In honor of Women in Aviation month, we’re featuring ExpressJet women who have successful careers in aviation and continue to advance the legacy of women in the industry.
On Dec. 10, 2014, Atlanta-based First Officer Fatima Shafi stepped up to a podium in Oslo, Norway to give the speech of her life. She was surrounded by leaders in the Pakistani government, former prime ministers of Pakistan and Norway, and Malala Yousafzai, the guest of honor. Fatima was at the Nobel Peace Ceremony, somewhere she never dreamed she would be.
She was supposed to married in Pakistan, raising a family and attending to her husband’s home.
“I thought marriage was the greatest thing ever,” said Fatima. “It was the goal of my whole life.”
In her hometown of Islamabad, Pakistan, Fatima’s life was a rigid set of rules designed to make her a worthy wife for a waiting husband. Many little girls grow up eagerly anticipating the day of their wedding, but in Pakistan, girls are told that getting married will be the greatest thing they will ever do. But Fatima’s father was ill and her family was too preoccupied to find her a husband, so they sent her to school instead.
“Where I’m from, education for girls is a pastime, not a necessity. You only went to school so your mind wouldn’t wander. Your brain needed to be occupied until it was time for you to get married.”
Despite limitations set by her gender, she graduated as an Electronics Engineer at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore, a school that had over 6,000 students – only 50 of whom were girls.
“In classes, I could not raise my hand to ask a question or go to the library and join a study group. As a woman, I had to walk with my head straight ahead, my eyes looking down on the ground. If you looked around, it would bring you a bad reputation.”
Halfway through her college education, Fatima’s parents found her a husband. Usually in Pakistan, when a woman gets married her education stops. However, Fatima’s parents wanted her to graduate before she got married. This decision allowed Fatima to finish school.
“After a while, I started to question how my degree was any different than the boys’. I was putting in the same time, the same work, for the same degree, and yet I couldn’t use the degree for what it was worth. Girls could not do anything.”
One day, while reading the newspaper, Fatima noticed an ad for the Pakistan Air Force. The Air Force always had ads, but there was something different about this one. What usually read ‘attention all male citizens of Pakistan, the Air Force needs you,’ now read ‘attention all citizens.’
“I couldn’t believe it. I kept checking for the fine print, something that said women couldn’t apply, but there was none. I could apply.”
Since she was a little girl, Fatima had been enamored with the idea of wearing the uniform and having the respect, but a career seemed out of the question.
“I knew I shouldn’t apply, but deep down, I think I was curious about whether I had it in me to be selected.”
On the final day the Air Force was accepting applications, Fatima applied and was immediately given an intelligence test. Candidates usually spent years preparing for the test, which traditionally disqualified 80 percent of applicants. With no preparation, Fatima passed. After eight months of rigorous tests, interviews and medical screenings, she was given a formal offer to join the Pakistan Air Force Academy.”
At first, she didn’t tell anyone.
“I was selected. I now knew for sure that I had what it took to be in the Pakistan Air Force. I did it.”
To her, getting accepted into the Air Force was just checking something off her to-do list because she thought that, like going to school, nothing would come of it. She would get married and her whim would end there, or so she thought. Fatima eventually broke down and told her parents about her offer, and their response is something she has never forgotten.
“My parents didn’t want me to waste the opportunity. They wanted me to go and then come back and get married.”
After she graduated from the Air Force Academy, Fatima became an officer in the Engineering Branch. She now set her sights on a new goal: being assigned to a fighter squadron base and running a flight line – an elite Air Force assignment.
“All my life I was told that girls couldn’t do anything, weren’t good for anything. But here, I wasn’t a girl. I was an officer.”
Instead of a fighter squadron, she was assigned to a factory, running paperwork.
“I had an office job; nothing to do with engineering. Apparently, they had been hiring women in the Air Force for years. They just put them behind a desk, filing papers. I didn’t want to file papers. I wanted to work on airplanes.”
Fatima knocked on every door and talked to every officer that came into her factory, looking for ways to get reassigned, though senior commanders made it very clear her that it was an uphill battle.
“I wore the same uniform that every other officer did, and I was going to do the same job,” said Fatima. “Gender had no meaning for me anymore. I was not scared to have a bad reputation for not keeping my eyes down and standing up and asking a question.”
This was the beginning of Fatima’s ascension through a series of avionics shops, modification hangars, engine shops. She was the first woman to attend the airborne para-jumping school, but she continued to chase her dream job, and after six months, she was finally assigned to a fighter squadron.
For the first time in the history of the Pakistan Air Force, a woman was going to be a superior officer to over 300 technicians and 60 crew chiefs.
“Girls weren’t even allowed to visit fighter squadrons,” said Fatima. “For me to be assigned there was unheard of, so I just did my job.”
This was easier said than done. Running a flight line at a fighter squadron meant that she was in charge of all the aircraft, men and equipment there. However, as a woman Fatima wasn’t allowed to step underneath the wing of an airplane, stay at the flight lines after sundown or even wear a flight suit.
Uneasy because they feared the enlisted men would revolt against a woman in charge of them, a commander warned Fatima that if she continued to perform he would make her life miserable. Eventually she had no other choice but to leave the squadron. Still, she refused to back down and was transferred to a ground engineering shop shortly after the altercation, and then again to an F-16 fighter squadron. This base with American aircraft was more westernized, and Fatima was accepted. There, she achieved another first – the first Pakistani woman to fly in an F16.
“I could rip an open F16 and put it back together like Legos. I was so close to the aircraft, but I did not know how to fly.”
The Air Force repeatedly denied her requests to transfer into pilot training, so after her military stint was over, Fatima chose not to renew it.
“Sometimes I feel I should have stayed in the Air Force longer to bring a change for women in Pakistan.”
Instead, she left her life in Pakistan for the flight training program at Flight Safety Academy in Florida, which would ultimately lead to her position as a first officer at ExpressJet.
“My family still thinks I’m missing out because I’m not married with children, but I’m a pilot,” said Fatima. “It’s an incredible thing to walk around freely and look where ever I want. Nobody judges me here. I wish I can explain the feeling I get when I walk on a street, and I know people around me are not thinking that I’m doing something wrong. I could never have that in Pakistan.”
On her last trip to Pakistan to visit her family, Fatima received an extraordinary request. The former Prime Minister of Pakistan had heard about Fatima and her struggle in the Air Force, and asked her to be part of the Pakistani delegation at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
In 2014, Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her fight to guarantee all young people in Pakistan the right to an education. Former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani wanted a successful Pakistani woman to be part of the delegation when Malala received the award and felt Fatima would be a perfect fit. She was honored.
This past December, Fatima flew to Oslo where she gave a speech in front of 300 people at a dinner held by the Pakistan Embassy.
“My voice cracked a bit,” she said. “I spoke about how the fight doesn’t stop at getting an education. It starts there. I got one of the best educations money could buy in Pakistan, but I still did not have a fair shot at using it.”
To this day, Fatima is amazed at her journey to ExpressJet, though she’s still adjusting to a life she never thought she could have.
“I want to learn how to ride a bike, how to swim and all the other things I never learned because I was not allowed to go outside. I also want to show other girls in Pakistan that they can do that too. They can do something.”
Fatima hopes to work with non-profits to empower girls through education and convince them that they have all what it takes to step out make a difference and have any career that can possibly exist.
Fatima at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony with Malala Yousafzai