23 year old Niloofar Rahmani, has defied death threats from militant groups and even members of her own extended family to become the first female fixed-wing Air Force aviator in Afghanistan's history and the first female pilot in the Afghan military since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
She was 18 years old when she heard a news announcement saying the Afghan Air Force wanted to recruit female pilots. Niloofar went and studied English for six months so she could understand her U.S. instructor pilots, then trained for a year and a half at Shindand Air Base in the Herat province of Afghanistan.
“I think starting any kind of job a person needs to take the first step. You need to take a step towards changing the culture and situation, that is why I decided to be the first female pilot of my country. I wanted to destroy the barriers that women face in the aviation sector and open the door for other women. My father always wanted to be a pilot and I have fulfilled his dream,” said Niloofar.
But distant relatives accused her of shaming their entire family.
Taliban sympathizers have repeatedly threatened to kill Niloofar as well as her parents and siblings.
“I has been receiving threats from different people and insurgents groups. It would have happened to anyone who took this first step. But none of these threatens can stop me from doing my job. To stay safe my family and I move every three months to a different house,” she said.
For her leadership at great personal risk, Niloofar was among 10 women honored last month with the USA Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award.
She believes receiving this kind of awards encourage women to take risks.
“I felt very happy when I was on stage and I received the award. I received it not just for me but for all women especially Asian women, if we take risks then we can achieve equal rights,” she said.
Everyday Niloofar wears gray overalls, aviator shades and a black headscarf.
There are now 60 women who work alongside her in the Afghanistan air forces but Niloofar is still the only female pilot.
“In dangerous situations I have always found her to be brave and hard working. There is really no difference between men and women but in our conservative society women face challenges but she will never surrender,” said Emal Khairkhwah one of her colleagues.
Bahadoor Khan one of her commander says they want to see more women join their forces.
“If they are healthy, have finished school and have learned English, after passing the exam they can join in military air forces,” he said.
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