France 24/AFP:-Afghanistan’s first female fixed-wing pilot has requested asylum in the United States, the Afghan defence ministry confirmed on Monday. Captain Niloofar Rahmani made the request after receiving death threats.
Rahmani, 25, was scheduled to return to Afghanistan last week after a 15-month-long training course with the Air Force.
But on the eve of her departure Rahmani declared that she did not want to return home, citing fears for her safety after she and her family received multiple death threats from hard-line Afghan insurgents.
The move triggered a storm of criticism that she was “betraying” her country.
But her shock announcement also garnered her support from activists in Afghanistan, as well as renewed the debate on some of the country’s most vexing issues: security, the role of women and the mass exodus of educated young people that has created an Afghan “brain drain”.
Rahmani became a symbol of hope for millions of Afghan women in 2013 when she appeared in the press dressed in her khaki overalls and aviator glasses after becoming Afghanistan’s first female pilot since before the Taliban era.
“Niloofar is now the first woman in her nation’s history to earn her flying wings on a fixed-wing plane,” said the US deputy secretary of state for management and resources, Heather Higginbottom, at the ceremony. “Afghans and people all around the world swelled with pride at her accomplishments, but many, including the Taliban and some members of her own extended family, were incensed. Niloofar received death threats and was forced to relocate several times. But she will not be intimidated and she will not be silenced.”
Rahmani has received numerous death threats from hard-line insurgents. In an interview with AFP in Kabul last year, she said she always carried a pistol for her protection. And though she has grown accustomed to being stared at, she never leaves the airbase in uniform to avoid it making her even more of a target.
She also routinely faced contempt from her male colleagues in a conservative nation where many still believe that a woman belongs in the home.
Rahmani’s lawyer, Kimberly Motley, said her decision to seek asylum in the US had been a “heartbreakingly difficult decision”.
“Niloofar and her family have received vicious threats which have, unfortunately, confirmed that her safety is at significant risk if she were to come back to Afghanistan,” Motley told AFP.
“The real betrayal to Afghanistan [are] those who threaten her life, her family’s life and also to those who continue to oppress women.”
But some of the criticism over her decision has come from women.
“Dear Niloofar, do you think your problems are bigger than that of millions of other Afghan women?” photojournalist Maryam Khamosh wrote on Facebook.
“I sometimes wish I were Niloofar and could soar in the sky and bomb the enemies of my people. But you, Niloofar, who touched the skies from the ashes of our land, have shamed our flag.”
NATO forces also once took umbrage at a comment she made to the media that the security situation in Afghanistan is “getting worse and worse”.
“Afghan security forces have seen definitive progress … and their performance in 2016 was better than 2015, and we expect 2017 to be better than 2016,” the military coalition said in response.
But that sentiment does not resonate with many Afghan youth, who have continued to flee the country’s conflict in record numbers.
Many Afghans decried yet another symbol of violence and impunity on Monday, when social media images surfaced of dreaded warlord Faryadi Sarwar Zardad relaxing in a public bathhouse.
Zardad was convicted in 2005 of torture and taking hostages. Infamous for once keeping a “human dog” that savaged victims on his command, he was deported from Britain this month following his early release from jail.
“When someone like Zardad can roam freely in Kabul, then Niloofar has the right to not come back,” wrote one Afghan man in a Facebook post.