Like all women under Taliban rule, Captain Rahmani was forbidden basic rights. But her story is one of courage, as she became the first female fighter pilot in the Afghan military after the fall of the Taliban.
As a young girl growing up in Afghanistan, Captain Niloofar Rahmani dreamed of finding her wings. Like all women under Taliban rule, she was forbidden from attending school, working, or showing her face in public. But her story is one of courage and strength, as she became the first female fighter pilot in the Afghan military after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
- Read more stories from remarkable Afghan women in We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope
- The Bush Institute WE Lead program equips women from the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan with the skills to become more effective leaders.
- The Bush Institute Women’s Initiative promotes education, healthcare, and economic opportunity for women around the world
Read the episode transcript
Andrew Kaufmann (AK): Captain Rahmani, it’s an honor to have you joining us on The Strategerist.
01:08 Niloofar Rahmani (NR): Thank you so much for having me.
01:09 AK: And we’re also joined by Farhat Popal, manager of the Women’s Initiative at the Bush Institute. Farhat, thank you for joining us.
01:15 Farhat Popal (FP): Thank you so much, Andrew. As an Afghan-American, I am honored to be sitting in front of Captain Rahmani today.
01:23 AK: Well, Captain Rahmani, I wanted to start a little bit by… I don’t know that I have an accurate picture of what life in Afghanistan is like.
01:31 NR: Thank you. The life is not as we see it, as we see it as a big picture. The life is very difficult, especially for a woman in Afghanistan, because women in Afghanistan are struggling with so many laws, so many regulations that they are always told that they are not allowed to do. And as a foreign country outside the United States, we always see it as a different picture, just by saying or empowering women in Afghanistan. But as a society that I came from, that’s not really how it works, because still you see a woman’s… They’re struggling with so many things. They have no rights, they have no voice, they can’t make a decision for their own life, and there’s so much violence still for a woman in Afghanistan.
02:18 AK: How has that changed over time, do you feel like?
02:21 NR: Unfortunately, Afghanistan came from way up to way down, because Afghanistan, before war, a woman had so much freedom, women could be doctors, women could be teachers, women could be whatever they want to be, and there was nothing to stop them by being who they want to be. And even the freedom of how they want to dress themselves, how they want to cover themselves, it was their own individual choice. But unfortunately, Afghanistan dropped from way up culture to very down after the war, after over 35 years of war in Afghanistan, completely changed the culture, completely changed the law even for a woman in a country. It’s completely different. And I wish it was better, but as an Afghan woman, when I see it, it never changed the way all the woman wished that it changed.
03:15 FP: Did you find that the older generation or the younger generation was more supportive of your efforts?
03:22 NR: It might be so much confusing for lots of people because, when I say it, older generation are the ones very supportive. It’s not something very surprising, because older generation, they grow up, by the time before war, before violence, before being told to women that they should not do this or they can’t be here because they’re a woman, they don’t have a place here. They were in the same school, they were in the same universities, they were in the same job with a woman, this was very normal for a man working with a woman and seeing them in the same environment. But unfortunately, for younger generation, or those generation that they grew up during the 35 years of war, all they saw is war, all they saw is violence, all they saw is seeing a woman being stoned, seeing a woman being really attacked, that’s how they saw a woman. And that’s why it’s hard for them to see a woman working with them in the same society. And I think from my experience is younger generation was harder to work with them. It’s difficult working with the younger generation than the older.
04:38 AK: You are the first woman, since the fall of the Taliban, to be a pilot in Afghanistan. What made you want to become a pilot? What led you down this path?
04:49 NR: There is lots of reason behind somebody, whoever we see. Every human in the world we see there’s always a reason behind who they are and what they have done in their life. For me, of course, there’s many reasons. I was a kid that I was growing up in a refugee camp in Pakistan, and I was 6 months old when I was experiencing war, violence, judging by who I am as a woman, and all this stuff would hurt me just hearing that. And I wanted to change this, and I wanted to do something for a woman in a country. I wanted them to be themselves, and fight for what they wanna be, and they are the only one can support themselves, they are the only one they can stand for their rights and for their own voice, because they can’t expect anybody else to do that for them.
And besides that, of course, as a woman, when in Afghanistan, you have a daughter, you are not so proud, when you have a son, you are so proud that you have a son and this is the great thing that ever happened to you. And as a woman, it hurts us to see we are always judged, we are treated less than animals in a country. This is very painful. And I just wanted to raise my voice. And, of course, being a kid growing up, hearing my dad’s story that he wanted to be a pilot, but he never could. It wasn’t just because of the talent, because he never had the support and he never had the connection to be who he wanna be, and this dream always died in his heart. And as a woman, I wanted to prove and I wanted to do and complete his dream, and also be a voice for the girls that they are not believing themselves and they think they can’t be what they wanna be.
06:37 FP: How did it feel the first time that you flew a plane?
