The first Pakistani woman to get a commercial pilot’s licence Shukriya Khanum, has died of liver cancer in Lahore at the age of 82. She secured her license in 1959, after graduating from the city’s Government College. A true pioneer, it was 30 more years before another Pakistani woman followed in her footsteps.
She took to the skies at a time when women were not allowed to fly commercial planes even after they had their license. Shukriya Khanum took her flying lessons from Lahore Flying Academy at Walton Airport, Lahore. When she joined the sole airline in the country, Pakistan International Airlines, she was not allowed to fly as a commercial pilot according to airline rules. So she accepted the job of flight instructor at PIA’s training centre. She taught young cadets and also took flying enthusiasts on joy rides at Karachi Flying Club.
As the military government of General Zia ul-Haq took over in the late 1970s and martial law was imposed, Pakistan became more conservative.
Shukriya Khanum’s nephew who is renowned TV anchor Dr Shahid Masood, recalls his aunt telling him that General Zia “could not digest the idea of a woman flying with a man together in the cockpit”.
“He objected to that and Shukriya was barred from flying with men and restricted to her work as a ground instructor.”
Shukriya was rather flabbergasted by this, he said.
“I remember my aunt saying ‘I work with these men, some of them are my students, others are colleagues and I spend a lot of time with them, so what is wrong in flying together? And there are stewardesses on board as well so are they going to stop them too?’”
Around 2 decades later two women, Ayesha Rabia and Maliha Sami, experienced similar restrictions for nine years, after taking the PIA pilot test in 1980.
But PIA called them after General Zia died in 1989 and invited them to formal pilot training. “For nine years I waited, because rules did not allow women to fly,” Ayesha Rabia told the BBC. Maliha Samee flew the first flight as first officer in 1990 and next day Ayesha Rabia flew her first flight as first officer.
She then flew as the first female Pakistani captain of a commercial scheduled flight in 2005. And in 2006 she flew the first Pakistani all female crew flight.
She remembers the day in 1989 when she went to see Shukriya Khanum in Karachi. She was happy to see her and offered up some advice, telling her “to focus on professionalism and never let anybody think that because you are a woman you cannot do that”.
In one of Shukriya Khanum’s famous photos, she is standing next to a plane with Qaiser Ansari, who was working as a flight instructor at a local flying club in Rawalpindi.
He recalls the image, which was taken when she flew him to Pataro, a small town in Sindh’s Jamshoroo district. The photo was taken at a small air strip known as Bholari.
“Shukriya throughout her life tried her best to prove that girls can do anything,” he said. PIA failed to give her the status she deserved, he said.
Dr Masood voiced similar feelings, saying his aunt was deprived of flying during her golden years.
She was a “brave and bold woman and she belonged to an age that was more enlightened,” he said.
Note: This article was translated from BBC Urdu’s article on Shukriya Khanum here.