Pakistani Air Marshals

KARACHI, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)–Nineteen bold women are going where no Pakistani female has dared go before–up high in the clouds, armed and specially trained to take on international terrorists who might attempt to hijack planes entering and leaving this South Asian nation.

“It is amazing, something I never dreamed possible,” says 24-year-old Sumra Niazi of her new job, which she acquired after a grueling 14-week training course that she and eight other women completed in July. They will become the first batch of female sky marshals. Ten more qualified women were added to the program in December.

“I can kick, punch, knock down, and disarm any terrorist. I am lethal and loving it,” she adds with obvious glee.

Females have long been members of the Airport Security Forces, the federal agency responsible for aviation-related safety, but usually they screened baggage or operated metal detectors, as did Niazi before she became a marshal.

Pakistani women have similarly provided such support functions for the armed forces as working in administrative or nursing departments. Now, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, they are armed combatants assigned to a frontline department.

“No doubt women and children have been the two most vulnerable groups for discrimination with inordinately low percentages of representation throughout Pakistani society and government,” says Afrasiab Khattak, coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“Women now are demanding more representation and stepping up into traditionally ‘no go’ areas,” Khattak adds. “It is definitely a trend we would all like to see continue.”

Sept. 11 Inspired Change

There has never been any legal prohibition against women joining Pakistan’s air marshal program, begun in the late 1980s, but women haven’t stepped forward until recently.

“After Sept. 11, the illusion of safety we had in this world is gone. Every person, every country–and especially Pakistan–is a target,” says Niazi. “I just felt like I had to try and do more.”

Like almost all of the 19 new air marshals, Niazi asked the permission of her parents before embarking on the training.

“There is a feeling that this kind of a profession is bad for women, which is wrong. We should have more women doing this,” she insists.

“My parents didn’t really understand why I wanted to do this, but they have not opposed the decision,” adds another female marshal, 23-year old Bazmi, who asked to be identified by just her first name. “Still, most of the people in my extended family do not know what I am actually doing. They think I am checking passengers’ baggage.”

Radical change is not something the women are expecting in this overwhelmingly male-dominated society, but they are taking advantage of the freedoms and encouragement coming from the most powerful man in the country–the President and General Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf. Thanks to one his edicts, women are guaranteed 33 percent representation in local and provincial legislative bodies, and 17 percent in the national assembly.

“For a man who seized power by a coup and rules as a virtual dictator, he does appear to have a soft spot for the plight of women,” observes Human Rights Coordinator Khattak.

Training Is Intense, Standards Are High

As air marshals, the women travel aboard aircraft in civilian clothes so as not to attract attention. That means they wear the usual frilly, rather dainty attire of Pakistani women that disguises their impressive physical capabilities. They can run a mile with a 40-pound pack on their backs in less than eight minutes. With frightening accuracy they can hit a target multiple times at 25 feet. And somehow they still smile at the idea of dropping and giving their commanders 50 push-ups. But they weren’t always this way.

Airport Security Forces Major Javed Ishrat helped design the training programs. He said that when the women arrived for training some believed that they would not be able to meet the standard.

Major Ishrat recalls that many were shy and cautious. Others cried out in frustration. However, by the end of their training, the recruits “were visibly oozing confidence,” he said, and felt “fully qualified” to fight terrorism alongside their male colleagues.

Besides weapons-handling and physical-fitness training, the new recruits underwent extensive martial arts training, including Tae Kwon Do and Thai-style kickboxing. Due to cultural, religious and social constraints, trainers instructed the females by demonstration and avoided physical contact. The women battled each other in their training exercises. They also studied the makes and models of planes employed by the nation’s flagship carrier, Pakistan International Airlines.

“Special attention was paid to the weaknesses and strengths of various [aircraft] models to minimize the dangers to passengers and crew,” says Major Hakeem Khan, the program’s chief security officer.

“While the marshals are trained to subdue up to four hijackers purely with muscle power, they are also trained to use firearms when dealing with larger numbers,” he added.

Of course, the muscular, fatigue-clad G.I. Janes also have a more traditional side, reveling in their free time in such endeavors as cooking and embroidery.

“We haven’t stopped being women,” says Bazmi, who, like the others, is single. “I am eager to get married and have children. It’s not impossible to do both.”

Several countries including the United States, Israel, and Australia also operate air marshals programs, all of which received significant budget increases after Sept. 11. Great Britain announced plans to launch a similar endeavor in December. All of the programs operate under a certain level of secrecy to guarantee the safety of marshals and those on the planes they strive to protect. The few operational details made public are intended to dissuade potential hijackers and other potential troublemakers.

All of Pakistan’s domestic flights currently have two of the over-300 members of the air marshal program onboard. The government plans to boost that number to three or four marshals per flight and place some on international flights by the end of this year. Trainers are also hoping to run two more full courses for new trainees during 2003, including more women, according to Major Ishrat.

“We are excited to see more women inducted,” says air marshal Niazi. “And maybe, one of us women will take the next step up to become a training officer in the future.”

Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Pakistan who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times.

For more information:

HumPakistan Online Magazine
“Women Sky Marshals for PIA”: