Women Who Fly

Breaking dusk, a C-130 takes off from Shindand Air Base.

Being a pilot takes a lot of work. A lot of time. And an obnoxious amount of math. For the women I’m about to highlight, rising to the aforementioned challenges is the easy part.

For Flight Lt. Ayesha Farooq, her path to the sky was riddled with turbulence. Just a couple years ago, the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) was lagging behind other nations’, holding women back (although not blatently) from attaining the rank of fighter pilot. In fact, at the time of Binah Shah’s 2015 article (a great read if you have the time,) Farooq was the only woman to claim the title of combat ready pilot. Big deal? Well yes, it is. Because women in Pakistan are still expected to fulfill wifely roles, and joining the air force for Farooq did not come without the usual disdain from her family. She took the rebuke, turned it to fuel, and transformed herself into a pilot.

Now in a Muslim country, doing what Farooq did is gutsy to say the least, but for this next fighter pilot, getting the position was only half the battle.

“You knew this was going to happen, (Rahmani) said they told her” in response to a plea for help from her superiors in the Afghan Air Force. Al Jazeera has a long article trying to get this story straight. It starts out as a classic tale, a Muslim woman rises in the ranks of a male-dominated occupation, in this case a fighter pilot. Afghanistan’s first fixed wing fighter pilot, to be exact. Less than a decade later, and after two years of training to fly a C-130, she was applying for asylum in America. So what happened? First the Taliban decided she had to die (a threat she still fears,) and then her extended family harassed her family so that the latter had to move several times.

More women have trained as fighter pilots in the Afghan Air Force, but pressure, and probably fear, has kept many from taking up active duty. At least one other female fixed wing fighter pilot exists, but she (for obvious reasons) stays out of the lime light. But Rahmani maintains a Facebook and Twitter profile, because she wants to inspire other young women to reach for the sky.

It’s inspiring to hear about stories like these, and I am sure there are thousands more like them, in many occupations, and many nations, and many religions. But inspiration comes at a cost. And once you’re in that situation that is so inspirational, you feel every penny of the price to be paid.

Following a Child

I wanted to be someone else.

I watched a little girl walk through a wardrobe, into a dark world with faint illumination beckoning her forward. Cold snow crunched underfoot, crisp night air bit at her cheeks, and silence engulfed all sound save her tiny breaths making heat clouds against the winter night. No one held her hand, told her it would be alright, or told her how to escape if she went too far. Still, she wandered further. Finally she reached the light, a small marker that she made the right decision. Then, at a stranger’s request, she walked deeper into the forest, tentatively trusting this odd person.

She took my breath away —still does. Lucy Pevensie. She had the strength to walk into a dark wood at night, and I did not. I could never leave my family behind, especially without a word of warning. I needed support. Her belief confounded her siblings, her best friends and only allies, landing Lucy in a heap of insults. She trusted in the goodness of a kidnapper; I feared them. She fought for hope in a captive land; I avoided frightening situations.

Years after her siblings joined her crusade into the land of Narnia, Lucy still faced the choice between her personal belief and the words of those she loved and admired. She saw Aslan and wanted others to notice him, to.  Eventually, she leaves her siblings to follow what she hopes is her king, this time they follow.

How a little girl accomplished such massive feats, I did not understand. As a child, I would wake a family member for comfort after a nightmare. As a teen, I second guessed myself, using friends and family as sounding boards. I would never be like the beloved Lucy Pevensie, not as long as I waited for kinship before making a decision, and approval before walking into the night with only a distant lamppost as my guide.

Only now do I see my fatal flaw; Lucy’s character cannot be acquired by copying. Walking into the unknown, alone, willing, full of wonder and belief in the good of a land and people is what set her apart all along. In Prince Caspian, Lucy sees Aslan before anyone else, so she can trust only herself and her king that she has not fallen off the crazy truck. Lucy is a pioneer. A brilliant example. But I cannot duplicate someone’s first steps into unexplored land, they would be following footprints, not leading marks.

Here’s to Lucy Pevensie for showing me Narnia with her brave actions. I want to find my own land, now, with only a dim light to follow.

The Challenge that Sent me Searching

What is there to Muslim women besides a hijab (or najib), an often disputed and judged religion, and controversial traditions? These are the aspects that frequently draw pity and attention, but it is, thankfully, not where their identity ends. And although the clothing choices, free or otherwise, of Muslim women has been a source of contention, there are brave Islamic women who have stepped beyond the boundaries, stereotypes and classic roles of their culture.

To be up front, there are issues in the way of seeing these women without an inflated bias, and many concerns are not unmerited, as threats from Islamic extremists have covered a large portion of the globe the last several years. It is now clear to many, though, that grouping people in a particular religion with troublemakers of their faith is creating silence, not clearing up knowledge . Muslims are impacted by the modern terror dynamics probably more so than other people groups, and that factor doubtlessly feeds into coverage by typical news sources.

A number of Muslim women are and have been standing up and making extreme moves away from tradition, while staying true to their faith. What part of that story is conveyed through the media, and what might be missing? Do tales of heartbreak and challenge receive too much coverage, or is that the truest condition of Islamic women? What are the rewards and consequences of challenging the status quo? And what progress has been made in creating a greater variety of opportunities for Muslim women?

