“People initially think I’m Christian and then gawk when I tell them my full name,” laughs Saarah Hameed Ahmed (25) the Bengaluru girl who is the only known Muslim among the 600-odd women pilots employed in the Indian aviation sector. “I just love the look on people’s faces when they discover I am Muslim.”
People’s reaction to her choice of profession is a constant source of entertainment for Saarah. Many want to know how a girl can handle a machine that’s many times her size, she says as she cracks up again. “Poor things; they don’t know that my fingers are all I need to fly,” she says twiddling her thumbs.
Of course, the reactions are not always amusing or sensitive. Saarah says she too has had to face the brunt of Islamophobia that gripped the world post 9/11. But each time she has managed to win people over with a combination of humour and tact, she says.
However, Saarah’s first battles were fought at home and within the community. She says that she still faces taunts from people who believe a girl’s only job is to get married and produce children.
“Initially none of us encouraged her. In our community girls don’t usually take up professions where they have to stay away from home and live in hotels without an escort,” confesses her father Hameed Hussain Ahmed, a professional photographer. When Saarah showed no signs of relenting, he spoke to his friend Atif Fareed, who is a senior pilot in the US.
“Fareed told me that I should consider myself lucky because most Muslim girls don’t even dream of flying. If he hadn’t convinced me, I might have made the blunder of killing Saarah’s dreams,” he says.
In 2007, when she was just 18, Saarah enrolled with a flying school in the US. “Those days most Muslim students were being denied US Visas. When she got the Visa without any trouble I saw it as a final message from God,” says the deeply religious Ahmed.
Saarah’s mother, Naseema Ahmed, says she never had any doubts about sending her to the US. Her proudest moment, she says, was when a group of Muslim girls surrounded Saarah at a wedding and started asking her for tips to become a pilot.
Saarah has other dreams too. “I really want to get married and have children,” she says. But finding the right man is proving to be tough. “I don’t understand people who just look at my photo and want to get their sons married to me. Don’t they want to know what I have studied or where I work?”
Many of her suitors have either wanted her to quit her job or move cities. “My father has shooed away people asking them to get their sons to quit his job and move cities,” Saarah says letting out another blast of laughter.
She also has a Women’s Day message for Muslim girls like herself: “Don’t fret over what the community thinks of you. And don’t let them kill your dreams.” And what is she planning on women’s day? “Fly, of course! My airline [Spicejet] is very keen that I fly on Women’s Day.”
Waiting in the wings
Ayesha Aziz, 18, is another aspiring pilot. A native of Baramulla, Kashmir, she has already obtained a basic flying licence.
Fatima Salva Syeda, 26, is a licenced commercial pilot. But she has to qualify additional training before she can be a professional pilot.