Female. Religious. Dark-skinned.
While any of these traits may seem remarkable for a pilot in the Israeli Air Force, for the only woman to graduate this year from the military’s flight academy, they are not what defines her.
“The first thing you’ll see is probably my [skin] color, or that I’m a girl or that I have braids,” Lieutenant Tav told Channel 12 news in an interview aired Friday. “After a conversation of two sentences you’ll see that isn’t what I bring to the table; there are other things.”
Tav, who was only identified by her rank and first initial of her name, grew up in Jerusalem with immigrant parents. Her father moved to Israel from the Ivory Coast, her mother from France.
While she heard comments from other kids about her skin color growing up, Tav said she never let them dictate how she views herself.
“What I would tell any kid who feels he is being diminished, is that it’s a matter of point of view and that it doesn’t take anything from your abilities… It’s something external,” she said.
Though many religious women opt for other forms of national service after high school rather than serve in the military, Tav said that she never questioned whether she’d enlist.
“I’m not the classic religious woman you think of. I’m one of the religious girls who for me that isn’t the [entire] story,” she said.
What was important was for her to be outside of her comfort zone.
“I like the challenge. It’s important to me that I be in a place that isn’t comfortable for me, that’s it not easy for me there, that I need to work in order to achieve,” she said.
Tav, who finished the course as a flight engineer on a cargo plane, conceded that it was tough at times to be the only woman among the 40 pilots who graduated, noting that at the end of a “terribly tough week” she would return to her room and be alone.
“On the other hand, it is a chance to say, ‘OK, it isn’t important.’ I’m a girl and he’s a boy but it’s not important; both of us are doing a role, both of us want to be the best at what we do and that’s what the emphasis is on,” she said.
Asked if she is bothered by questions about being the only female pilot to finish the course, Tav said the queries say more about Israeli society than about her.
“It says something about us as a society, that we’re dealing with how to be a young religious woman — or how to be a young woman at all, or to be different in a group… that is homogeneous on the outside,” she said.
“To me this isn’t the lesson we need to learn, it isn’t interesting,” Tav went on, stressing that what counts is how she stacks up professionally.
“Ultimately what is important to understand is that it matters what you bring with you from home, but not really the external characteristics.”
“What really matters is how I am in the cockpit, how I am in working with a team, how professional I am,” she said.
With her completion of the prestigious course, Tav became one of several dozen women to graduate as an IAF pilot since a 1993 High Court of Justice ruling ordering the military to allow female soldiers into the program.
The overwhelming majority of fighter pilots in the Israeli Air Force are still men, mostly because of the physical fitness requirements.