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Solo Flights of Freedom

By Sadaf Ayaz

Fatima Shafi pulls on her tailored black blazer adorned with golden wings and stripes. She places her polished black pilot’s hat over her dark hair, which is pulled into a tight bun in the back. In a few hours she’ll be flying a commercial jet from New York to Los Angeles. At 35, Fatima is one of the youngest female captains in the Delta Airlines fleet. A decade ago, she was the first woman in history of the Pakistani Air Force to fly an F16 fighter jet. 

Today, Fatima lives on the 23rd floor of a modern highrise on the Upper East Side. Her view is  just the right balance of windows, roofs, sky and the tops of the trees of Central Park. 

“I did get me a movie apartment,” Fatima says looking at her immaculately kept apartment. White walls. Velvet benches. Chairs of emerald, royal blue and gold surrounding a glass table. A long leather couch. Nicely layered rugs. A huge black piano smack in the middle of everything. 

“The successful Pakistani woman living in Manhattan should have an apartment like this. But we’re working on the decorations. We can step it up just a little.”

Fatima’s been stepping it up her whole life. Despite being told not only that she couldn’t, but that she wouldn’t be allowed to.

Left: Fatima Shafi circa 2004, her first time returning home in her uniform consisting of a sari as an engineering officer in the engineering wing of the Pakistani Air Force. Right: Fatima in her uniform as a First Officer Pilot at Delta in July of 2019.

Fatima grew up in Islamabad, Pakistan, the oldest of four, and the daughter of a government officer and a mother who had dropped out of medical school to get married. When she graduated as an electronic engineer, one of the five female students out of a class of 250 from the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore, Pakistan in 1998, her career plan was get married. She had no plans of getting a job and hadn’t participated in any of the university’s networking and workshopping opportunities that her fellow male students had. 

One day, Fatima was flipping through the newspaper and fell upon an ad seeking engineers to join the airforce. The part of the ad that most peaked her interest came at the very end. It said: “Male citizens only.” 

She applied. 

“Male citizens only?” Fatima says. “To me that sounded like a challenge. So I applied just to see if I would get in.”

She had nothing to lose, and didn’t need the job—Fatima comes from a well-off family. “I’m a Pakistani woman, I’m perfectly okay without a job because I was getting married anyway.” The whole thing was a bit of a lark. Fatima was engaged and wasn’t expecting an acceptance, so when she got it, she was surprised, and enticed. She told her parents about the opportunity and carefully made it clear that it was all done as a personal challenge, and that she wasn’t planning on taking the job offer. 

To her surprise, her parents weren’t opposed to the idea. In fact, her dad encouraged it. “He told me, ‘You should go and if you don’t like it you can always come back.’ So I went for it.”

“As a child, when I had no dreams of joining the AirForce. But I still used to think the uniform was so glamorous and cool. Especially for women since it was a sari and, you know, a sari is so fancy and I was going to wear it!”

Fatima got her fancy sari when she went to work at the air force, but aside from that her life as a Pakistani air force engineer was nothing like she had expected. The training was rigorous and led her to break off her engagement. When she joined she knew that her fiance and her parents were expecting her to stop working after she was married, but something changed inside her after she began to work. Even though, because she was a woman, the military treated her as less than.  

Despite her engineering degree, Fatima wasn’t even allowed to touch the airplanes. Instead she was given an administrative job and told to sit at a desk and compile data that male engineers fed to her about the air planes. Fatima dutifully did that for two years. Fed up, she demanded to be given more responsibility that matched her abilities, and so,at the age of 22, she was promoted and became the first female engineering officer in a fighter squadron. As part of her job she became the first Pakistani female to ride in an F-16 fighter jet.

One month later, she was fired.

* * *

Every seven years Pakistani fighter squadrons participated in a military competition that was critical for determining promotions for the pilots and their support crew. Fatima was elated to have the opportunity to participate but her bosses weren’t too excited to have her on board.

