KARACHI, Pakistan -- An elite force of karate-kicking antiterrorist fighters will begin riding on domestic Pakistani passenger jets this month. The new sky marshals are gaining attention in Pakistan's conservative Islamic society, not only for their skills but because they include nine women.
The first women sky marshals completed a 10-week course last month in hand-to-hand combat so grueling that some of their 49 male classmates dropped out. One woman failed to finish: She broke her wrist.
The women say they are ready to keep Pakistan safe from terrorist attacks. But they also see themselves as making inroads in a society where women are widely seen as separate -- and inferior -- to men.
"Passing this tough training proves that Pakistani women have the potential to show their skills in all fields that are considered the domain of men," said one female graduate, Asma Khan, 22.
Part of the national airport police, Pakistan's first batch of sky marshals, all male, were sent into duty after the 1981 hijacking of a Pakistan International Airlines jet. Those marshals were armed and eventually had to be taken off commercial jets after other countries protested.
However, after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and fears that Pakistan would become a new terrorist battleground, the sky marshals were revived, this time unarmed.
The first recruits finished a martial arts course taught by Pakistani army instructors July 22 and will begin flying in mid August. Initially, they will be limited to domestic flights, but if the program is successful, officials say the sky marshals may start flying internationally.
The instructors said Khan and the other women were held to the same rigorous standards as men during the training, which included martial arts skills developed in Japan and Korea.
"This training is so tough that male recruits often quit, but the women trainees proved their will and determination and showed amazing courage," said Maj. Hamid Raza, who led the army trainers.
Raza said the two top finishers in the course were both women. They were awarded the airport security force's "Sword of Honor" -- the first women to receive the award.
Before the sky marshal program was revived, female members of the airport police had been limited to tasks like operating passenger X-ray machines and doing body searches of female passengers. None had ever gone through a full combat training course, side by side with men.
Neither have women in Pakistan's armed forces, said Raza. "For the first time, and in an Islamic country, women have been trained equally as men."
Raza said the decision to train women brought no resistance within the armed forces or the national airport police. He said it made sense because would-be hijackers would not expect to confront female sky marshals.
Khan, the newly graduated sky marshal, said the atmosphere during training was friendly and supportive. Men didn't mock the women or try to hinder them, she said.
"I didn't face a situation that I considered embarrassing," she said.
She said all Pakistani women should be given similar combat training -- not to thwart terrorists, but the harassment and abuse she said some women here still face.
"With such training, women in our society would be able to overcome many situations that they face in routine life," she said.
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From the AP