At the age of 21, Captain Rahmani became the face of hope for oppressed Afghan women trying to break away from the shackles of the Taliban and the extremist ideology entrenched deep in the country. Niloofar Rahmani was the first female fixed-wing military pilot in Afghanistan, now one of two. Three women had been trained to be pilots in the military, but one of them quit.
“This was my dream job. I never thought I would want to quit,” said Capt Rahmani in an interview to The Wall Street Journal. But now her dream job has become the biggest threat to her life. After the initial euphoria of her achievement, Capt Rahmani and her family received death threats warning against her continued participation in a male-dominated industry. Once the country's pride, she now fears for her life.
Capt Niloofar Rahmani was the poster child for Afghanistan and the US when she was inducted into the Afghanistan Air Force in 2011, at the age of 18. Her father had always wanted to join the Air Force but, since he couldn't, Niloofar Rahmani decided to fulfil her father's dream by enlisting for the Air Force and becoming a pilot. With recognition from the US government, Capt Rahmani became a popular figure in Afghanistan and is well-known for breaking gender barriers in the otherwise deeply conservative country. Continuing their recognition of her achievements, in March this year, the US government awarded the International Women of Courage award to Capt Rahmani for her courage in pursuing a career in the Air Force in the face of several grave threats.
In an interview to AFP shortly after the announcement of the award, Capt Rahmani said, “Ever since I was a child, when I saw a bird in the sky, I wanted to fly a plane. Many girls in Afghanistan have dreams but a number of problems, threats stand in the way.”
In 2013, Capt Rahmani received the first threatening phone call. A voice shouted threats at her but she didn't understand the exact words. In August of the same year, a letter from the Tehreek-e-Taliban was waiting for her on her doorstep which stated, “You have not taken our threats seriously. Islam has instructed women not to work with the Americans or the British. If you keep doing your job, you will be responsible for your destruction and that of your family.” The letter also said that she would suffer like Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel laureate and Pakistani teenager who was shot by terrorists for her campaign on education for women. Capt Rahmani also received threats from men in her extended family who believed she was bringing shame to the family. Fearing for her life and that of her family, Capt Rahmani fled to India with her family for two months. “They threatened to hurt me and my family. My only choice was to be strong and ignore them,” said Capt Rahmani.
While she was still flying, Capt Rahmani carried a pistol with her at all times and never left the base in uniform to avoid an attack. She said, “Simple things like walking in the street, going shopping are no longer possible for me. My freedom has gone.”
When she returned from India, the Air Force told her to quit her job saying she had abandoned duty. After pressure from the US government, the Air Force let her keep her job but the harassment from other quarters continued. Her brother was shot at and, later, attacked in a hit-and-run. He survived both attacks but with several injuries. Capt Rahmani's father lost his job after harassment from his colleagues. Her sister's husband divorced her, forcing her to separate from her 4-year-old son too.
The Afghan Air Force has refused to do anything extra for her protection.“Niloofar is not the only one being threatened... all pilots are. The enemy doesn't distinguish between men and women. She should stand firm against the threats and face the country bravely,” says the spokesperson for the Afghan Air Force. Capt Rahmani says the Air Force has told her that they didn't force her to join, she knew what she was getting into.
Afghanistan's “Top Gun”, as she has been called on social media, has been offered a chance to train in and temporarily shift to the USA. Capt Rahmani knows gender parity in her country is a long way off and is, therefore, very eager to pursue the option of living in the United States, where she hopes she and her family can lead a better life, away from the threats of misogynists and extremists still running free in Afghanistan.