women, now had 40 female cadets among them”

    You certainly are “Ex-airforce Officer”. Such things can’t be said in service. and pleaseee, “ogle” ?? seriouslyRecommend

  • Misogynist

    Now this is called blowing one’s own trumpet.
    An often untold yet realized fact, women have become a liability for armed forces and like Pakistan, armed forces are bearing the stuuuupid policies of Enlightened Moderation…Recommend

  • Saadia

    and you did precisely what women in our country do, WASTED A SEAT that could be taken by a man, who would NOT be an EX-OFFICER. Next time do a reality check on commitment and then enroll in professional programs. I thought this problem was limited to Doctors and Engineers and next we know we have ex-army brides! Give me a break!Recommend

  • Stranded

    http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2014/03/08/353796/us-general-coerced-captain-into-affair/ God created men and women for different roles. When we try to be smarter than God, this is what happensRecommend

  • Rabea Mahfooz

    Enjoyed reading the whole article, very well written. Airforce has its own charmRecommend

  • Usman Mehfooz

    Liked ‘Perhaps a little more equal’ part….Indeed Academy was a surreal experience …Recommend

  • usman

    The evolution of the struggle of women is appreciable. the point of the author is to celebrate the achievements of women and we all should be proud rather then pick up on nity gritty points. we all know men ogle..it is inbuilt in usRecommend

  • Rabea Mahfooz

    Enjoyed reading the article,very well written. Recommend

  • meme

    The comments shows the kind of dogma even women have for their own kind. you may want to read that the author is making a point to draw attention towards the journey.. which is not perfect but worth it. i dont see a wastage of slot here since she is still working…Recommend

  • Baseer

    A society that is still engulfed in confusion dilemma that also engulfs the gender debate. Its appreciable that patriarchal institute of the Armed forces have given opportunity to the women. for a women to prove her self among st a mainly male dominated armed forces is commendable. Still in a country where women are killed for choosing to educate, choice to a career of this dimension deserves applaud both for the women and their families.Recommend

  • Ironlady

    wat an unfortunate nation we are we cant accept the success of womenRecommend

  • Simone

    This is a celebration of womenhood…no wonder not much men can swallow it.Recommend

  • Wajid

    Definitely something special to read on International Women’s Day. No doubt you are an inspiration for all young Pakistani females.

    Beautifully put the experience of cadets on paper. Specially being part of first induction of women cadets would be a special thing.

    I always believe that in one day, a cadet sweats more than a common man sweats in all his life.

    You definitely missed front and back rolls. :)

    Keep writing and keep inspiring as a role model.Recommend

  • tungi

    yipeee!so u did it Recommend

  • Nobody

    Elaborate.Recommend

  • Nobody

    The link you posted does not prove anything except the existence of misogynistic men. We already knew they existed.

    Aside from that, how does this link elaborate upon your statement that men and women are created for different roles? I presume you mean women should not be in the military….? The assault against women in the military does not mean women shouldn’t be in the military; it just proves some men are sub-human and their insecurities will lead them to do the unthinkable. Those men are the ones that should not be in the military; do not blame the victims for that. Makes me shudder to think how many rapists are walking free donned in a military uniform, supposedly protecting their countrymen and women while simultaneously raping women. The irony.Recommend

  • Quratulain fatima

    Thankyou wajid..Recommend

  • Tahir Rafique

    Musharaf s many action s are criticized but the way he empowered the women to get into the main stream is commendable. despite tall claims of democracies for the empowerment of women. a dictator women empowered moreRecommend

  • Haifa

    The inspiration for many women..i can understand how it would have felt to be in a male dominated place. you have really narrated it beautifully. write more about the academy lifeRecommend

  • zobia

    women should excel in all fields. how can u prosper if you hold back the 50 percent of the population ..as Malala said..Recommend

  • ashfaq

    yeah i wonder all the good things are being done by the wrong pplRecommend

  • hamid

    The best practices have been done by the dictators in pakistan..may it be ayub or musharafRecommend

  • durea saad

    well doneRecommend

  • Grunts

    women induction in armed forces is a commendable thing but not be used to justify watever dictators do is fineRecommend

  • [email protected]

    What else would a misogynist say. Recommend

  • someone

    this is waste of seats not celebrationRecommend

  • Biya Khan

    plz tel me how can i get admission in paf i have passed my f sc exam in re med groupRecommend