In her small rectangular room in Karachi very little has changed. The clothes still hang in the cupboards as she left them. The neatly arranged medals still gleam in the sunlight each morning. The frames, although now dusty, still carry her smile.
Not much has changed, but then, everything has for Mariam Mukhtiar’s parents.
“For us, the colours of life have faded away,” says Rehana Mukhtiar, the bereaved mother, “Everything now seems black and white. There is no charm or purpose. Nothing holds meaning anymore.”
On November 24, 2015, Mariam Mukhtiar, a Pakistani female fighter pilot, was martyred on duty during a routine training mission near Mianwali, Punjab. Even though her co-pilot and her ejected before the aircraft crashed, she later died from her injuries. In a statement, the Pakistan Air Force said that the 23-year-old was the first of its women pilots to “embrace martyrdom”.
Mukhtiar Sheikh, her father, doesn’t remember a time when his daughter wanted to do anything besides pilot a combat jet. “When she had to move from operational conversion to fighter conversion, there was some talk about her marriage,” he tells Geo.tv from his home, “So, I told her that it would be better if she was grounded or transferred to slow flying. But she said, ‘No papa, I only want to be a fighter pilot.” And that was that. Thereon he never questioned her ambitions.
Pakistan’s air force had been all-male till 2003, when it first began recruiting women. Mukhtiar was among those few who broke the glass ceiling to enrol in combat programs. She graduated from the academy in 2014 and was later awarded the Tamgha-e-Basalat (Medal of Good Conduct) by the government of Pakistan.