A 15-women 'army' is charting change in conservative Kashmir by breaking through the parochial societal mould. Wearing grey-black trousers and white shirts, the 'army' is preparing to fly high in the skies to make a statement and an assertion that women of Kashmir have emerged on the scene in a new avatar. First air hostess training centre on the Srinagar-Muzafarrabad highway near Shalteng area has opened a new window of 'azadi' for women in the valley.
The take-off of the centre has not been easy though. "People are clueless about the aviation sector in Kashmir. It took a lot of convincing power to prevail upon parents to send girls for training," said Maheen Rashid, director of the VIINZ airhostesses training centre. In her late twenties, Rashid after completing her masters in Business Management decided to groom girls for the fast growing aviation sector. "I share my story with the parents of aspiring candidates. I am a girl and running this centre. I explain to them it's not as bad as people think here," said Rashid, who, along with Fayaz Ahmad Palla, chairman of the centre, started a hospitality institute in 2010.
A state where debate around the veil consumes rims of papers and hours of drawing room discussions, the airhostess institute management was bound to face question after question from parents over the dress code, particularly skirts. Does my daughter have to wear a skirt? What if she is misbehaved on the plane? How safe is the job? These were the first questions posed to Rashid while counseling the aspirants and their parents.
"I convince them that there are airlines where one is not supposed to wear skirts. I cite examples of Saudi airlines because it belongs to a major Muslim country. Many airlines plying from Muslim countries have a modest dress code. Besides, a strong character makes a strong woman," explains Rashid.
The convincing has already struck a chord with many girls like Rifat Ara, an arts graduate from small town in south Kashmir's Qazigund area. "My parents were broadminded enough to allow to me join the course," said Ara, who lives 80 km away from the centre. But for Saima, a plus two pass-out from Srinagar's Batamaloo area, convincing her parents was not an easy task. "It was an army officer who convinced my reluctant parents to allow me to join the aviation industry. My mother was complete no-no about the decision," said Saima.
The institute enrolled only 15 girls for the first batch. All raw and accent-heavy, the institute has to put extra effort to polish girls. "We put the girls through extra months of beautician exercises and language programmes," said Rashid.
Ninety five per cent of the girls have never seen a plane on the tarmac ever in their lives. "We have never seen a plane or been onboard," said Masarat and Neelofar in unison. The duo comes from far-off rural pockets of Anantnag and Budgam districts.
There is a thin presence of girls from urban Srinagar reflecting the fact that the profession continues to 'pariah' for many; but not for the girls like Masarat. "We want to fly high, see places and earn good money with dignity," said Masarat, adding "the aviation industry offers it all".