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In Afghanistan, Death Threats Shatter Dream of First Female Pilot

BN-JQ646_AFPILO_J_20150730185238Niloofar Rahmani became Afghanistan’s first female fixed-wing pilot, hoping to live out her father’s dream and set an example for other women in her country who would like a role outside the home. Photo: Paula Bronstein for Wall Street Journal

Niloofar Rahmani faces opposition from Taliban as well as members of her own extended family

KABUL—At age 21, Niloofar Rahmani became Afghanistan’s first female fixed-wing military pilot, living out her father’s dream and emerging as a symbol of her country’s revolutionary assent to roles for women outside the home.

That was also when her life began to unravel. “This was my dream job,” the Afghan Air Force captain said. “I never thought I would want to quit.”

Now 23 years old, Capt. Rahmani faces death threats from both the Taliban and members of her extended family for daring to work in the male-dominated world of military aviation. Her parents and siblings also fear for their lives, and the family of eight lives in hiding, their comfortable middle-class life lost.

The U.S.-led coalition had publicized Capt. Rahmani’s achievements, helping turn her into one of the faces of the post-9/11 generation of Afghans, those who came of age after the end of Taliban rule. Online photos of the young pilot in her khaki jumpsuit, loose head scarf and aviator sunglasses went viral.

Her experience, however, reveals the limits on women’s rights here, despite the sizable investment by the U.S. and its allies to promote gender equality. Among the advances: Girls schools have opened, women have joined the workforce and some have shed their burqas. But efforts to empower women have at times clashed with traditional Afghan culture.

Capt. Rahmani grew up in a family that embraced the U.S.-backed order that followed the Taliban’s ouster. When the Afghan Air Force began recruiting women, she signed up in 2011 with the support of her family. She was 18 years old.

“We should have this right in Afghanistan,” she told The Wall Street Journal during training in 2012, and urged other young women to follow. “I decided to join the military to be an example for others.”

Capt. Rahmani flies a Cessna 208 turboprop plane that ferries soldiers to battle—and sometimes brings home their remains. A year ago, she became an aircraft commander.

Her father, Abdoul Wakil, had wanted to join the Afghan Air Force as a young man in the 1980s. “The children knew that their father’s dream hadn’t come true,” he said. “But I never imagined that by becoming a pilot we would face such problems, that we would suffer this much.”

By 2013, Capt. Rahmani had become well-known in Afghanistan and that was when the threatening phone calls began. At first, she had trouble understanding the shouted messages. The men calling didn’t speak her language, Dari. But their message was clear: Quit or die.

A letter then landed on her doorstep one night. “You have not taken our threats seriously,” said the letter, dated Aug. 3, 2013. “Islam has instructed women not to work with the Americans or British. If you carry on doing your job, you will be responsible for your destruction and that of your family.”

BN-JQ643_AFPILO_P_20150730184945Ms. Rahmani, 23 years old, received threats from a faction of the Taliban, as well as members of her extended family, for daring to work as a pilot in the Afghan Air Force. Photo: SHAH MARAI/Agence France-Presse/Getty Image


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