Asia

Shukriya Khanum: Pakistan's first female commercial pilot dies

Shukriya Khanum, in an undated image Image copyright Dr Shahid Masood
Image caption For years, Shukriya Khanum was Pakistan's only qualified female commercial pilot

Shukriya Khanum, who was the first Pakistani woman to obtain a commercial pilot's licence, has died of cancer in Lahore at the age of 82.

She qualified as a pilot in 1959, straight after graduating from the city's Government College. However, it took 30 years before another woman followed in her footsteps.

When Shukriya Khanum joined the country's sole airline, Pakistan International Airlines, female pilots were not permitted to fly commercial planes.

She therefore accepted the job of flight instructor at PIA's training centre, where she taught young cadets. She also took flying enthusiasts on joy rides at Karachi Flying Club.

But in the late 1970s, after the military government of General Zia ul-Haq took over and martial law was imposed, Pakistan became more conservative.

Renowned TV anchor Dr Shahid Masood, who Shukriya Khanum's nephew, 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 work as a ground instructor."

Shukriya Khanum 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?'"

'Focus on professionalism'

Two other women, Ayesha Rabia and Maliha Sami, faced similar restrictions after taking the PIA pilot test in 1980.

But after General Zia died in 1989, PIA called them and invited to attend formal pilot training.

"For nine years I waited, because rules did not allow women to fly," Ms Rabia told the BBC.

Ms Sami flew her first flight as first officer in 1990, the day before Ms Rabia flew her first.

In 2005, Ms Rabia became the first female Pakistani captain of a commercial scheduled flight. A year later, she flew the first Pakistani flight with an all-female crew.

Image copyright Qaiser Ansari
Image caption Qaiser Ansari (L) said Shukriya Khanum (R) tried her best to prove women could do anything

Ms Rabia 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 seen standing next to a plane with Qaiser Ansari, who was working as a flight instructor at a 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 airstrip known as Bholari.

"Shukriya throughout her life tried her best to prove that girls can do anything," he said, adding that PIA had failed to give her the status she deserved.

Dr Masood voiced similar feelings, saying his aunt had been deprived of the chance to fly during her golden years. She was a "brave and bold woman and she belonged to an age that was more enlightened," he added.

Related Topics

More on this story