Kabul, Afghanistan – When Niloofar Rahmani was eight years old, her mother realised that there was something different about her daughter.
It was the late 1990s, and, like millions of other Afghans escaping Taliban rule, the Rahmanis had fled their home in Kabul and were living as refugees in neighbouring Pakistan.
Niloofar’s mother had taken the eight-year-old and her older sister to an amusement park. Worn down by an onslaught of childish whining, she had finally relented and allowed the girls to ride the park’s star attraction: a rickety roller-coaster.
“They were just kids,” she shrugs. She suspected it would be a case of tough love. “I thought they would come back crying.”
And, as expected, as soon as the carriage ground to a halt, Niloofar’s sister climbed off, terrified and running for the comfort of her mother.
But Niloofar, smaller and younger by two years, dismounted in fits of laughter. She wanted to go again.
“I just loved being so far away from the ground, being up in the sky,” Niloofar remembers. “It was so fast and it went so high, so scary for a child. But I loved it.”
That moment – the love of weightlessness and confrontation of fear – would later crystallise into a near impossible goal, as her father talked of his own unrealised dream of becoming a pilot.
He had never had the opportunity. Afghanistan didn’t – and still doesn’t – have a civil aviation school, and such careers were traditionally reserved, through the military or by travelling abroad, for the sons of Afghanistan’s financial and political elite.
But, 10 years after that roller-coaster ride, as Niloofar was finishing school, she heard a radio report about how Afghanistan would now accept women into its military. This is my chance, she thought.
Three years later, Niloofar Rahmani became Afghanistan’s first female fixed-wing pilot – the first woman to be trained as an Afghan Air Force pilot in more than 30 years.
It was the realisation of a long-held dream.
But it has brought more trouble than she could ever have imagined.
‘Like a shadow’
Many Afghans have heard of Niloofar. She has been on local television, and her pictures have been published on popular local news websites. On television, she comes across as cool and professional.
In person, she is confident and polite.
She recounts the threats she has faced, apologising in advance if it gets boring – she isn’t trying to downplay them, she’s just very matter-of-fact.
In 2013, when she completed her first solo flight, in a Cessna-182, the military publicised her achievement, and Niloofar’s world changed.
Training had been tough. She felt a distinct lack of support from her male Afghan colleagues, she says. There had been no harassment, no violence, just an undercurrent of some willing her to fail , she explains.
At best they saw her as a token female, she elaborates. At worst, some accused her, behind her back, of being a prostitute or drug addict.
I think that everyone came out to watch to see if I would screw it up, maybe even crash the plane.
Her first solo flight, a major hurdle for any pilot, attracted hundreds of her Afghan colleagues, as well as some international mentors who had helped with her training.
“I think that everyone came out to watch to see if I would screw it up, maybe even crash the plane,” she recalls.
But she didn’t feel entirely without support. She recalls how one US commander gave her his “wings” badge – the one you receive when you become a pilot – before the flight, saying: “I know you’ll keep this safe for me.”
The flight went just fine. When she clambered out of the plane, she felt excited and proud. Some exuberant female coalition soldiers insisted that she be dunked in water – an international tradition for air force pilots after their first solo flight.
A British and an American, both women, picked her up. Someone – no one knows who – took a photo.
That photo was quickly circulated online and, suddenly, the millions of Afghans who are hooked on social media heard the name Niloofar Rahmani for the first time.
That’s when the problems began, because in that photo where everyone, Niloofar included, is smiling and celebrating, one of the women holding her up, hair tucked underneath her cap, looks like she could, maybe, be a man – an American man.
In Afghanistan, where young women and girls are often called names for acting in any way perceived to be outside of strict culturally conservative norms, ‘maybe’ can be all it takes.
On second look, some speculated, the other woman holding her, couldn’t that also be an American man? Soon they concluded that what the picture actually showed was two American men baptising Niloofar.
When I first saw the photo that was circulated, it was captioned: “The Afghanistan military at the service of American alcoholics.”
Google Niloofar’s name in her language Dari, a dialect of the Persian language spoken in Afghanistan, and it’s not difficult to find the trolls. On the Facebook page of an Afghan official, there’s a photograph of her in a headscarf, trousers, and a long jacket. She’s receiving a US state department award; being recognised as an “International Woman of Courage”.
“She’s a prostitute,” one person remarks below the picture. “Death to this kind of girl who calls herself a Muslim,” says another.
But there were worse consequences. There were threatening phone calls from men speaking in Pashto, a language she doesn’t understand. Later, a letter signed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan was dropped at her doorstep, telling her to quit flying, or face death. Her extended family – cousins and uncles she barely knows – have harassed her immediate family, forcing them to move from house to house every couple of months.