On the night before her team was to fly to the competition in Mianwali, Punjab, Fatima was doing last minute prep, checking all the equipment being loaded on their C130 cargo airplane, when her boss asked her to come to his office. She would not be going with the team, he told her—she was being replaced with a male engineer who had just graduated college.

In disbelief, she went to speak with her boss to express her disappointment that they would take a less qualified, less senior, less experienced engineer than her. 

“If you have a problem go speak with the base commander,” he told her.

As she walked out of her bosses office, he called out a warning to her. 

“Just remember, if you somehow convince him, I’ll make sure that I make it very difficult for you to survive here.”

Fatima didn’t even bother to look back. 

As she walked in the dark to the base commander’s office, she felt crushed. She had embraced her status as an engineer in the military, leaving behind opportunities of love, marriage and family life that she had dreamt of—that she had been taught to dream of—and now the people in the air force that she begun to admire had belittled her, had tried to strip her of the confidence and self-worth that the military had instilled in her. 

She presented her case to the base commander. She had done more than what was required of her and she was being punished for what? For being a woman? 

That night, not only was she replaced at her position as an engineering officer for the exercise, but she was also fired from the fighter squadron, and demoted to the general engineering wing. 

She later found out, the only reason she had been promoted in the first place was to meet a legislative requirement for 5% female employment in the Air Force.

All along, no matter how hard she had worked, she had just been a statistic. 

After five years in the air force Fatima packed two suitcases and showed up in VeroBeach, Florida in the middle of the night. No cell phone, no contacts, a just small stash of money to help her pay for lessons at the FlightSafety Academy.

Over the past decade Fatima has excelled in her field. She has not only learned to fly but has taught others as a flight instructor. She’s worked as a First officer at ExpressJet Airlines, and she is now a captain at Delta Air Lines. She’s been featured in magazines and campaigns that showcase her story, as inspiration for other women.

But it’s been a solo flight to greatness. 

While Fatima was soaring through the skies, at home she was receiving backlash both from her family—which doesn’t approve of the way she has chosen to live her life—and strangers. An online search through the comment sections under articles posted about her online are full of hate and misogynistic criticism. 

“I’m a little too much for ‘desi’ people sometimes,” she says. As a single, successful woman who frequently travels alone, and lives her life independently, Fatima is an anomaly for a Pakistani woman. And she doesn’t make things any easier by publicly calling out the South Asian, or Desi, community on the ways it limits women, which is her way of trying to make a difference and paving a path for other young girls who may have big dreams but are held back by Pakistani traditions. 

“When I was younger, my whole purpose of life was to get married and have kids,” Fatima recalls with an ironic smile. “And I liked the idea. I still do. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s all that was presented to me. I didn’t think there was any other option, and I’m sure some of those girls might be thinking the same.”

Growing up, Fatima wanted to be the perfect daughter, the perfect sister, the perfect housewife, the perfect mother—and she practiced for it too, by learning how to cook and clean, and to care for those around her. It’s one of the paradoxes of Fatima’s life that she deeply wants to nurture and care for others but rarely gets the opportunity to do so. Her family lives in London and every two weeks she visits (one of the perks of being a pilot is flying for free), and she always brings along gifts, but the visits are too short, with too little time for any real nurturing. And there is always tension. Her older brother, locks himself in his room to avoid seeing her. “I’m like this sinful Americanized woman that he would choose not to be around,” she says. 

A few years ago, Fatima participated in a Thinx campaign for a brand of underwear for women for when they are menstruating. Like many things relating to women’s sexuality, menstruating is a taboo topic in desi culture. Many girls often hide the fact that they are menstruating from the men in their lives. In fact, many girls are not even taught about menstruation and how to deal with it. So when Fatima accepted the offer to participate in the campaign, she was prepared for the backlash. And it came unfiltered. 

The night Fatima made Captain at Delta, the biggest achievement of her life, she was ecstatic. Once she got home she thought of who should be the first person to hear about the news from her. It had to be her mother. It was midnight in Pakistan, and her mother wasn’t speaking with her, but she didn’t care. The second her mother picked up the phone, Fatima yelled, “I made Captain!” But her mother had just found out about her Thinx campaign. 

