Niloofar Rahmani, First Female Afghan Air Force Pilot, Scared For Girls in Her Home Country

Niloofar Rahmani is one of the best-known Afghan women in the world. 

She is one of the first women to fly in the Afghan air force, Niloofar Rahmani was feted as a global feminist icon.

She shot to fame in 2013 after she became the first woman to pilot a fixed-wing jet in Afghanistan’s air force. Photographs of her in dark aviator sunglasses, with a scarf loosely covering her black hair, went viral across the world.

The man’s country had been all but erased in 1979 when Soviet forces invaded and waged a bloody decade-long war against the Afghan people.

“The Paris of Central Asia,” as Kabul was known, was “wiped from the face of the earth,” writes Niloofar Rahmani in her memoir, Open Skies.

Rahmani was born in the midst of a civil war in the 1990s. She was a young girl who had already endured enough trauma for a lifetime. Her family fled Kabul for Pakistan at the height of mujahideen fighting. As Afghan refugees, they endured humiliation and poverty until they made an anguished decision to return to Afghanistan during the Taliban years. They didn’t think it would be so bad.

She and her sisters were not allowed to go to school, but their mother secretly taught them math, science, Dari Persian, and Pashto.

Since she was a child, she had a dream of becoming a pilot and spent nearly a year studying English to be able to attend flight school.

In 2010, for the first time since the Soviets, Afghanistan allowed women to join the armed forces, and Niloofar entered Afghanistan’s military academy.

“As a young Afghan woman who dreamed of becoming an air force pilot, Niloofar Rahmani confronted far more than technical challenges; she faced the opprobrium of an entire society.”
Pamela Constable, author of Playing with Fire

She had to break through social barriers to demonstrate confidence, leadership, and decisiveness—essential qualities for a combat pilot.

She has been accused of desertion, of acting improperly for an Afghan woman. She and her family have received hundreds of death threats. As Rahmani became more successful as a pilot and more famous, the threats against her multiplied until her life in Afghanistan became unbearable.

“The Taliban started threatening me and my family by saying I’m not a good Muslim woman, I have abandoned my Muslim culture and I deserve to be honor-killed.”

Niloofar performed the first solo flight of her class—ahead of all her male classmates—and in 2013 became Afghanistan’s first female fixed-wing air force pilot.

The US State Department honored Niloofar with the International Women of Courage Award and brought her to the United States to meet Michelle Obama and fly with the US Navy’s Blue Angels.

Rahmani managed to leave Afghanistan for India in 2015 and was granted asylum in the US in 2018. Her parents and sister are still in Kabul.

As the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, women’s rights have been largely ignored, and women across the country face an uncertain future. Rahmani gets emotional thinking about the young girls left behind, who’ve never known life under Taliban rule. She does not believe the Taliban’s claims that they will respect the rights of women and girls.

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