By Rafia Zakaria
October 28th, 2015
LAST Thursday, the Indian Air Force (IAF) announced it would allow female fighter pilots within its ranks. “Women fighter pilots will soon touch the skies with glory,” announced the Times of India triumphantly. Other Indian newspapers waxed lyrical too, some noting that around 3,000 women are already in the IAF but had not previously been allowed combat roles. By June 2017, however, all of this is going to change, when the first batch of female fighter pilots currently training at the IAF Academy will graduate.
Pakistan welcomed its own first female fighter pilot, Ayesha Farooq, with similar praise a bit over a year ago. At 26, Farooq became one of 19 female fighter pilots who have qualified over the past decade in the country, and over 30 are currently under training in the Pakistan Air Force.
In one interview, she confessed that the training facilities where she usually trained often did not even have bathrooms for women. It is undoubted that she, and other Pakistani women in the military, just like the Indian women who will now become fighter pilots, have broken many gender barriers. In doing so, they are acclaimed for having survived and thrived in a patriarchal and male-dominated environment. In being ready to fight and die for the nation, it seems they have transcended their more problematic reality: the fact that they are women.
This last statement is a controversial one; Indians and Pakistanis (and Americans and everyone else all over the world) pretend that the incorporation of women into militaries is a significant inroad into breaking gender barriers and into the achievement of equality in general. Even as the Indians were rejoicing at their own gender breakthrough, the American news website The Daily Beast published the profile of a female drone pilot. Boastfully entitled ‘She kills people from 7,800 miles away’, it tells the story of a Las Vegas-based drone pilot whose daily tasks include unleashing remote-controlled catastrophe on nameless, faceless others thousands of miles away.
A female fighter pilot, or drone pilot, is a clever ploy to disguise the fact that most women are far from equal.
Like many such profiles of fighting women, the piece emphasised this lethal woman’s femininity, its second sentence reading, “She pulled her chestnut hair into a bun”. Pakistani profiles of pilots have similarly made note of “olive-coloured hijabs”. The idea beneath all of them is simple: the feminine can be transformed into the powerful by the addition of bombs, fighter jets or remote-controlled drones. The addition of these instruments of destruction, then, is removed from the killing that they cause and seen as a prescription for empowerment.
Underneath the celebration of women as killers in this or that military is, therefore, this premise: that becoming equal in waging war somehow signifies recognition of female equality in general. Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth, whether the place being spoken of is the US, India or Pakistan. Even while the greatness of newly anointed female soldiers, drone pilots or fighter pilots is being feted by media outlets high on nationalistic fervour, the status of women in the countries for which women are now fighting continues to plummet.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that men’s earnings in the US were growing at twice the rate of women’s earnings. Women working full-time in that country were, according to the latest statistics issued by the US Labour Department, 81 cents to every dollar earned by a man. The figure, which is an improvement over previous decades, is rarely juxtaposed against the gushing praise awarded to women in the military.
The reason is simple: a female fighter pilot, or drone pilot, is a convenient figurehead, a clever ploy to disguise the fact that most women, the large majority of women, are very, very far from being equal. The lie works in the US; it works even better in India or in Pakistan. Everyone is clapping so hard for the female fighter pilots that all the rest of the state’s inaction on women’s issues — from wage equality, to legal equality, to law-enforcement training for assault, to preventing trafficking — is conveniently pushed aside.
Let’s all be happy for the winners, the women who have endorsed the state’s rhetoric such that they have become instruments of its defence; after all, Indian men have been fighting Pakistani men for so long, the entrance of women into this game of perpetual hatreds could only be a good thing.
It is not, in fact, a good thing. Women and girls, in Pakistan or India or the United States, must be wary of a state that celebrates only those women who are willing to buy its positions on which violence is and is not justified.
The definition of an empowered Pakistani or Indian or American woman must not be reduced to a woman who is willing to kill, whether via remote control or fighter jets. Implicit in this definition of femininity is the exclusion of dissenting women, the premise that women who give life in a far more literal sense than men may disagree on the taking of lives.
The ‘inclusion’ of women in the killing machines at home and abroad can, if this last fact is considered, be a clever ruse of insisting that the dissenting woman, one who may not believe in the kinds of killing endorsed by a military, is an inadequate woman, never the heroine who is willing to kill.
Women in Pakistan, in any and all societies, should be vigilant about these clever sleights of hand by militaries or militant groups that seek to present definitions of empowerment that pivot in some crucial way on the willingness to take human lives. The grant of licences to kill via jets or drones, long available to men, may not be progress but further constriction, the sly silencing suggesting that the unwillingness to kill reflects a disinterest in gender equality or empowerment — a new sort of unworthiness and deficiency that can now be pinned on women who dare to disagree.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2015