I had more questions than answers as I began this project, (although I had strong suspicions, and followed my instinct during research.) I found compelling reasons for more people to see and value Islamic women, appreciate aspects of their faith, and applaud as an entire mass-culture of women claim their place among the global society. I wanted to see their lives, because Muslim women have intrigued me, with beauty, pain, bravery, and a rich culture. Reading stories about such women as I have described here briefly is much of what has inspired me to pursue journalism, research, and education. But I wanted to know the facts behind that inspiration. Whether or not the truth meant disillusionment, I waned to understand these women and their stories. Because, regardless of the results, they were taking risks and changing their culture, just like they do today.

Survive and Thrive Online

This is a letter I wrote, thinking of what a younger friend might need to know about the online world. 


My dear younger sister,

The Internet is a big place, full of liars, dreamers, elaborators, and collaborators. I want you to feel safe there. But there are a few things you have to learn. You’ll learn them in your own way, and in your own time. I hope you learn well. I’ve been working on my media journey, and thought you might learn from a few of my hurdles and highlights. So here they are.

Fear will not define me. Although I’ve considered myself a newbie to the Internet world, I’m seeing clearly how the digital universe develops with rapid updates and  a news cycle which takes seconds instead of hours, or even days. People have talked for years (take this ancient 2009 article for example) about the rapid news cycle, and we’re still not catching up. There are ways to breathe through the speed of the digital age though, and if I don’t catch a breath . . . let’s just say I should catch a breath. Dan Gillmor suggests a slow news approach to help remedy a cultural phenomenon of over-belief of quickly reported stories. And while I have agreed with that for some time – I still enjoy print news – the idea is to stay skeptical, and move at a human pace through the pixelated realm of information overload. Only bite off what you can chew, and chew thoroughly before swallowing.

This is important because one of the glaringly obvious take aways from studying media in the digital age is that all pedestals must go. Even big-time reporters flail now and then. They scratch the bottom of the barrel, instead of reaching for the sky. And while I can’t help but pity the proffesional journalist for loosing some of their edge in the competition, the mistakes can be unbearable.

All that said, when the rubber hits the road, this is my media. My digital citizenship in a technologically driven world. While I want to see the flourishing of a human soul off the screen, behind the pixels there are still people, stories, stunning photos, and instant video feed. If I want to have any impact in the digital world, I feel I have to start showing up. Make my media presence begin by signing in and logging on. Bringing with me skepticism laced with an optimistic outlook. The tenacity to study and a will to research. Not trust, but interest.

That interest can be my jumping off point. What do I want to know? And why. I had to write a blog. I had to follow the developments of a subject covered in the media. And I learned that I do care enough about things to dig them out of the screens around me. I can take ownership of my content. Facts and fiction are spewed out online at ferocious speeds, some with authenticity, and some in flagrant disregard for the humanity of human beings. So I can start by making choices. Sorting. Searching. Posting. Checking and re-checking. And deciding when to dig deeper, and when to let it go. It is my choice how much to invest, and how much to withhold. But I need to realize my media interaction is my responsibility. I can contribute and consume well, but what well looks like to me . . . I still building that definition.

And you can build your own definition, too. Good luck, and ask lots of questions along the way. What we learn in community always outweighs what we learn trying to work alone.



How I Learned the Internet

The web used to scare me, so I had no power there. Pushed and shoved by privacy policies and fears of censorship, my speech froze solid. I did not know my rights, and felt confounded by the internet. I didn’t know the rules. So, I backed away from the keyboard, daring only to post surface-deep information on Facebook, and worried that searching certain topics would get me on some government watch list. I had paranoia. But, at the core, I hadn’t a clue as to who had the power I feared.

I don’t think money is the reason specific groups have power — although money still talks, loudly. No, the web is run by those who study it. Those who know or care little for the internet will control nothing.  Financial status still impacts the digital divide, separating the lords from the peasants of the Internet. But there is more to the hierarchy than socioeconomic status. Dan Gillmor explains how “short-sighted” journalists have been in feeding their content to social networks like Facebook. In this sense, the journalists are users, and the social media platform(s) remain the owners.

But how can I own a thing in this mess? Richard Stallman spent many years fighting to free up software so people can control their own devices. Software merchants usually maintain rigid ownership of their creations, even after selling them to customers. As I studied, anxiety gripped tighter. I don’t own the function of the computer and phone I purchased, with my money? This must mean I’m not positioned where I thought in the web-based rift between those who are users and those who get used.

How do we learn media, and will we?(Media being an official word which means, essentially, the conduit for conversation from one person to many) In part, it is teaching ourselves digital literacy, and owning some portion of the Internet. Otherwise you will always be one someone else’s turf. From this point (knowing and owning) the levels of power are divided by the amount invested. Monetarily? Yes. But also intellectually. Giving one’s time to gain knowledge and use of the Internet is crucial.

Keren Elazari frames this entire topic beautifully in the video below. Hackers? Well of course they have power! But Elazari is suggesting that’s problem. In fact, a hacker is a shining example of how people gain power on the Internet. Those active, and not just in living on someone else’s site (such as Facebook or Twitter,) are those we should learn from.