Each time they have tracked them down, issuing threats and, on one occasion, beating her brother in a shopping mall. In another incident, Niloofar says, her brother was shot at when leaving his university late at night. Her father lost his job; his colleagues shunned him, saying he should be ashamed of his daughter.
“The worst thing is my extended family,” Niloofar says. “They are like a shadow that is always with me.”
When she went to senior officials at the Afghan Air Force, they said they couldn’t help.
You knew this was going to happen, she says they told her.
“You know this society, you decided to come anyway,” Niloofar recalls them saying. “Now this is happening, there is nothing we can do, you have to take care of it yourself.”
She admits that a couple of weeks ago, after a tense telephone conversation with a superior, she cried in her mother’s arms.
It’s at this point in the interview, as her face grows tense from recounting it all, that it hits me: She is only 23 years old.
She has been through so much and feels, I think, very alone.
Afghanistan’s security force is funded almost entirely by the US. In those early post-Taliban days, in a massive rush of aid dollars, donors pushed for gender integration, a huge cultural shift for Afghanistan’s military.
“Some Afghan men see women in the military as a threat; they take it almost as a personal threat, if a woman can do the same job as them to the same ability,” said a US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity .
Ambitious goals were set: 10 percent of Afghanistan’s military should be women – a ratio that exceeds countries like Norway and Denmark and isn’t much lower than the US’ at around 15 percent.
That policy has now been revised, with the aim, instead, for 5,000 Afghan servicewomen within the next 10 years.
There are currently fewer than 1,000 in total, and only around 50 in the air force.
While she trained alone, Niloofar isn’t the only female fixed-wing pilot in the Afghan Air Force. There’s one other, who keeps her identity private. Others have gone through the training, but family pressure has precluded them from taking on active duty, according to Niloofar and the US official .
She also isn’t the only well-known female air force officer. The highest-ranking woman in the air force is Brigadier General Khatool Mohammadzai, who trained as a paratrooper during Afghanistan’s communist era.
In the past, Mohammadzai has been open about being badly treated. In 2011, she told The National newspaper that some in the army wished death upon her . Other colleagues called her “that ugly lesbian”. But now, when asked about Niloofar and how women are treated in the Afghan Air Force, she chooses her words carefully.
“We have a lot of difficulties – but all women all over the world do,” she says.
They hardly know each other, but Mohammadzai speaks warmly of Niloofar. She mentions, almost as an afterthought, that she has written poems in Niloofar’s honour and offers to recite one:
“You fly over the mountains
Over the trees and greens
Over the rivers and valleys
You’re flying above like a dove
Like a parrot, let your heart sing
You’re a hero in the air
You’re a hero Niloofar pilot
I am Khatool paratrooper”
Niloofar once flew Mohammadzai, and other high-ranking officers, to Jalalabad, a city in Afghanistan’s east.
She recalls with a smile how the older woman hugged her after the flight.
“She said she was really proud of me,” Niloofar remembers. “It meant a lot.”
Part of Niloofar’s work has been to transport high-ranking military and government officials around Afghanistan.
In her pre-flight briefings, it hasn’t been unusual for her male passengers to express disbelief that Niloofar would be their pilot, and refuse to board.
“I try not to get upset, they’ve never seen a female fly a plane before,” she says. “I just tell them, ‘Sir, the aircraft is ready and we’re going in five minutes.'”
Most of the time they complain but eventually take their seat on the plane, she says, and when the flight goes just fine, as it always does, some of those men have apologised for doubting her capability. She has changed some minds and challenged some preconceptions, she acknowledges.
These small, rare wins – an encouraging word from a colleague, or just an acknowledgement for being competent at her job – loom large in her mind. She recalls these moments in a level of detail that suggests just how important they are to her.
When she opens up, she is effusively warm, and smiles with gap teeth she tends to hide in photographs.
She uses phrases like “awesome”, “that sucks”, and “cool” – telltale signs of time spent around US military personnel. She poses patiently but a little nervously for a portrait.
After our first meeting, she hugs me and says, “You’re my friend now”. Apart from a couple of Afghan women, most of the friends she mentions are foreign women – coalition soldiers, journalists, a well-known lawyer.
“She has an eagerness to connect to women, to develop a sisterhood,” says one of her Afghan friends, Mariam Wardak. “I think she is missing that.”
I ask her about love.
“To be honest, I’ve seen too many bad, dishonest men,” she says. “In my work I have probably met a thousand different men and I never found one that I could trust or know he’s a good person. That has taken away any idea of romance for me.”
