Saarah Hameed Ahmed has been unveiled as India’s only Muslim female pilot as part of International Women’s Day on March 8.
“People initially think I’m Christian and then gawk when I tell them my full name,” said Ahmed in an interview earlier this month.
“I just love the look on people’s faces when they discover I am Muslim.”
Growing up in Bengaluru, in India’s south west state of Karnataka, 25 year-old Ahmed succeeded in breaking stereotypes and becoming the only known Muslim in a pool of 600 women employed in the Indian aviation sector.
“Initially none of us encouraged her. In our community girls don’t usually take up professions where they have to stay away from home and live in hotels without an escort,” confesses her father Hameed Hussain Ahmed, a professional photographer.
As his daughter was determined on pursuing her dream, the father spoke to his friend Atif Fareed, who is a senior pilot in the US.
“Fareed told me that I should consider myself lucky because most Muslim girls don’t even dream of flying. If he hadn’t convinced me, I might have made the blunder of killing Saarah’s dreams,” he says.
In 2007, when she was just 18, Ahmed enrolled with a flying school in the US.
“Those days most Muslim students were being denied US Visas. When she got the Visa without any trouble I saw it as a final message from God,” says the deeply religious Ahmed.
Her mother, Naseema Ahmed, says she never had any doubts about sending her to the US.
Her proudest moment, she says, was when a group of Muslim girls surrounded her daughter at a wedding and started asking her for tips to become a pilot.
Ahmed is likely to be joined in the industry by two other Muslim pilots.
Ayesha Aziz, 18, is an aspiring pilot from Baramulla, Kashmir, and she has already obtained a basic flying licence.
Fatima Salva Syeda, 26, is a licenced commercial pilot. But she has to qualify additional training before she can be a professional pilot.