TAMPA, Florida – A light breeze that makes for those perfect autumn afternoons sits in front of a waterfront street cafe in Tampa and is a feminist icon.
You may not recognize them. and the tourists who ate ice cream and skated children certainly did not – but Niloofar Rahmani is one of the most famous Afghan women in the world. The first woman to pilot a fixed-wing aircraft in the Afghan Air Force. Photos of her in dark aviator glasses with a scarf that covered her black hair loosely went viral worldwide. Look at what women in Afghanistan can do, the pictures seemed to scream.
Niloofar Rahmani, 23, Afghanistan's first female pilot who has been in the Air Force since the Taliban overthrown.
08:39 – 14.04.2015
It should have been a time of victory for Rahmani. After all, as a little girl she had dreamed of flying an airplane – however impossible it may be when a young woman grew up in a conservative society.
But in the years after, dreams almost fell apart. She has been accused of deserting and she and her family have received hundreds of death threats – some from anonymous trolls, some even from members of their own extended family. As Rahmani became more successful and famous as a pilot, threats against her increased until her life in Afghanistan became unbearable.
Rahmani's family had to move again and again and left the house in the capital. Kabul, where her family had lived for generations. Her father lost his job because his employer saw the threats as an obligation; Her siblings could not find a job. Rahmani finally had to cover her face with a niqab just to leave the house.
After Rahmani had been in hiding with her family for years, it was a thorn in her side that nobody cared for her. Something she never thought she would have to do: she fled.
Rahmani's story is evidence of the costs women in Afghanistan incur that the West has promoted as feminist heroes. While the US is negotiating with the Taliban in the hope of a peace deal, women's rights have been largely ignored and women across the country face an uncertain future.
It's not like Rahmani ever really wanted to be a feminist heroine – she just wanted to be a pilot. Now she believes that her only way forward is in the United States, where she is in the limbo and waiting for her life to start again.
Eve nobility for BuzzFeed News
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and ousted the Taliban from control, this triggered temporary hope for women who could regain some of their most basic freedoms, such as going to school and entering the civil service. But these profits came at a high price. Women in leadership positions in the country routinely endure attempts to threaten their lives, deaths, and more.
Rahmani is no exception.
Rahmani was sitting next to her sister in the Tampa cafe last month, wearing loose long hair and a black floral dress. Her face was mostly covered – with big sunglasses, even if it wasn't the pilots she'd like to wear.
Rahmani has lived in Tampa since the United States granted her asylum in 2018 while her sister Afsoon is still seeking asylum. Rahmani said that she is safe now, but it is a hollow feeling. She can no longer fly and works as a translator between the three languages in which she speaks fluently: Farsi, Dari and English.
Rahmani dreams of flying planes again. This time for the U.S. Air Force. To do this, she would first have to become a citizen, and since it is unclear how long this could take, she fears that her skills will deteriorate in the meantime.
More importantly, her parents and most of her siblings remain in South Asia. (Rahmani would not say exactly where for fear of her safety.) Her support for her has never waned, but because of the constant flood of threats and violence, she is still afraid for her life.
"It never goes away. Anyway, ”said Rahmani. "I thank God that I'm safe, but still half of my mind thinks about her."
"My path has been difficult since I was born," she said. "Children here have so much. I've never had that kind of freedom. I never had the chance to feel like one of these children. “
Rahmani spoke about the state of women's rights in Afghanistan, from an explanation of social movements through the country's history to interpretations of the Koran. Her arguments, which she eloquently makes in English, her third language, hardly hide the anger of a woman who has been underestimated all her life.
Still, she occasionally wondered if she was somehow to blame for what she had done to her and her family.
“Sometimes I doubt myself… I wonder if I did something wrong. Do I deserve to be treated like this? "
Eve nobility for BuzzFeed News
Rahmani was the first female fixed-wing aircraft of the Afghan Air Force.
Rahmani was born in the middle of a civil war in the 1990s. The day her mother went to work, the building next to her family's home in Kabul was bombed. There was no way to get to the hospital, so she was born at home.
Shortly afterwards the family fled to Pakistan. Rahmani got to know her home country through the stories of her parents from the 1970s, when many women had more freedom to dress as they wished and to participate in public life. Her father grew up with Russian jets flying through the sky above his city. He had dreamed of becoming a pilot, but when he was young he lacked the money to do a coveted job in the Air Force. Instead, he became a civil engineer. But he taught his children planes and how they work.
In 2000 – the last full year of Taliban rule before the US invasion – Rahmani's family returned to Kabul. She saw a country she couldn't tell from her father's stories. There was hardly a woman on the street. One day her sister fell ill and had to see a doctor. Her mother wanted to take her, but she forgot to put socks under the sandals. An official from the Taliban's notorious religious police caught and beat her.
"When she got home, my mother bled across her feet," said Rahmani. "I felt that this was not my country."
The Taliban prohibited girls from attending school, so Rahmani's parents taught the children at home. When the United States invaded, she heard the same sounds her father grew up with as a boy, but this time it was the roar of the U.S. jets. Rahmani, who was 9 years old at the time, knew that she should be scared, but she didn't have any.
"I couldn't take my eyes off the sky," she said. "I've never been on a plane. I was so excited about the arc of the jet trails, the noise they made. “
She stood on the same balcony where her father had once stood as a boy and watched them float through the sky.
Shah Marai / Getty Images
Rahmani in Kabul when she was 23.
In 2010, when Rahmani was 18, she applied for officer training in Kabul. Even the application was brave, but she didn't think about gender equality. Most of the time she thought about flying airplanes.
