PUBLISHED in HILAL (Pakistan Armed Forces Magazine) Feb 2010
By Afrah Jamal
Progressive - Conservative - Contemporary - Professional; separately these terms could apply to any service; together they were reserved for just one - the PAF.
Before 1994, Lady Officers were a rare sight in the PAF. So rare in fact, that when male cadets donned wigs to represent the female species in annual variety shows, nobody wondered why. By 2010, women have become an indispensable part of the service. While, PAF was no stranger to a woman in uniform, a few had made cameo appearances in odd branches, the rest were lady doctors - products of Army Medical Corps (AMC), and a handful of commissioned Lady Psychologists aside, the air force was supremely a gentleman’s club – a highly coveted one at that, open to both the nobility and gentry of the land. Neither cast nor creed was a bar for the men - singled out for glory. Gender bias kept women at bay. Girls once eager to enlist in active military service eventually settled for cushy jobs. Their younger counterparts increasingly fascinated by the prospect of wearing (not marrying) the uniform, hoped to be seen as individuals with the potential to excel instead of a potentially dangerous innovation not worth investing in. It is not like there were no opportunities in the armed forces. They were just not equal. And even the Winds of Change sweeping through the land seemed reluctant to disrupt the natural (so called) order of things. Till, ACM (R) Abbas Khattak took the initiative to open all branches save flying, in 1995 and (late) ACM Mushaf Ali Mir – inspired by the progressive Turkish Air Force, took a leap of faith and removed the last wall of resistance by inducting the first batch of Pakistani women in fighter flying. This was in 2002. But before Pakistani women earned their coveted flying wings, the sight of women graduates whose induction in branches that had previously been off limits, had already captivated the imagination of a conservative nation.
Previously, the sporadic induction of a few women since 1976 seemed to be an insufficient incentive for the rest to join. Not everyone was oblivious of women’s ‘inherent abilities to match and outsmart their men folk.’ ACM Abbas Khattak grew increasingly convinced that women were ready to take charge of their own destiny, and all signs indicated that the tide would turn in their favour in the not so distant future. It was just a matter of time. He decided to convene the Air Board. And they finally said ‘Aye’! Under his visionary leadership, PAF saw two important changes. The first was the induction of women in nearly all major spheres (with the exception of fighter flying) of air force. The other was the setup of a Finishing School for women, which was mainly due to the efforts of his wife - Mrs. Samina Khattak.
For women, this was a major breakthrough. For men, it was a revolutionary concept. For the PAF, it was a monumental challenge. Among other things, finding the right balance between keeping cultural sensitivities from infringing upon training and operational requirements was a constant worry. Ensuring that high standards of excellence were not compromised for the sake of propriety was an important consideration. Clearly, the old script had to be rewritten, certain regulations needed to be reworded, and new caveats had to be added - quickly. Some major readjustment was in order. Girls queued up to enlist. And though entry was temporarily suspended for a brief while, the flow of women entrants has been consistent.
For the women, the journey from the moment they enter the selection centre till the time they become commissioned officers is fraught with challenges and for the uninitiated - some high drama. The triumphant march begins the same way for both men and women at the SELECTION & RECRUITMENT CENTRE. All PC (Permanent Commission) hopefuls go through a 4 day ISSB. SPSSC (Special Purposes Short Service Commission) do not. ISSB, a testing ground for Army, Navy, and Air force is for psych evaluation; candidates are screened for leadership abilities, patience, endurance, and confidence etc – qualities that will be more rigorously tested in the field and further honed as lady cadets in the academy. Many do not know what to expect in an ISSB session and those who try to learn by enlisting in coaching centres are no wiser. Being professionally coached does not always help, if anything, it makes them come across as robotic in a place where originality trumps scripted speeches (however pretty) and spontaneity is appreciated. Men and women go through the same procedures/fitness criteria (in most cases) during the selection process. Before heading out for training, the recruits must make a quick stop at CMB (Medical Board).
They may be firing a G-3 one minute and demurely sitting in class the next – impressing a bevy of reporters with their mad skills (horse riding) or getting disciplined for some minor infraction; life as a lady cadet may be many things - monotonous it is not. The other side of the looking glass is full of surprises. It is a world where the term ‘high maintenance’ is used for an aircraft; diamonds are what a carbon based life form becomes after going through some good old fashioned military training and a speck of dirt has more dignity than a cadet in training.
Known as much for its transformative power as for the exacting routines – Risalpur Academy takes clashing shades of personalities and diverse backgrounds brought together by chance, and weaves them into stellar cast of complementary characters, that have kept the nation enthralled for generations. So what is a little more diversity to an institution that not only trains cadets/students from Pak Army, PIA, and Pak Navy but also welcomes the ones from friendly parts of the world and accepts paying cadets from National University of Sciences and Technology.
The women entered to find that male and female cadets are expected to adhere to the same standards of military training although there may be some exceptions. PAF Academy has trained the first lady cadet para-jumper and women have since motor para-glided at national events. But those who dream of jumping off planes or consider motor paragliding for sport (or show) must fulfil the same criterion. Even after graduation there are ample opportunities to explore the adventurous side of life: women have represented Pakistan at the international level in skiing and are regular participants at ski events. Moreover, they can opt for archery lessons or take survival courses.
The variety show held once a year is a celebrated tradition where male cadets get their chance to take a swipe at their female counterparts. Rookie cadets have their share of responsibilities - they can get detailed to the female civilian contestants as their conducting officers (CO) during All Pakistan Declamation Contest (APDC) – when Risalpur hosts visiting teams from all over Pakistan. There is even a social life in the form of squadron parties for the lucky ones. All this as they battle the elements - Risalpur is no tropical paradise - and learn to steer clear of the appointment holding cadets; ‘Elite Templar Knights’, some call them (whose path is crossed at ones own peril and not because of the impossibly difficult titles which must be prefaced and ended with a Sir but because they wield ultimate power and can string up entire courses (not literally)).
A former cadet has an interesting observation about the strict training regimen and disciplinary actions. While it may be resented at the time, the spirit behind this is to build stamina and comradeship. “Nothing like shared labour to bring people closer, besides, taking consequences out of life results in lowering the standards - the only difference between a diamond and coal is the pressure or lack of it; otherwise both are essentially carbon.” There are no shortcuts to greatness. Cadets get no reprieve till graduation day. One officer recalled the academy as the busiest, toughest, hardest and the best days of an air force cadet’s life. The time there passes in an instant but the lessons learnt last a lifetime.
Lady Officers concede that military service is not a career but a lifelong commitment - one where dividing lines between personal and professional life vanishes. They have battled centuries of prejudice, years of resistance and decades of disappointment to get where they are. While there may not be many women in the service, the ones that have joined the league of extraordinary gentlemen are no less extraordinary for taking on two fronts - as caregivers and warriors – in a society that may have graciously accepted the change but is slow to understand the concept of day care centres. Nevertheless, today’s women are equally at home in the cockpit as they are in the kitchen. Can they have it all, given all the limitations that society (and/or biology) imposes on them? Yes, at a slightly inflated price. But yes, they can. They will. They already have!
Acknowledgement: ACM(R) Abbas Khattak, Air/Cdre(R) Kaiser Tufail