She wears a fake engagement ring at work to stave off harassment. To keep up the ruse, she even told her closest friends that she was engaged.
Beyond her immediate family, Niloofar is guarded about who she lets into her life. “I think even one day my best friend could become my worst enemy,” she says.
But flying allows Niloofar to forget these troubles.
“When I’m in the air, I feel all my heavy thoughts lift from my shoulders. I feel complete freedom,” she says.
A responsibility to succeed
“The remarkable thing is she hasn’t given up,” says Kimberly Motley, an international lawyer, and a friend of Niloofar’s.
When Niloofar started her pilot training, says Motley, “it was a personal dream, but now that she’s older and evolving as a person, I think she sees it as a responsibility in which she has no choice but to succeed. She needs to succeed for her family and for Afghanistan”.
But the circumstances in which she has found herself mean she has sometimes had to be more than just a pilot; becoming a symbol for women’s rights as well.
“In our country the way [people] think is that women have to stay in the house,” Niloofar explains. “They think women are physically weak, and they can’t – they’re not allowed – to do this. This kind of thinking is a motivation for me.”
We are seated in my dining room. She picks a few cashews from the snack bowl only when I leave the room; I can hear her crunching on the tape recorder when I listened back later. Barely touching her tea, she talks quickly and listens intently when I mention that in my home country of Australia, the military recently opened many front-line combat roles to women.
“Wow, I think that’s great, just awesome,” she says.
“If they allowed that here, I would be the first one ready to do this.”
Niloofar’s dream wasn’t the military. She wanted to be a pilot and the air force was her only option. She admits that she would have preferred to have trained as a civil aviation pilot.
But Niloofar became Afghanistan’s first female fixed-wing pilot and continues to serve despite so many around her saying she couldn’t and the threats against her and her family.
“When people tell me you can’t do something, it hurts me,” she says. “I always want to show them that I can.”
She says she has only once thought of quitting . Training was harder than she ever could have imagined. About halfway through, the feelings of isolation and of being sidelined by her male colleagues became overwhelming. She confided in an American female mentor whose response was to give her a book – a biography of Amelia Earhart.
“When I read her story I realised she as a woman – okay, in America, many years ago, in a different time – but she went through exactly what I’m going through,” she says .
. Maybe one day it will be me who writes a book and inspires someone else.”]
Even though they were decades apart, reading Earhart’s biography made Niloofar realise that she wasn’t alone. “We shared the same problems with the behaviour of men,” she reflects. “I’m not the only one who has faced this situation.”
Reading that book, a few pages every day, she says, “my mind completely changed”. She realised that what she was doing could be something bigger – something more than just for herself.
“I realised that it always has to be someone who brings change. This time, it has to be me. It might be really tough, but I thought I have to be strong like [Earhart]. Maybe one day it will be me who writes a book and inspires someone else.”
Niloofar is now in the US to spend the next two years training to pilot a C-130, a large military transport plane, which inspires awe in online plane forums, and is described as “an incredibly tough bird to fly”.
It’s been suggested that the US government offered her the training to escape the threats and the pressure she’s endured.
“It is a great opportunity for her and hopefully at the same time the training may alleviate some of the pressure on her,” said the US official, before emphasising: “She’s duly qualified.”
Niloofar has a public Facebook profile, where she has uploaded pictures of herself in uniform. In one recent post, she asks her “fanz” how they are doing.
“Her Facebook profile to me doesn’t say that she is trying to keep a low profile. I’m not sure if it’s naivety or a lack of understanding,” said the US official.
I put this to her friends .
“Why should she have to alter herself for others?” says Motley. “Why should you or I have to adjust our lives to meet others’ expectations? There’s nothing untoward on her Facebook and frankly, she is a 23-year-old girl, and girls in their 20s have Facebook.”
“She is forcing people to adapt to her,” says Wardak. “She gets negative comments all the time, she gets harassed, and she acts classily and doesn’t react. She might be the only one, but she is forcing change.”
When I ask about her detractors, Niloofar says she doesn’t want them to know they can get under her skin and also, importantly, she doesn’t want to discourage other girls from following their dreams too.
“I want men to know I have not been scared of them,” she says. “I just smile to them and pretend there is nothing wrong in my life. I want them to know that other females are coming.”
When I ask her if she is proud of herself, she responds with a quiet, “Oh yeah.”
“Have you worked hard ?” I ask.
“I did. I really did,” she says.
“Sometimes when I’m talking about my situation, it’s easy to put it into words, but living it has been difficult. But this is the only way.”
You can follow Danielle on Twitter at @danielle_jenni.