World Feature

The Most Dangerous Place for Afghanistan’s First Female Pilot Is on the Ground

7 August 2015 - 405   - 0

Niloofa Rahmani’s rapid ascent has been a turbulent one. Her military career took off at the age of 18, when she joined the Afghan Air Force.

That was in 2011, the first year women were allowed to join. At 21, Rahmani made history as the country’s first female fixed-wing military pilot. She was named aircraft commander last year and has since become a global symbol of female empowerment, earning the prestigious International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department in March.

But for every milestone the 23-year-old achieves, she faces an even greater risk. The biggest danger isn’t in the sky, where she flies soldiers to battle in a Cessna 208 turboprop, but on the ground: She and her family are plagued with death threats from the Taliban and even her extended family, who are shaken by Rahmani’s position in a male-dominated field, The Wall Street Journal reported this week.

“Had I known,” Rahmani told the Journal, “I would never have put my family through this.” Her sister suffered a divorce, her brother has been attacked twice, and her father, who always dreamed of becoming a pilot himself, lost his job owing to harassment—all because of Rahmani’s ground-breaking role in the Air Force. She told the Journal she might not be alive if it weren’t for the support of her immediate family. Col. Bahadur Khan, a spokesperson for the Afghan Air Force, claimed it’s not just Rahmani who’s under attack—he said male and female Afghan pilots are affected equally by harassment. But in a country where nearly every advance for women is opposed by many and met with protest, it’s difficult not to view the threats as gendered. The Taliban’s oppressive five-year rule ended in 2001, but its fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law continues to shape cultural attitudes about women, who are often treated as second-class citizens. President Ashraf Ghani pledged to promote the status of women when he took office last year, but Human Rights Watch cites his election and growing pressure from Taliban insurgents as key factors leading to a decline in the country’s human rights that began in 2014. A report released Wednesday by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan showed that violence in the fight against the Taliban hit a record high last year. Women and children are the hardest hit. In the last two years, several historic firsts in Afghanistan have been celebrated globally by the media—the first female cab driver, the first female police chief—but women’s progress has largely stalled. Last month, Ghana selected Anisa Rassouli to become the country’s first female supreme court judge, but her nomination was rejected by the parliament, who saw her unfit for the role because she happened to menstruate. A month prior, Ghani had appointed Seema Joyenda to became the nation’s second female governor. She’s likely to face the same opposition that’s kept Habiba Sarobi, appointed a governor in 2005, from ever setting foot in office. Now, just as Rahmani is soaring to international fame, she’s considering stepping down from her cockpit and putting the brakes on her dream job. “I never thought I would want to quit,” Rahmani told the Journal. But faced with an increasing threat of violence against her and her family, she may have no alternative. AFP [caption id="attachment_80786" align="alignnone" width="500"]TO GO WITH AFGHANISTAN-UNREST-WOMEN-AVIATION BY ANUJ CHOPRA In a picture taken on April 26, 2015, Afghanistan's first female pilot Niloofar Rahmani, 23, poses for a photograph at an Air Force airfield in Kabul. With a hint of swagger in her gait, Afghanistan's first female pilot since the ouster of the Taliban is defying death threats and archaic gender stereotypes to infiltrate an almost entirely male preserve. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai        (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images) TO GO WITH AFGHANISTAN-UNREST-WOMEN-AVIATION BY ANUJ CHOPRA
In a picture taken on April 26, 2015, Afghanistan's first female pilot Niloofar Rahmani, 23, poses for a photograph at an Air Force airfield in Kabul. With a hint of swagger in her gait, Afghanistan's first female pilot since the ouster of the Taliban is defying death threats and archaic gender stereotypes to infiltrate an almost entirely male preserve. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)[/caption]

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