It didn't go very smoothly.
Doctors of the Afghan Air Force tried several times to consider her physically disabled. She was accepted into the officer training program. She was the only pilot and said she was endlessly degraded. There wasn't even a women's toilet.
"The men treated me like I was going to fail," she said. “I was only 18 at the time. I tried to ignore it. “
She had no choice but to be twice as good as her male classmates to get up early to learn and ignore her mockery.
They always told me I would fail because I am a woman and because I am weak, I would crash the plane and kill myself. “
When she doubted herself, she called her father. that she had always supported.
The hard work was ultimately worth it: she was one of only ten in her class who was selected as a fixed-wing pilot.
The night before her first solo flight, she was too excited to sleep, her heart was pounding in her chest. When she got into the cockpit and felt the wheels lift off the ground, it was as if the weight on her chest had also risen.
“I had the feeling that nobody could reach me up there. Like I'm on Mars, ”she said.
Most of the other base men had hoped she would fail. She had proven the opposite.
Rahmani's flight made headlines and her performance was praised in the United States as evidence of the country's progress and photos of her flew around the world. She remembers that she felt "amazing" and powerful.
Other pictures of Rahmani appeared on Facebook and Twitter. Some were taken out of context – like a photo in which two US Air Force women threw them into a pool of water. It was an international tradition after a pilot's first flight, but it was a representation of an Afghan woman that many considered inappropriate. Some speculated online that it could have been a man who deceived her or that she was baptized by Christians.
Overnight she became a public figure. The praise supported her as well as the thought that her fame could inspire other young girls to become pilots. She took time out to talk to girls in elementary schools about her career in uniform.
"I'm proud of that," she said. "You would say," Oh, I saw you on TV. "
But things soon took a dark turn. Her brother was shot twice by militants in Kabul. The first time he got away unharmed, but the next time he was not so lucky and ended up in the hospital In 2013 her family received so many death threats that she had to move from house to house three times a month, and Rahmani stopped being able to buy vegetables at the market without attracting attention.
People called every day, to make threats – some were strangers, others were people the family knew well. A letter with a Taliban stamp arrived. It simply said, "We know where you live."
The Afghan Air Force didn't do anything to help her, Rahmani said, telling her that if things were really that difficult, she could quit.
But she still loved the job, and on a mission she saved the L from a man by flying him from the remote northern province of Kunduz to a hospital in Kabul. Another transported the corpses of Afghan soldiers so that they could be properly buried. In 2015, she traveled to the United States to receive the Michelle Obama's International Women of Courage Award, which sparked another wave of the press. When she returned home, her superiors didn't even recognize it, she said.
"Nothing happened when I went home," she said. "It felt like nobody had noticed what I had achieved."
From the outside, Rahmani's life looked perfect – a story about a woman who had faced adversity and won over the patriarchy. But Rahmani felt depressed. She was recognized by the White House, but her own colleagues treated her as if she were anonymous – or worse, with open contempt. She remembers these days as one of the hardest in her life.
“We tried to support Niloo, but inside we were also afraid. It was difficult for each of us in a different way, ”said her sister Afsoon, who now lives with her in Tampa and has been in hiding with the rest of the family in Kabul for years.
In 2017, Rahmani traveled to the United States for a one-year training program for military pilots from around the world. It was a welcome break – she worked for months to get certified to fly a C-130, a military transport aircraft that can serve a variety of purposes.
The day she received her certificate, she called home. The sound of her father's voice told her something was wrong.
"When can I come home?" She asked him.
Her father, who had supported her through so many years of pain and suffering, sounded depressed for the first time. The family returned to Pakistan. "I can't live like this anymore," he said.
"That was the moment I gave up my career," said Rahmani. "That was the moment I stopped."
That night she cried herself to sleep.
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Rahmani was granted asylum in the United States after about a year of waiting – a process that was probably speeded up because of her fame, said her lawyer Kimberley Motley.
However, it was not without problems.
Shortly after Rahmani applied for asylum in the United States, she remembers a particularly humiliating moment when a US government bureaucrat made fun of her for not having a birth certificate. She didn't have one, she pointed out, because she was born at home in the middle of the war, not in a hospital.
Afsoon had to flee her country for the same reason as Rahmani, but she The asylum procedure could take longer, Motley said because she is not a public figure.
The sisters hardly have a negative word about their adopted country. Afsoon's Instagram – which she uses under a pseudonym – is full of shots of the ocean and the jet skis that she sometimes borrows for fun. ("I love everything that goes fast," Rahmani joked.) But Florida feels isolated from Kabul – you have to drive to get anywhere. And their status in the United States still feels shaky.
Motley, a well-known defense lawyer with extensive experience in Afghanistan, said she has repeatedly asked for US immigration officials to speed up Rahmani's citizenship – something they have power to do – but have received no response.
Rahmani's fame was a double-edged sword, according to Motley.
The attention of the media, who are military or police officers, is not aroused, and in a way it is a real struggle for them. “
Rahmani quickly blames the media for attention or her supporters on social media for what happened to her – rather, she blames the people who came after her family and the Afghan military for what the New did York Times said she should not be granted asylum and accused her of lying because she was threatened.
She no longer flies, but thinks of her father and the rest of the family she left behind. She and her sister hope to one day bring them to safety in the United States.
“I have the feeling that my life is currently on hold. I have to start from scratch, ”said Rahmani. "In truth, I felt alone most of the time. I don't want to die and lose my dream for the future. “●
Opening picture: Shah Marai / AFP via Getty Images