Pics: Cynthia Choo
Captain Sunita Dhital
Through rain and overcast skies this week, a Buddha Air ATR-42 is on its final approach to Kathmandu. The aircraft parks in the domestic apron, and passengers make their way out. Following the cabin crew, the last person to alight is Captain Sunita Dhital.
“I had back to back flights to Pokhara and there was quite a bit of turbulence today,” she says, “but we arrived on time and had a smooth landing.” Dhital has been flying with Buddha Air since 2009 and recently got her captain’s stripe.
Since Sony Rana became Nepal’s first woman pilot in 1988, more women have opted for careers in the cockpit making the profession less male-dominated than before but still much needs to done. Out of Buddha Air’s total cockpit crew of 59, there are only four female captains and four co-pilots. Nepal Airlines has only two female captains whereas Yeti Airlines has four female captains and 13 co-pilots.
“I was flying to Bhairawa with Capt Yasodhara Thapa and one of the passengers was shocked to see that both pilots in the cockpit were women. But after the flight he came to us and thanked us,” Dhital recalls.
FEMALE FLIGHT DECK: Buddha Air flights often have all-woman crew with co-pilots Ashna Acharya and Briddhina Tuladhar
With stereotypes eroding, there is increasing support from family for women to fly. Ashna Acharya, co-pilot with Buddha Air since 2010 wanted to become a pilot since she was 11-years old, and was encouraged by her father. “While my relatives were initially nervous, they have supported me,” says Acharya.
Both Dhital and Acharya say flying alongside a female pilot is not much different, since once inside the cockpit it is all about professionalism and following procedures. “I don’t think I am breaking gender stereotypes as a pilot. It is becoming more of a norm now as more women join the workforce,” Acharya adds.
While female pilots have become common, the gender gap among aeronautical engineers and technicians is still heavily skewed in favour of men. In a hangar full of male technicians, Shinza Upadhyay is the only female engineer working with Buddha Air.
Shinza Upadhyay is the only female aeronautical engineer in the hangar.
“I am used to being the only woman in male-dominated environments,” says Upadhyay, “when I studied Mechanical Engineering at Kathmandu University, there were 50 boys and only two girls in the class.”
Inspired by her engineer father, Upadhyay always knew she would be an engineer and is currently responsible for planning maintenance and inspections at Buddha Air. As the only woman engineer, she doesn’t face any discrimination but admits she has experienced people questioning her about her career choice.
She adds: “When I first started working it involved a lot of heavy lifting and climbing ladders. Some colleagues would ask me why wouldn’t I just stick to a desk job. But once they got to know me, the questions stopped.”
Holding up the whole sky, Paavan Mathema
The wonderful women and their flying machines, Abha Eli Phoboo
Women at the top
Pics: Kenji Kwok
WHO'S WHO: All senior executives at Etihad's Kathmandu office are women (from left to right) Samina Banu, Nilisha Dangol Shrestha, Pawana Shrestha, Sarita Jha and Geeta Bista.
On the coffee table of the Etihad Airways
office in Kathmandu is a business magazine addressed to General Manager ‘Mr Pawana Shrestha’. In the GM’s office, busy juggling between two computers and a smartphone, however, is a woman.
At 31, Pawana Shrestha is the youngest and only female Nepali country manager of an international airline in South Asia. Yet, this hasn’t stopped her from being mistaken for a guy.
“Although more women are joining the aviation industry, their number at managerial level remains low,” she says.
According to the 2014 Tourism Employment Survey men make up an overwhelming 83 per cent of the workforce among international airlines in Nepal, while women constitute only 17 per cent.
Shrestha however doesn’t think of it as being a disadvantage. “When there is a female executive, people sit up and pay attention,” she says. “They listen to what you have to say.”
But she says women first need to be confident of their abilities, speak up and have ambition. Shrestha started her career at 16, working behind the ticketing counter at Gulf Air, before joining college where she studied Management and Rural Development.
“I never compared myself to men, I just focused on what I could do, and how I could better myself,” she says. This positive outlook is the reason she says she has never felt any discrimination at the workplace.
The Etihad Kathmandu office has predominantly women executives. Besides Shrestha, there are Sales Account Manager Sarita Jha, Guest Support Coordinator Nilisha Dangol Shrestha and Sales Support Administrator Samina Banu.
Although all the women say there is no sense of discrimination in the aviation business, they have been at the receiving end of humiliating remarks and discouragement from men in previous jobs.
“I’ve been told that I could not do my job because it’s unsuitable for a woman to go out to meet people and negotiate sales deals,” says Sarita Jha, “people say both men and women are equal, but in reality we are not.”
Jha is comfortable working in an office with mostly women. “I feel proud working here, it’s easy for us to understand each other’s problems and help each other during difficult times,” she says.
Nilisha Dangol Shrestha says the camaraderie and teamwork helps the office perform better. She says: “Support from colleagues and family is the most important to stay positive.”
