Afghan first female pilot granted asylum in US

The Wall Street Journal    

3 May, 2018 16:53 PM

Afghan first female pilot granted asylum in US

Captain Niloofar Rahmani was the first fixed-wing Air Force pilot in Afghanistan

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Afghanistan’s first female airplane pilot, who became a symbol of women’s advancement during America’s war there, has been granted asylum in the US.

Niloofar Rahmani, a former Afghan Air Force captain, left her native country in 2015 to receive training in the US—and to escape death threats directed at her and her immediate family. The US military brought her to America and paid for her training.

Now, US authorities have recognized it is too dangerous for her to return home.

“I’m really happy and thankful to all the people who made this [being granted asylum] happen,” Ms Rahmani, 27, said by phone from the US on Tuesday. “All I want now is to go back to my dream of flying.”

Ms Rahmani was 18 years old when she enrolled in the Afghan military, hoping to achieve her lifelong dream of becoming a pilot. The US-led military coalition touted her as an example of what Afghan women could accomplish under the Western-backed government in Kabul.

However, her story ultimately exposed the limits of what women could accomplish in a deeply conservative country where US-led efforts to empower them have frequently clashed with the local culture.

Shortly after she graduated pilot training school in 2013, Ms Rahmani became a public figure.

That is when the death threats began. She became a target for the Taliban insurgency as well as for members of her own extended family—uncles and cousins who considered her profession shameful and wanted to punish her to avenge their family honour.

Ms Rahmani’s parents and siblings, who had supported her career choice, also faced threats, forcing the whole family into hiding. Her older brother narrowly escaped two assassination attempts.

“We are very pleased that Niloofar was granted asylum,” said her US lawyer, Kimberley Motley. “Her life would be at grave risk if she were forced to return to back to Afghanistan.”

Mohammad Radmanish, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, on Tuesday said: “As an individual, she has the right to live where she wants.” He declined to comment further.

Ms Rahmani’s family remains in Afghanistan, except for a sister who moved to the US recently because she married an Afghan living in America.

In Afghanistan, her close family members are fearful for their lives and continue to live in hiding.

After more than 16 years of war, Afghanistan’s situation remains perilous. At least 26 people, including nine Afghan journalists, were killed Monday in a double-suicide bombing near the headquarters of Afghanistan’s spy agency in Kabul.

In 2017 alone, 3,400 civilians were killed because of the conflict and many more were injured, according to the United Nations. Afghans represent the second-largest population of refugees in the world after Syrians.

Since completing her training aboard C-130 transport aircraft in the US, Ms Rahmani’s life has been in limbo as she awaited an answer to her asylum request. Now that she has been granted it, she hopes she can find a job in civil aviation.

“I can finally live my life in peace,” said Ms Rahmani. “Now all my worries are about my family in Afghanistan.”