06:41 NR: Of course, this is something like I can’t express it by explaining it, but what you have in your heart it’s completely different. Sometimes it’s one of the best things ever happened to your life. And for me, I think I never felt free, I never felt, “This is who I am.” Even if who I was inside when I was in the society, I always hide it. I couldn’t be that high self-confidence in the society, because I knew it does not work. And the first time I flew the airplane, I felt like this is my place and this is the only place I can feel free, and I want to be who I am, and I wouldn’t be judged by anybody here. This is just me and my freedom.
07:26 AK: Did you know as a little girl that you wanted to be a pilot? How old were you when you realized it?
07:30 NR: I never thought about being a pilot, but I always thought about being a bird because I was so tired of this world, this violence, this war. The time that I was raised, I was a kid. All I wanted to be is free, have a freedom, go play around and just be like a normal kid. But I wasn’t. I was always told I was an emigrant, I was judged by being a woman, and it was so difficult for me. I was just tired of this world. I kinda wanted to be just looking in the sky and seeing a bird flying, and I just wanted to be that, because I didn’t want to deal with people, and just tired of all this violence.
08:10 AK: One of President Bush’s favorite sayings is, “In the heart of every person on earth is the desire to be free,” and I think this illustrates that, that deep inside, you wanted to be free so much that you turned into a bird essentially.
08:22 NR: Thank you. I think that’s very true, yes. I think that’s every human’s wish, that they just wanna be free. And I don’t think, if you are a man or if you are a woman, we should judge each other just because of the gender. We need to be just with each other and support each other, because I believe human rights is given to everybody. We all, as a human, has to have a right, not as a man or as a woman.
08:50 FP: You are a leader and a role model for young girls in Afghanistan. Have you experienced young girls coming up to you and saying, “I’m so excited to meet you and this is my dream for the future now, because I know that I can do it”?
09:07 NR: Yes, actually, by the time I started, of course, my goal was to inspire more girls, the little girls that they’re watching me in uniform, and they’ve always been told that it’s not for them and this is not what they should do. I wanted them to see me in uniform, and just go tell their parents this is what they wanna do. We used to go to schools just to get more women, and if we can encourage them to come to the military and be pilots. And I had girls, they come to me, and with so… They were so excited. They just wanted to know the process of how I got here. And after that, I would just see the fear in their eyes, that they just don’t wanna be there just because their families are not supporting them and they’re afraid of the risk.
09:57 AK: The US and Afghanistan now are allies, and you trained with both the Afghani Air Force and the US Air Force. What was training like for you? Now that you’ve decided you’re going to be a pilot, you’re ready to take the next steps, what was that experience now?
10:12 NR: Experience so far was so amazing and very… I think I can just say I never had a bad experience. Because when I was in training, I was trained with the US Air Force pilots and, of course, it was so different because I wasn’t judged I am a woman, and I had to get less training or I had to get more training. It wasn’t like be judged as a gender to go through a training, so I was equal as my man colleagues. We had the same training, we had the same respects, we had the same regulation, nothing was different for me according to them.
10:50 AK: And then what was the reaction like at home in Afghanistan?
10:54 NR: While I was in training, of course, everything was just normal. I had a normal life, like every other girl in Afghanistan, going to school, and I think I had a normal life. I think by the time I graduated from flight school and the publicity was increased by US, Afghan media, just because of encouraging more women to join the armed forces, unfortunately it turned out something negative in society for me because most people never thought about what is going to happen for me in life by lots of advertisement, and I never cared even because I wanted this, I wanted to see all the women looking at me, and I wanted them to be here where I am. Unfortunately, the society was not so welcoming and most of them… I can’t speak for entire country, but as far as I know, most of them were not very supportive. Most of them, they think what I have done was against religion. Most of them, they thought I abandoned my religion. Most of them, they would think this is not my place to be. And working with men in the same area, working with Americans, this is not an example of a good Afghan girl.
And most of them were not welcoming and most of them, I can say, they were. There were some people that they were supportive, they were inspired, they wanted to be like me. Unfortunately, I wish it had very positive impact, but it didn’t.
12:29 FP: Tell us a little bit about your experience in the US so far. What has been the most challenging part of that transition, and what has been the most rewarding part?
12:39 NR: Luckily, I never had a culture shock because most people ask me if I had a culture shock. But the lucky part is, I didn’t, because, since I started my training, I knew a lot of about US culture, because I had lots of friends and lots of… My instructor, they would talk about it to me, and it was so familiar to me, I wasn’t so surprised with that. But, of course, in a country when you moved to live there, it’s 100 times different. And for me, struggling with getting used to the society, get the support of people, knowing the laws, and finding friends, there’s lots of challenge as a refugee or as an emigrant to be in a country that you are not raised there. Of course, you faced lots of difficulties, but I think we all pass through it. So far, it has been a good experience.
13:37 AK: Why did you apply for asylum to the US? What made you decide it’s time to come here?
