Captain Zoya Agarwal speaks during an interview with AFP, in Greater Noida.
Image: Money Sharma / AFP©
India has the world's highest rate of women pilots, but when Zoya Agarwal said she dreamed of conquering the skies, her mother cried and told her to wait for a "suitable boy" to marry instead.
Agarwal has enjoyed an illustrious career since gaining her wings in 2004, including her inauguration last year, with an all-woman crew, of the longest non-stop Indian commercial flight.
After helming the 17-hour San Francisco to Bangalore route, Agarwal was feted on national television during India's Republic Day celebrations, and later became a spokesperson for the UN agency for women.
Her achievements are as impressive as they once seemed unlikely. When she settled on her dream, she had no role models in her network and no sense that women had access to a career in the flight deck.
"I didn't even have the right to such a crazy thought as that of becoming a pilot," she tells AFP at her family's home outside New Delhi, a few hours before her departure to New York.
"I was born in an era where the girls in India were expected to get married, have children and look after their families," she adds.
"And I was not there to do any of those things. I always wanted to spread my wings and fly away."
It took years for Agarwal to persuade her "very, very conservative" parents that she wanted to pursue a life beyond the horizons of an arranged marriage to "a suitable boy".
"My mum cried the first time I told her I wanted to be a pilot," Agarwal says. "She wondered, 'why did God give us a dysfunctional daughter?'"
Agarwal had to pay for her university studies using her meagre savings, gifted to her on festive occasions throughout her childhood and stored in a piggy bank in her bedroom.
At night she did her homework on the roadside, under the light of street lamps, because frequent power cuts left her family's home in darkness.
She still managed to top 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.
Working twice as hard
Agarwal—who sports a tattoo with the words "Born to Fly" on her shoulder blade—was one of a "small handful" of women pilots when she began flying with Air India, the national carrier.
She felt an additional burden to succeed, not just for herself but those that would come after her.
"I always made sure that I (was) working twice as hard," she says, "because I knew this was paving the way for the future of women in aviation in India."
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The passage has been smoother for those that followed, and India is now the country with the highest rate of female aviators, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots.
Nearly one in every eight pilots in India is a woman, according to the organisation—more than double the figure in the United States, despite India having only one in four women overall working in the formal economy.
Local media reports attribute the high proportion of women to active policies by Indian airlines, who have offered flexible work arrangements, subsidised study, childcare and lengthy maternity leave.
But Agarwal says more needs to be done to give aspiring women the same opportunities she fought for.
"I want this percentage to be 50," Agarwal says. "Until then, I will not be happy."
One day she hopes to open her own air taxi service to be able to directly empower women pilots.
"I want to help women to emancipate themselves, to give them wings," she says.
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