Â â€œPeople initially think Iâ€™m Christian and then gawk when I tell them my full name,â€ 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.
â€œI just love the look on peopleâ€™s faces when they discover I am Muslim.â€
Many want to know how a girl can handle a machine thatâ€™s many times her size, she says as she cracks up again. â€œPoor things; they donâ€™t know that my fingers are all I need to fly,â€ she says twiddling her thumbs.
However, Saarahâ€™s first battles were fought at home and within the community.
â€œInitially none of us encouraged her. In our community girls donâ€™t usually take up professions where they have to stay away FROM HOME and live in hotels without an escort,â€ 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.
â€œFareed told me that I should consider myself lucky because most Muslim girls donâ€™t even dream of flying.
In 2007, when she was just 18, Saarah enrolled with a flying school in the US. â€œThose 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,â€ says the deeply religious Ahmed.
Saarahâ€™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. â€œI really want to get married and have children,â€ she says. But finding the right man is proving to be tough. â€œI donâ€™t understand people who just look at my photo and want to get their sons married to me. Donâ€™t they want to know what I have studied or where I work?â€
Many of her suitors have either wanted her to quit her job or move cities. â€œMy father has shooed away people asking them to get their sons to quit his job and move cities,â€ Saarah says letting out another blast of laughter.
She also has a Womenâ€™s Day message for Muslim girls like herself: â€œDonâ€™t fret over what the community thinks of you. And donâ€™t let them kill your dreams.â€ And what is she planning on womenâ€™s day? â€œFly, of course! My airline [Spicejet] is very keen that I fly on Womenâ€™s Day.â€
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.