13:43 NR: I never thought about it. I was here for training, to fly the airplane, the C-130, and luckily go fly for the Afghan Air Force. Unfortunately, by the time that I was in Afghanistan, before coming for this training, me and my family have been through very serious threats. And that’s why US Air Force decided to send me away for a while, to get a training. Maybe it will come down some of the people, of the society that, “She’s not here, so let’s leave her alone.” But unfortunately, my family was back in Afghanistan and nothing changed for them, because we were not only dealing with Taliban, with society, with people, negative-minded people inside country that they thought career choice is a dishonor. My family were dealing with [14:34] family as well, which made the life so difficult for them, because Afghanistan is very small, even from the city that I grew up. It’s very small. You can’t hide there forever, because it just takes you two hours to get from one part to other part.
That’s why it made the life so difficult for my parents back in Afghanistan. And the first time in my life, during all those years that I fought for being who I want to be, my family stood by me and supported me. I never even heard one time they tell me that I have to quit because their life is being very difficult. Unfortunately, because my brother got shot two times and my father had been through a very hard situation and, of course, my other siblings, that was the first moment in life that I hear the fear on my dad’s voice that he’d tell me, “Please, don’t do it or don’t come. We can’t do this anymore.” And for me, I know my father, how hard it is for him to tell me, and I would hear that fear in his voice. And the last thing I hear from him is he tell me that they are not staying here, they’re leaving Afghanistan for a while because it’s getting hard. And that was the moment… I don’t know how to express that feeling, but definitely it wasn’t a great feeling for me.
16:00 AK: Sure, that’s hard, and we’re hopeful that your experience in the US has been good because that’s… It’s always difficult to hear these stories, but I think it’s important that everyone understand what life is like outside of our borders. And we get caught up on our day-to-day lives here in the US, and forget there’s this whole world of challenges out there, and people like yourself that are willing to fight are so important for that, and because it’s how you empower other women. What’s your hope for women in Afghanistan?
16:33 NR: As other many, many Afghans, I think my hope and my wish for all the women in Afghanistan is, first of all, they have to fight, they have to raise their voice, and they have to not listen for who tell them who they wanna be and to silence them, because this is not right and they should not accept this. Of course, there will be a risk, they should be a risk because the culture of the country that we came from, but I just wish for them that there will be so many girls that they will stand up for their rights. Because the only thing we can change as a woman, we have to fight for our self. There’s nobody else who can fight for us. As a woman, if we doubt our self, I’m sure we won’t get anywhere because, as a person, if you doubt yourself, you should not expect from anybody else to tell you who you can be. And I just wish for them, because every human needs freedom, and I wish for the women in Afghanistan to be who they wanna be. And finally, they should raise their voices and fight for what they want.
17:40 FP: What can the US and the international community be doing to empower women in Afghanistan?
17:48 NR: They have done so much so far to empower women, because I was in Afghanistan and I would see how much they support, how much they want women to be in armed forces, they want women to be in Congress, they want women to be educated, but only by funding Afghan women, it does not work, because sometimes not all of them goes to a woman. We need to change more men mentality in Afghanistan to get where we want to be with women, because if we do not have the support of men with us, I don’t think this will empower more women to be there because they’re afraid, they’re afraid that they will not be welcome there. As a woman, it’s difficult, because if you don’t change the society, I think it doesn’t help really. It has to be changed through a culture, through men, and that’s when we can empower women. And, of course, raising lots of women and getting lots of women together, that they should be together and supporting each other. And if we are a congress woman, we are there to support other women in the country. And that’s how it should be, and that’s how all those women, when they are there, they need to fight for other women that they don’t have a voice. And I hope this will change, I hope this will definitely change in Afghanistan.
19:13 FP: It sounds like it will take women empowering other women and men’s inclusion in all of these conversations to really raise the voices of women themselves.
19:25 NR: Absolutely. Because, as a woman, we need our women to support us. If we don’t have the support of our women, I think it’s difficult. We shouldn’t expect from men to support us, if we don’t have the support of women.
19:40 AK: As you’ve told your story a few times, what has no one asked you that you wish someone would ask you?
19:47 NR: Oh, that’s awesome. [chuckle] There’s always questions in our mind that we wish people would ask us. I think, for me, I wish always if people would ask me if I was given the second life, who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do differently. I think if I was given the second chance, I think I would approach it differently. I would try to empower more women, and I would try to keep my family away from this, and I would have opened a flight school for girls in Afghanistan, that I would get lots of women there. If I could train lots of women, those women could train lots of other women. So, that’s how we would create a big pilot woman community, and that was the time that we would go out in the society and we would work the same as other men, and that time nobody would tell us it’s only one woman, one woman is always judged. And that way, we would be plenty of women and nobody would tell us this is not our place.
20:52 FP: Strength in numbers.
20:53 NR: Yes.
20:54 AK: Exactly. I think that’s a perfect way to wrap this up. Captain Rahmani, thank you so much for the time and for helping paint a picture of what life is like for you. And we wish you all the best here in the US, and continued success.
21:08 NR: Thank you so much. It was my pleasure to be here.