Why you should care

Because there’s more to Afghanistan than the Taliban.

The pastel colors of the wall paintings suggest peace, but the paintings on the wall remind us otherwise: helicopter gunships flying over the Afghan countryside. But here in the military airport of the Afghan capital of Kabul, Capt. Niloofar Rahmani presides with deep, unshakable calm to rival a CEO or president. That’s because Rahmani is a unicorn: She’s the first female fixed-wing pilot of the Afghan Air Force.

As you might imagine, there are just 51 women in the force of 6,500, according to the Department of Defense, in this country better known for its wartime struggles than for any form of gender egalitarianism in the Taliban era. But the force has received a dose of estrogen in the past several years. And increasingly, says Rebecca Zimmerman, policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the RAND Corporation, “you’d be surprised at the amounts of things women are doing” despite their small numbers in the force. At 23, Rahmani is a captain, responsible primarily for cargo transport — and avoiding getting shot at. Rahmani, though, is a standout, Zimmerman says. She’s doing “no-kidding work” and is “competing head-to-head” with men. “It’s remarkable,” Zimmerman adds.

It all began when Rahmani was just a little girl, long before she knew anything of the force or pilots. But, she says with a smile, “I was thinking, ‘Maybe one day I can fly like a bird and have my own wings.’” Casually adjusting the leopard-spotted headscarf that loosely covers her full black hair, she adds that the dream was also that of her father, who longed to be a pilot himself. Instead, facing the civil war that ravaged Afghanistan in the early 1990s, he took his family and fled to Peshawar in Pakistan. As things became more stable in Kabul, they returned to the Taliban-controlled territory. Rahmani, being a girl, was not meant to get an education, but her parents defied the Taliban orders and taught her at home. After the Taliban were toppled in 2001, Rahmani had the chance to go to a normal school. Today, she wears a simple black robe — but normally, we’d find her in uniform, a classic khaki jumpsuit.

The Afghan Air Force has high standards, ones that often disqualify women, Zimmerman says. It requires writing and speaking English to meet the international Air Force requirements, not to mention the actual aircraft piloting skills. Those are what Col. Mohammed Bahadur, the spokesman for the Afghan Air Force, speaks of when asked about Rahmani. And more controversial than being in the force are Rahmani’s cargo transport habits: She’s responsible for carrying supplies and assorted machine cargo to and from Kabul. But she has also insisted on carrying corpses back to the families of the deceased — even though traditionally women are prohibited from carrying corpses.

Women, though, haven’t always been so restricted in their wartime rights in Afghanistan or the rest of the Middle East. Thirty or more years ago, women were already part of the security forces, but today they make up less than one percent of the Air Force. And in 1989, two Afghan sisters, Latifa and Laliuma Nabizada, flew in the force (helicopters, not Rahmani’s fixed-wing plane). It goes way back to the mujahedeen days, too, when the nation had an entire female militia. The change has come about in part out of necessity. Women just started doing the necessary jobs, Zimmerman says. And their labor was crucial, given how much the Taliban “gutted” what Zimmerman says was once a top-notch force.

Of course, Rahmani can’t change everything. Three decades of war have rolled back much of the liberal thinking that was once present in the country, says Fatana Gailani, the founder of the Afghanistan Women Council. Rahmani has had death threats delivered to her house and has even had to go into hiding. She’s tough-nosed, recounting this, but a shadow of worry crosses her face. “If I would have known how tough it will be, I maybe wouldn’t have started at all,” she considers.

And this isn’t a landmark of enormous future change, Zimmerman cautions. Women aren’t actively fighting for positions like Rahmani’s; those who do make it into the force are often doing housekeeping tasks rather than substantive military work. In the police force, Zimmerman says, many women don’t even get badges or weapons. Women are often treated nominally as “the female side to what men are doing,” she adds. For instance, in a compound raid, women are sent to check the female quarters while men search the male quarters.

There are silver linings, though. Receiving the U.S. secretary of state’s International Women of Courage Award for her achievements back in March, for one. And there have been two other women who’ve since followed in her footsteps. And don’t forget the coolest bit: She gets to fly. “On the ground, my mind is everywhere, and I can’t stop thinking. Some things worry me; some things even scare me. But in the air, I am focused on only one thing: flying. And that’s the best part of my life.” She rushes off from our meeting. The skies call.

Nathan Siegel contributed reporting.

An earlier version of this article misstated how many women were in the Afghan air force in the 60s and 70s.

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