BY: SHAZIA HASAN
KARACHI: The International Women Leaders Summit on the theme of ‘Purpose and passion’, organised by New World Concepts at a hotel here on Wednesday, was the place to be for young women looking for inspiration.
“I had to go through several life-changing moments of which the one that touched me the deepest was the passing of my father when I was three. People who knew my father used to kiss me on my forehead and tell me what a fine doctor and caring soul he was. I could have followed in his footsteps, had the Pakistan Air Force not opened its doors for women. I applied in 2006,” said Pakistan and South Asia’s first and only war-ready fighter pilot Flight Lieutenant Ayesha Farooq while sharing a bit about her life with other women at the summit.
“After being selected by the PAF, everyone at home initially thought I would quit and be back home within a week. Yes, I had entered a very different world. Our seniors made us feel worthless. We couldn’t eat, sleep or even breathe without their consent. Actually, it was their way of teaching us discipline, which was tough. But I was also hard-working,” she said while showing photos of her days in training and then of passing out and commissioning. She was the one with the maximum solo sorties in the course and one of the top four pilots to be given F-7PGs.
Today, as the only woman operational fighter of PAF’s Squadron 20, also known as ‘Cheetahs’, she said that if you ask anyone of her colleagues about the woman pilot, they wouldn’t even know if they had a female among them. “You can only tell me apart from my headscarf,” chuckled the young flight lieutenant, while also informing the audience that she was married and a mother who enjoyed complete support from her husband.
“I get to meet girls looking for guidance and inspiration from me all the time. I tell them not to look up to role models. I tell them to become role models who others can look up to,” she concluded her story amid a thunderous applause.
Next to share her life experiences with other women was Surani Amerasinghe from Sri Lanka, who is a human resource expert with experience of having worked all over the world. “There came a point in my life when I was faced with a choice of carrying on working comfortably in England or come back to Sri Lanka to be with my family. My husband couldn’t come to England, not because he was not supportive, but because he had ageing parents. So I came back to Sri Lanka where 57 per cent of the 21 million population is female. Still it is a country that would rather invest in sons than daughters,” she said while sharing what she had observed about women of the subcontinent.
“My biggest competition has been from Pakistani and Indian women. But although we may be technically strong, we sell ourselves short. I mean we are uptight and unwilling to get out of our communities. No, we should mix with our Western colleagues. It’s not about going to the pub with them, it is about finding mutual areas of interest like I found out that I could interact with my colleagues using my knowledge of cricket. Suddenly we had a common interest,” she said.
During a panel discussion on ‘Challenges and strategies for getting to the top’, Dr Sohail Naqvi, vice chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences, said that men and women were differently abled.
Sabiana Paoli, an Italian woman who runs an art gallery in Singapore, while talking about ‘Making the entrepreneurial dream a reality’ said that opening a gallery in Italy and then Singapore wasn’t easy. “But I am a fighter, so I am here,” she said.
Tehreem Saigol, a hotelier, said that being an entrepreneur was all about taking risks. “Hospitality comes naturally to women so I am successful in my field,” she said.
Sonya Battla, talking about creating a niche for herself in the fashion industry, said that earlier the artisans and craftsmen, who were mostly men, wouldn’t really listen to her ideas. “Trying to get my point across to them I couldn’t be aggressive but remained assertive,” she said.
Ronak Lakhani, who came to settle in Pakistan from India at the age of 21, and is better known for her work as chairperson of Special Olympics Pakistan, said that everyone here wanted to donate for education or health or the poor but few understood what the Special Olympics was about. “Now besides spreading awareness about our special athletes, we also involve their families in their training. Teaching special people is challenging but we don’t give up until we see a transformation in them as our real aim is to include them in society,” she said.
More sessions explored women in leadership roles in diverse fields such as academia, international diplomacy, multilateral organisations, private enterprises and the public sector.
Reem Badran, chairperson of National Microfinance Bank Jordan; Patchamuthu Illangovan, country director, World Bank Pakistan; Dr Zehra Gungor, founding board member of Kagider, the Turkish Women Entrepreneurs Association; Stefano Gatto, deputy head, EU delegation to Pakistan and Dr Meryem Aziz Alaoui, vice president of Association of Women Entrepreneurs Morocco, also spoke.