Yes, she wears hijab and covers herself in black. And yet she doesn’t conform to the stereotype image of a Muslim woman timid, coy and unsure. On the contrary, the right words to describe her would be – bold, courageous and dynamic. That’s Salwa Fatima, the first woman from Hyderabad’s Old City to don a commercial pilot’s stripes.
This year, on Women’s Day, Salwa had a special reason to celebrate. She has finally realised her dream of reaching for the stars. With all the necessary trainings and licences under her belt, she is just waiting to take off. “It is a great feeling to have achieved what I set out to be,” she says, overwhelmed with emotions.
What propelled her this far is her never-say-die spirit, and her refusal to take no for an answer. It’s okay to be girly and a pilot at the same time, feels Salwa. But when the odds are stacked against you, thinking of becoming a pilot is nothing short of day-dreaming. Even as a child she was hooked on to aviation. When other girls played with dolls, Salwa collected pictures of aeroplanes and gazed endlessly at aircrafts flying in the sky till they become a mere speck and disappear.
Her father Syed Ashfaq Ahmed, who is a bakery worker, never thought his daughter would become a pilot one day. He sure knew her fascination for the flying machines but with his poor earnings he could never think of fulfilling her dreams. The dice was cast when she appeared for the Eamcet coaching at an institute. “What will you like to become”, the instructor asked in a routine manner. He did a double take when she replied ‘pilot’.
Everyone was amused by her answer and dismissed it as a childish fancy. But, Zahid Ali Khan, Editor of the Urdu Daily, Siasat, believed Salwa when he saw the determination in her eyes. It was he who offered her moral and financial support initially. He encouraged and groomed Salwa and used his influence in getting her admitted to the Andhra Pradesh Aviation Academy in 2007. Thereafter, Salwa didn’t have to look back. She cleared one hurdle after another turning adversity into advantage.
If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. That’s what Salwa did. Her greatest challenge was to stay focused and muster courage to chart out a perilous career. In the span of a decade, she succeeded in obtaining Commercial Pilot’s licence, Private Pilot licence and Flight Radio Telephone Operator licence. After logging in 217 hours of flying on Cessna 152 and 172, including 123 hours of solo flight, she underwent multi-engine training in New Zealand. Then, she joined the Gulf Aviation Academy, Bahrain, to do Type Rating, an additional training on Air Bus A-320 to be able to fly any aircraft.
During these years, she ran into rough weather several times. But a cloudy day is no match for a sunny disposition. When she needed huge money to pay for the training on a multi-engine aircraft, Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao came to her aid. On knowing her enthusiasm, he immediately sanctioned Rs 36 lakh. “I am grateful to all those who supported me,” says the young aviator.
A perfect example of Muslim women empowerment, Salwa is now busy appearing for interviews of various airlines in Delhi and is hopeful of landing a job soon. Does being a woman make piloting difficult? “Not at all. The aircraft doesn’t know or care about your gender. You just have to perform,” she says.
Sure, flying is a great equaliser. And the air is the only place free from prejudices.