Fatima’s mother was furious.

“Fatima, you’ve ruined our reputation in front of the whole world!” her mother screamed at Fatima in Urdu. “We gave you so much freedom, we let you be a pilot. Whatever you said you wanted to do, we supported you. Then why are you talking about MeToo and periods?”

Fatima shares the story as a joke, laughing at her mother’s comments. But then, she abruptly stops. 

What is success if the people that matter the most don’t see it, or worse, don’t believe in it?

“My mom feels like she failed by supporting me, because I went too far with it. In her mind, success is shaadi [marriage]. But success to me, is when you’re content with what you have and still have the desire to keep growing. And I continue to grow.”

Her mom isn’t the only one pressuring Fatima to settle down. 

Once she put on her uniform in front of her aunt, and she was met not with pride but with pity. “I feel sorry that you have to wear a man’s clothes and go to work instead of being married and living a luxurious and peaceful life with a husband who can provide for you,” her Aunt told her. 

Fatima didn’t say anything to her aunt. Instead Fatima felt sorry for her. She feels sorry for women who cannot make their own choices, who are forced to grow up being told not to sit in the sun or else they will get too dark and no one would marry them. Or that if they talk too loudly no one would marry them. Or that they’d better learn to cook, or else whoever they marry will divorce them. 

Fatima says she’s glad her mother taught her how to cook, but finds it absurd that her brother never learned and still waits for someone to cook for him. “I think my mom did me a service by teaching me how to cook,” Fatima says. “But don’t teach me how to cook because I have to be someone to cook. Teach me how to cook because I should learn how to cook.”

Still, marriage is very important to Fatima. She does feel like something is missing from her life, often at the most mundane of times, when she needs to lift something heavy or when she needs an extra set of hands but doesn’t have them. 

Left: Fatima on her first airplane: the F-16 fighter jet. Right: Fatima on her recent flight as a Captain for Delta Airlines.

Tahira Naqvi, a professor of Urdu language and South Asian Literature at New York University, says it’s not surprising that a successful woman like Fatima would find herself expected to choose between family and career.

“South Asians have inherited a collective anxiety from their families and society,” Professor Naqvi says. “Parents insist their kids, especially their daughters, get married because the desi community doesn’t know how to handle single, independent women.”

For centuries in most patriarchal religions and cultures parents married off their daughters as early as they could as a way to protect them. Since girls were not educated, they were dependent on someone to provide for them financially, especially if their parents died. And part of maintaining this system that held women back by keeping them dependent on marriage was keeping them uneducated, so they would just do what they were told. “The minute she opens a book and starts reading, her mind takes off and she develops a choice,” Professor Naqvi says. “Then, she doesn’t want a silly guy her father picked for her. She wants somebody who she can feel romantic about. And if she can read then someone who can read more than her.”

But, the norms are changing. As divorce and the population of single mothers is increasing, the age of marriage is increasing and arranged marriages are going out of style. Moreover, the population of single women is also rising across the board.  

Dr. Mariam Durrani, an anthropologist at Hamilton College who studies transnational Muslim youth communities and gender-based approaches to Muslim regimes says the main reason for the collective anxiety in single, desi women is that their family and society stops engaging with them. Durrani speaks from experience, as a divorced, single mother. “The only family structure people can imagine is one contained in marriage,” she says. “If not that, then parents think their child is unsafe and incomplete.” 

Fatima has accepted her fate. In no small part because it is a fate she has chosen. 

“I am very content and happy over who I am and how far I have come,” Fatima says. “But I also feel that I should have a partner and a family to share my success with. I also believe in balance. And the balance in life to me is being a good professional and a good family person. I disagree with making work your life, or losing your own worth trying to make your family happy.” 

And with that, Fatima prepares to take off on another flight. Another flight of freedom.

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