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Afghan female military pilot gives wing to young girls' dreams

2nd Lt. Niloofar Rhmani recently became Afghanistan's first female pilot in three decades. But even as she and other women break barriers, many are concerned about life after the 2014 drawdown of Western forces.

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Lt. Niloofar Rhmani of the Afghan Air Force is the first female Afghani to become a military pilot since the 1980s.

US Air Force

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When Afghan Air Force 2nd Lt. Niloofar Rhmani received her flying wings in May, she earned an important distinction: The first female Afghan military pilot to graduate in more than 30 years.

Wearing sunglasses and a black head scarf tucked into her flight suit, Ms. Rhmani cuts a Top Gun-style profile in an official US Air Force photograph of her walking the flight line at Shinband Air Base in western Afghanistan

“I had to work hard but want to show that females in my country, we can do it,” Rhmani was quoted as saying on graduation day in a US Air Force press article. “Now my goal is to help my country have a bright future and stand up for females. I helped break down the doors for them after me.”

Rhmani earned her wings, however, just as some Afghan women are beginning worry about the impact of the US-led Western military drawdown from Afghanistan in 2014. They fear a rollback of legal provisions that would set back more than a decade of progress and a return of Taliban influence that they say is already evident. 

In one of the latest of a number of attacks against prominent women in Afghanistan, female member of parliament Fariba Ahmadi Kakar was kidnapped in central Ghazni Province in mid-August. Her Taliban captors demanded the release of four of their own imprisoned militants. In July, the most senior policewoman in southern Helmand Province was shot dead.In such a difficult environment, how much can Rhmani's 197 sorties and 145.5 hours of flying time, up to when she earned her Air Force wings, really serve as a role model for Afghan women?

In Afghanistan, media reach is limited, and educating women remains so contentious in some quarters that girls' schools have been subject to attack. Just a dozen years ago, under Taliban rule, Afghan women were forced to wear the all-enveloping burqa, and working outside the home was severely restricted. 

“I read the newspaper and I was surprised the day I saw the report” about Rhmani’s status as a new aviator, says Laila Samani, a women’s rights activist who runs her own nongovernmental organization called “Birth of New Ideas” in Herat, in western Afghanistan.

“I showed it to my daughter, and on that day she said: ‘I will be a pilot,’” says Ms. Samani. “It will have a big impact. It was also on TV so many people saw it.”

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New role models

Rhmani is not the first Afghan female pilot ever. Helicopter pilot Col. Latifa Nabizada and her sister achieved that feat in the late 1980s, when Soviet forces still occupied Afghanistan and were building the Afghan Air Force. Back then, the women had to sew their own uniforms so they would fit and male students threw stones at them.

The challenges are different for Rhmani today. Indeed, Afghanistan is a changed country, after US forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001 and donors have spent tens of billions of dollars on reconstruction. There is a ministry dedicated to women’s affairs, with offices and projects across the country, and women are active in politics and society like never before. 

“I want to interview her! She is a hero. I am proud of her,” says journalist Zarghoona Salihi of the Pajhwok Afghan News agency in Kabul, about Rhmani. “Others are teachers, doctors, and social activists. There have been a lot of changes the last five years. The number of active women has grown. And on the other side [among men] the awareness of women has grown.”

As a female Afghan journalist, Ms. Salihi also finds herself cast as a role model, particularly when she visits schools to report and asks girls what they want to do with their lives. 

“Many say: ‘We want to be a journalist like you,’” says Salihi. “I am a journalist working in the field, and any girl can see that. Also women are learning how to find their rights, to work outside the home…. If they have courage, they can reach any goal.”

Salihi, who often writes on women’s issues, says she has never seen so much ambition among young women in her country. Opportunities have grown – women today are in the cabinet and in parliament – yet she rates international aid of higher importance even than education.

“If we had no support from the international community, how could we prepare the education for women?” Salihi asks. She does not expect a dramatic rollback in women’s rights after 2014. 

“I don’t think so, because right now Afghans know what’s better for our future, and what’s not. There may be new challenges, but not like 10 years ago,” says Salihi. Nevertheless, “Afghanistan is still a traditional country. It’s very difficult to change beliefs and it takes time. Some families can see the changes.” 

Footing the bill for women's rights

New donor aid includes $200 million pledged last month specifically for Afghan women’s projects by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which has spent $17 billion in total in Afghanistan since 2001. Salihi says USAID has an “especially” positive impact of women’s issues here.

“We identified the results we would like to see five years from now [and said] give us a proposal on how you would do that,” says William Hammink, the USAID country director in Kabul, about the request for proposals aimed at impacting 75,000 women, by promoting gender equality from a deeper role in the economy to leadership development.

“This is not a one-off,” says Mr. Hammink. “This is a large program, but we’ve been working on this for a long time, and in fact all of our programs have a gender component, in terms of impact on women, whether it’s agri-business support, farmer support, or education and teacher training. This is the next stage.” 

Afghan women activists, especially, are aware of such funding, and also of the changes that have been wrought in Afghanistan since 2001.

“People worry that 2014 may create big challenges for women, but it can also be a big opportunity for women because the US has promised to help with $200 million,” says Samani, the Herat activist who is also a member of an investment board in Kabul.

“Once we thought if the international community left Afghanistan, we would lose our projects and money would go down,” says Samani. “But after that we thought: How long can we be dependent? We need to be self-sustaining, and our social activism must find ways to pay. It’s a concern for women and activists, but I see women’s NGOs are really improved and active.”

Changing the status quo

Still there are many hurdles, and the progress of the last decade has limits. Last year, a female singer wanted to give a live concert in Herat, but conservative groups were against it and stopped it because they believed “women should not work outside the home,” says Samani.

The new governor of Herat Province, Said Fazilullah Wahidi, who was appointed in last month, says fears of regression on women’s issues are overblown.

“This independence of women, that is not a gift from America or other countries. That is the Afghan, their own idea,” says Mr. Wahidi. “We have rules and regulation. And independence for you is one thing, and for us it is another thing. They are very good now.” 

That may sound promising, but at root are long-ingrained views about women – and how little they should stray from home and from housework. These will require men, too, to alter their thinking, no matter how many female fighter pilots there may be. 

That became clear to Samani when she recently rode a taxi. The driver was listening to a sermon on the radio of an especially hardline preacher. 

“Look to your women, they work with NGOs and go out shopping,” Samani recalls the preacher saying. “Every day we lose religious things; the world is ending…”

The driver shook his head in total agreement, and muttered, ‘'He’s right,’' Samani recounts.

“We expect some women to come under attack, and be asked to stop activities,” says this women’s activist of her post-2014 world. “We will not go back to the Taliban time, but our movement will be slowed and face more challenges.”    

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