In the driver's seat
DRIVING TO WORK: Sajha bus driver Rebika Thapa and conductor Sirjana Nepal (below) often work together on the same route.
The big green Sajha Yatayat bus makes its way through Kathmandu’s busy traffic, making heads turn. At a zebra crossing, pedestrians stop to stare. Passersby squint at the driver.
In a bright pink jacket, a high bun and dark sunglasses, Rebika Thapa (pic, right) does look striking. She is the only female driver not just in Sajha, but also the only woman driving heavy buses in Nepal.
“It wasn’t my childhood dream to be a bus driver, but circumstances in my life put me in the driver’s seat,” says Thapa who had been driving electric three-wheelers and vans for a travel agency on the Pokhara route for 11 years.
She applied when the newly-revived Sajha had a vacancy two years ago, but recruiters at Suvidha Sewa assumed she wouldn’t be able to drive Sajha’s heavy Tata buses.
“A lot of men who had applied after me had got the job, but I wasn’t even contacted,” Thapa recalls. “I told them to take my trial again if they wanted to.”
After a route test, Thapa was hired a year ago. She acknowledges that there are differences between how male and female drivers are treated (she had to give a route test whereas male drivers could start driving right away) but she is grateful for the opportunity.
She still remembers what her manager at Sajha told her the day she was hired: “You didn’t get the job because you are a woman, you got it because of your ability.”
Says Thapa: “That has stayed with me throughout this past year, and I always remember it when I am behind the steering wheel.”
As a familiar face on the route she drives, Thapa says passengers often come up to chat, and traffic policewomen greet her. She says she personally has not been treated differently just because she is a woman. Her support system extends beyond her supervisors and colleagues at Sajha Yatayat to her only son.
“When my son’s teachers talk about what I do, my son feels proud of me. I don’t feel bad that I am a driver because if I hadn’t done this job, I would not have been able to educate and raise him,” says the single mother.
Pics: Kenji Kwok
Besides Thapa, the bus crew today includes conductor Sirjana Nepal (pic) who left her teaching job in Sindhupalchok to become a conductor in Sajha with her husband. The couple work the same position in alternate shifts while raising their two children together.
Passengers are used to loud, and often rude, young male conductors on microbuses. Nepal is polite, but firm, as she calls out for passengers and gets the bus moving between stops.
Both Thapa and Nepal have endured bemused looks and snide comments. Pedestrians sometimes take pictures of them from the sidewalks, or motorcyclists try to chat them up at traffic lights.
“There are a few times when some passengers are impatient and use foul language, but that is rare,” says Nepal.
Both Thapa and Nepal are often on duty together and feel that working alongside other women makes them more comfortable, and it is easier to develop a bond.
As she brings her bus to a halt at the Lagankhel terminal, Thapa says: “I hope more women will join Sajha, we have to stand up on our own feet and work independently to motivate other women.”
Women in the driver’s seat, Ramyata Limbu
Pic: Marisa Sarnoff
Looking at live musical acts in Kathmandu, it is no surprise that the rock scene is dominated by men. But one woman is trying to find her place in this masculine music mileu.
Sareena Rai (pic) was known as the guitarist of anarcho-punk band, Rai Ko Ris (“Rai Anger” in Nepali). This talented musician has also played in various other bands.
The prefix ‘DIY’ (Do It Yourself) has been an integral part of all the bands she has been associated with. This description perfectly fits her perception of music and life in general. For her, people have to remain true to themselves. “A lot of women, and even men, don’t question their conditioning,” she says. “I choose to resist this conditioning.”
Rai has often been called a feminist, but she doesn’t like to be put in a box. “I’d rather call myself an anarcho-feminist,” she says, “I hate any kind of injustice, not only towards women.”
In a 10m2 practice room with her current band, Yuva Ekta, she suddenly seems more alive as they play Asamanta (‘Unequality’ in Nepali). “Sometimes you have to push yourself harder just because of your age, gender or sexual preference,” she adds.
Rai didn’t get into music for fame. But in her own unique way, she has been contributing to Nepali music for the past 20 years. Rai is active in the anarchist punk scene because that is where women are most encouraged to play music.
Ganga Rai Benzenkaar, Yuva Ekta’s guitarist, is a powerful example of the emancipation. “She came to Kathmandu from her village with only Rs 500 and a knife in her pocket,” says Rai, “today she is a guitarist in a punk band.”
Rai wishes there could be more interesting stories like Ganga’s. She believes that if rock music has mostly been men’s affair, it’s because they’ve had more freedom than women. She comments: “I got used to it, but honestly it sucks.”
A ray of anger, Marcus Benigno
Nepal’ globe-trotting musical ambassadors, Salil Subedi
Three-fourths of the sky, Editorial
Shakti Samuha gets French award, Stéphane Huët
Women in business and leadership roles
Five start managers
Not about charity