Mushaf Air Base (Pakistan): With an olive green head scarf poking out from her helmet, Ayesha Farooq flashes a cheeky grin when asked if it is lonely being the only war-ready female fighter pilot in the Islamic republic of Pakistan.

Farooq, from Punjab province's historic city of Bahawalpur, is one of 19 women who have become pilots in the Pakistan Air Force over the last decade - there are five other female fighter pilots, but they have yet to take the final tests to qualify for combat.

"I don't feel any difference. We do the same activities, the same precision bombing," the soft-spoken 26-year-old said at Mushaf Air Base in north Pakistan.

A growing number of women have joined Pakistan's defense forces in recent years as attitudes towards women change. "Because of terrorism and our geographical location it's very important that we stay on our toes," said Farooq.

Farooq, whose slim frame offers a study in contrast with her burly male colleagues, was at loggerheads with her widowed and uneducated mother seven years ago when she said she wanted to join the air force. "In our society most girls don't even think about doing such things as flying an aircraft," she said.

"More and more ladies are joining now," said Nasim Abbas, Wing Commander of Squadron 20, made up of 25 pilots (including Farooq), who fly Chinese-made F-7PG fighter jets.

"It's seen as less of a taboo. There's been a shift in the nation's, the society's, way of thinking," Abbas said.

There are now about 4,000 women in Pakistan's armed forces, largely confined to desk jobs and medical work.

Pakistan now has 316 women in the air force compared to around 100 five years ago, Abbas added.

(Agencies)

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