Indian pilot paves way for women in aviation

Indian pilot paves way for women in aviation


India has the highest rate of female pilots in the world, but when Zoya Agarwal said she dreams of conquering the skies, her mother cried and told her to wait for a “suitable boy” to marry instead.

Agarwal has had a glittering career since she took her wings in 2004, including her inauguration of India’s longest non-stop commercial flight last year with an all-female crew.

After leading the 17-hour route from San Francisco to Bangalore, Agarwal was hailed on national television during India’s Republic Day celebrations and later became a spokesperson for the UN Women’s Organisation.

Her achievements are as impressive as they once seemed improbable. When she decided to follow her dream, she had no role models in her network and no idea that women would have access to a career in the cockpit.

“I didn’t even have the right to have such a crazy thought as becoming a pilot,” she told AFP at her family’s home outside New Delhi, just hours before she left for New York.

“I was born at a time when girls in India were expected to get married, have children and take care of their families,” she adds.

“And I wasn’t there to do all those things. I always wanted to spread my wings and fly away.”

It took Agarwal years to convince her “very, very conservative” parents that she wanted to live beyond the horizon of an arranged marriage with “a suitable boy”.

“My mother cried when I first told her I wanted to be a pilot,” says Agarwal. “She wondered, ‘Why did God give us a dysfunctional daughter?'”

Agarwal had to pay for her university studies with her meager savings, given to her on festive occasions during her childhood and kept in a piggy bank in her bedroom.

At night, she did her homework by the side of the road by streetlight, as frequent power outages left her family home in darkness.

She still managed to excel in her classes and her parents, impressed by her determination after years of trying to dissuade her, surprised her by agreeing to pay for her flight training.

– “Work twice as hard” –

Agarwal – who has a tattoo of the words “Born to Fly” on her shoulder blade – was one of a “small handful” of pilots when she first started flying with Air India, the national carrier.

She felt an added burden of being successful, not only for herself but for those who would come after her.

“I’ve always made sure to work twice as hard,” she says, “because I knew it paved the way for the future of women in aviation in India.”

The passage was smoother for those who followed, and India is now the country with the highest rate of female aviators, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots.

Almost one in eight pilots in India is a woman, according to the organization — more than twice the number in the United States, despite just one in four women working in the formal economy in India overall.

Local media reports attribute the high proportion of women to the active policies of Indian airlines, which have offered flexible working arrangements, subsidized studies, childcare and long maternity leave.

But Agarwal says more needs to be done to give rising women the same opportunities she fought for.

“I want that percentage to be 50,” says Agarwal. “Until then I will not be happy.”

She hopes to one day open her own air taxi service to empower female pilots directly.

“I want to help women emancipate themselves, give them wings,” she says.

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