Capt. Rahmani in the spring of 2013 graduated from a training program run by the U.S.-led coalition to become Afghanistan’s first female airplane pilot.
By MARGHERITA STANCATI and EHSANULLAH AMIRI
Dec. 26, 2016 1:27 p.m. ET
The decision of Afghanistan’s first female airplane pilot to seek asylum in the U.S. drew anger from her home country’s military leadership, which said she could face disciplinary action if she didn’t return.
Niloofar Rahmani, a 25-year old captain with the Afghan Air Force, said Friday that she wouldn’t be going back to Afghanistan as planned upon completing an 18-month training course in the U.S., citing ongoing threats against her life at home.
Capt. Rahmani would face charges of desertion if she is missing in action for more than 30 days, said Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Radmanish.
“Those who are scared of war should not join the army,” he said. “She is just making excuses to stay there.”
Since she qualified as a pilot three and a half years ago, Capt. Rahmani has been repeatedly threatened by Taliban insurgents as well as distant relatives in the conservative country who saw her career choice as dishonorable.
The U.S. Department of State last year acknowledged the danger she has faced because of her job, honoring her with an International Women of Courage Award.
News of her asylum request sparked a fierce debate in Afghanistan that in recent days played out on local TV and social media, with many criticizing Capt. Rahmani for wanting to abandon the armed forces at a time of war, and some saying she should be punished. Others defended her choice, saying the pilot has already paid too high a price for joining the military.
“It’s like a witch hunt,” says Kimberley Motley, the pilot’s American lawyer. “The angry responses that she and her family have received in Afghanistan further confirms that her life would be in danger if she were to return.”
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said the U.S. government has a policy of not commenting on asylum requests.
Capt. Rahmani in the spring of 2013 graduated from a training program run by the U.S.-led coalition to become Afghanistan’s first female airplane pilot. That turned the young aviator into a national public figure, an achievement emblematic of the progress women were making in the deeply patriarchal country.
Her decision to seek asylum is a stark reminder of the limits of that advancement.
Her situation is an extreme example of the broader challenges Afghan women face in their country’s male-dominated military, says Wazhma Frogh, who earlier this month quit her job as the senior adviser on women’s affairs at the Afghan Defense Ministry.
“I don’t blame her. I blame the leadership who are unable to create a better environment for women,” Ms. Frogh said. “They would tell me: ‘this place is not fit for you, you shouldn’t work here.’ I resigned because I couldn’t tolerate it any longer.”
Ms. Frogh said that, in casual conversations, defense officials would sometimes criticize Capt. Rahmani for being too close to foreigners and for going against Afghanistan’s strict social norms.
Even among those who supported her ascent, some are disappointed that she ultimately gave up.
“She gave hope to millions of Afghan women that the sky’s the limit, that Afghan women could be heroes,” said Mariam Solaimankhil, a political commentator and former Afghan government official. “[Capt.] Rahmani’s decision to leave is harder to swallow...because it affects the hopes of a nation.”
The death threats against Capt. Rahmani began shortly after she finished flight school. The Taliban told her to quit or die; her uncles and cousins repeatedly tried to track her down to punish her in the name of honor. Her brother, seen as an accomplice, was the victim of two violent attacks by unknown assailants.
The family went into hiding and has since moved house every few months. Before Capt. Rahmani left the U.S. for training in the summer of 2015, the risks were so high that she essentially only left her home to fly, which she did less and less.
When she reported the threats to her superiors, they told her the risk came with the job and that she should quit if she didn’t like it, Capt. Rahmani, her relatives and Western officials have said.
—Habib Khan Totakhil contributed to this article.
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