Afghanistan's first female pilot faces Taliban's attack on her family

by Kelly Ledbetter, |
Afghan Air Force (AAF) Capt. Niloofar Rahmani alongside the other four graduates of undergraduate pilot training just prior to receiving their pilot wings at a ceremony May 14, 2013, at Shindand Air Base, Afghanistan when she was a 2nd Lt. Rahmani made history May 14, 2013, when she became the first female to successfully complete undergraduate pilot training and earn the status of pilot in more than 30 years in the AAF. She has service with distinction since that time and awarded been hounded by the Taliban since then and was a recipient of the 2015 International Women of Courage Award. | U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Airman Scott Saldukas

KABUL, Afghanistan (Christian Examiner) -- Afghanistan's first female pilot knew she was in a tough spot, but never imagined she would come under such "friendly fire" at home, especially when she was living out the dream not only she envisioned for herself, but one that embodied a dream of her father's as well.

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.

When Captain Niloofar Rahamani became the first fixed-wing female pilot in the Afhan Air Force (AAF), her family started received threatening phone calls, and then a death threat was left on her doorstep.

"Islam has instructed women not to work with the Americans or British," the letter said. "If you carry on doing your job, you will be responsible for your destruction and that of your family."

The Taliban, appears, objects to women who work outside the home -- and have made her an object of their scorn.

"I can't wait to fly despite risks and threats," Capt. Rahmani said. "But my passion to fly helps me defy all the threats."

Her brother was shot at and survived a hit-and-run attack, her sister was divorced and separated from her daughter, her father was fired, and her family forced to move every few months -- but her family still continues to support Rahmani in her work.

"Had I known, I would never have put my family through this," Rahmani told the Wall Street Journal. "Despite the situation we are in, they are still supporting me. Sometimes I feel that if I didn't have their support, I wouldn't be alive."

As news of her successes brought her to the attention of the Taliban, the family temporarily fled to India, after which the AAF asked Rahmani to quit because of her notoriety. CBC radio  reported Friday that she is temporarily relocating to the United States to begin military training in hopes this will take pressure off her family.

Her father, engineer Abdoul Wakil, had always wanted to be a pilot himself and is proud that his daughter has realized not only her dreams, but his dreams as well.

"I think I could complete his dream, and he's so proud and he's so happy," Rahmani told U.S. pilots about her inspiration. But her family has tried to keep her career a secret because of the constant danger.

At age 18, Rahmani responded to a military recruitment advertisement for women because she wanted to be a pilot. She studied English for a year in order to qualify for flight training and graduated from the AAF Officer Training Program in July 2012, making her the first female AAF pilot in 30 years.

After attending advanced flight school in 2013, she became qualified at age 21 to fly a C-208 military cargo aircraft to transport troops, the only woman to have such a distinction.

Although women were not allowed to transport the dead or wounded, Rahmani defied orders to recover fallen comrades from a mission. When she reported her actions to superiors, they did not punish her.

Rahmani was one of ten recipients of the 2015 International Women of Courage Award, given by the U.S. Secretary of State in recognition of her distinguished and inspiring military career.

"You can't just see yourself as a woman, but as a human and believe in yourself," Rahmani said.

"It was not easy finishing flight school, it was very hard, but someone had to accept the risk so that other women can do what they dream," Rahmani told members of the Blue Angels earlier this year when she was in the United States to accept her award.

Despite continuing threats and pressure from the Taliban, other Afghans, military superiors, and even her extended family, Rahmani is highly regarded by her fellow pilots.

"Niloofar is the first female pilot to transport the bodies of dead soldiers," AAF member Azizullah Pamiri told TOLOnews.

"She is a very brave and skilled pilot," AAF pilot Aimal Khair Khowa said. "She has brought honor to Afghanistan."

She has flown more than 600 hours in her career so far.

Rahmani remains committed to flying and hopes to inspire other women to pursue military careers. "I want all women to believe in themselves and never feel that they are weak."

She intends to continue her service in the AAF and has dreams of becoming a flight instructor.

"I will never give up," she said.