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Pakistan's only female fighter pilot becomes role model for millions of girls
If border sniping should ever descend into all-out war between India and Pakistan, Ayesha Farooq will be one of the first pilots into the air.
Farooq, from Punjab province's historic city of Bahawalpur, is one of 19 women who have become pilots in the Pakistan Air Force over the last decade - there are five other female fighter pilots, but they have yet to take the final tests to qualify for combat.
With an olive green head scarf poking out from her helmet, Ayesha Farooq flashes a cheeky grin when asked if it is lonely being the only war-ready female fighter pilot in the Islamic republic of Pakistan.
"I don't feel any different. We do the same activities, the same precision bombing," the soft-spoken 26-year-old said of her male colleagues at Mushaf base in north Pakistan, where neatly piled warheads sit in sweltering 50 degree Celsius heat (122 F).
Farooq in a jet (Photo: Reuters)
A growing number of women have joined Pakistan's defense forces in recent years as attitudes towards women change.
"Because of terrorism and our geographical location it's very important that we stay on our toes," said Farooq, referring to Taliban militancy and a sharp rise in sectarian violence.
Deteriorating security in neighboring Afghanistan, where US-led troops are preparing to leave by the end of next year, and an uneasy relationship with arch rival India to the east add to the mix.
Farooq and Chinese-made jet (Photo: EPA)
Farooq and colleagues (Photo: Reuters)
Farooq, whose slim frame offers a study in contrast with her burly male colleagues, was at loggerheads with her widowed and uneducated mother seven years ago when she said she wanted to join the air force.
"In our society most girls don't even think about doing such things as flying an aircraft," she said.
Farooq shopping (Photo: Reuters)
if border sniping does ever descend into war between India and Pakistan, Ayesha Farooq will be one of the first pilots in the air. She has made history by becoming the first woman assigned to one of Pakistan's front-line dogfighting squadrons.
Now at the age of 26 Flight Lieutenant Farooq says she is ready for the ultimate test. "If war breaks out, I will be flying on my senior's wing as his wingman, well, wingwoman," she said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph at the headquarters of the Pakistan Air Force in Islamabad.
India and Pakistan remain in a stand-off over the territory of Kashmir. Twice since partition it has caused all-out wars and the dispute is flaring once again. Both sides have claimed they have been attacked with artillery and small arms.
Last month, India accused Pakistani forces of killing five of its soldiers, stoking anger among Hindu nationalists of the BJP. For Fl Lt Farooq, it would be the chance to prove women are every bit the equal of men in the cockpit.
"I want to prove myself, to show that I'm doing something for my country," she said. This year she completed her training to become Pakistan's first war-ready female fighter pilot, flying the F7-PG, a Chinese version of the MiG 21 jet.
In the process, she has become a role model for millions of girls in a country where many are denied an education and forced to stay at home. Yet Fl Lt Farooq remains a traditional Pakistani woman in some ways. Three weeks ago she was married to her cousin, in an arranged match.
"We played together as children so I think he knew I would not be a traditional woman." About 4,000 women serve in the country's armed forces. Of six female fighter pilots, Fl Lt Farooq is the only one qualified for combat and to fly sorties along the border.
"As well as doing a job for my country I'm changing the thoughts of people," she said. "It's a big responsibility."