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Afghanistan female air force pilots left grounded

The two women in their 20s were trained in the U.S. how to fly military helicopters, but in Afghanistan, they have been ignored and put off by the air force.

December 27, 2012|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • In Kabul, 2nd Lt. Sourya Saleh, 20, left, and 2nd Lt. Masooma Hussaini are Afghan air force helicopter pilots who were trained in the United States.
In Kabul, 2nd Lt. Sourya Saleh, 20, left, and 2nd Lt. Masooma Hussaini are… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Unlike most women in Afghanistan, Sourya Saleh knows how to drive — but she's taken the wheel only with her brother beside her, out of respect for tradition. Her friend Masooma Hussaini is still learning.

Both young women, though, are experts in a more demanding mode of travel: They've flown 204 hours each as pilots of military helicopters.

The first female chopper pilots in Afghanistan since the Soviets trained a woman as a pilot in the 1980s, these two young Afghans are pioneers in a land where a resurgent Taliban is determined to deny girls the right to an education, and violence against women is on the rise.

After 18 months of military helicopter training in the United States, 2nd Lt. Saleh and 2nd Lt. Hussaini have returned home as two polished, confident Afghan air force pilots. But they don't have uniforms, flight suits or an assignment. They haven't even seen a helicopter, much less flown one.

Since returning here Oct. 28, they've spent their days at home with their families, reading, watching TV, shopping and helping with housework. A superior says their paperwork is "under review."

"It seems we've been put on a very long vacation," Saleh said in nearly perfect English, honed by months in Texas and Alabama with American women who were also training to be military pilots.

Saleh, 20, and Hussaini, 21, refuse to believe that the Afghan military has abandoned them. They prefer to believe that the country's nascent air force is just slow and bureaucratic, and that they'll be flying and serving their country soon.

"I fought too hard for the right to fight for my country — I'm not going to stay home and wait," Hussaini said, picking at a chicken kebab in the women's section of a restaurant near her home in Kabul. "To not fly now after all we've accomplished for women would mean that everything we've fought for would be wasted."

The pilots' imposed idleness elicits painful memories of their childhoods, when the Taliban government forced young women to stay at home, cooking and cleaning. Hussaini and Saleh were educated in secret, illegal girls' schools until the Taliban regime fell in 2001.

"Things are much better now for Afghanistan, but there are still problems for women," Hussaini said. "Not everyone tells the truth about the situation. It's hard to know the truth."

Hussaini is poised and forthright, with expressive eyes and a round face framed by a black head scarf. Saleh is more reserved, but speaks quietly and confidently, her smooth face lightly dusted with makeup beneath her head scarf.

The two women dress modestly, with stylish Western-style winter coats, boots and handbags. Both are ethnic Hazara, a Shiite Muslim minority that has experienced persecution by Afghanistan's Sunni Muslim majority.

In a country where burkas are still common, especially in the countryside, the two pilots are portraits of modernity set against a backdrop of harsh patriarchal domination. Afghanistan's women's affairs minister reported last month that "extreme or brutal violence against women" is on the rise, with 3,500 reported cases in the first six months of the year.

"In Afghanistan, women cannot raise their voices," Saleh said. "We wanted a way to raise our voices for all women, and flying for our country does that."

This month, two women who did raise their voices were assassinated. A high school girl was shot by gunmen on her first day as a polio vaccination volunteer, and a provincial director of women's affairs was gunned down four months after her predecessor was killed by a car bomb.

Sexism is deeply embedded in Afghan society. Schoolgirls have been poisoned or doused with acid, and young women have been beaten and killed by male relatives for refusing arranged marriages to older men. Women who work outside the home are often threatened, or condemned as morally deficient.

The Afghan military was slow to accept women, but it has admitted them in recent years under Western pressure. Today, about 350 women are in the Afghan military, according to NATO, almost all of them in administrative or support jobs. An Afghan army spokesman, Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi, put the number at nearly 1,000 — in an army of 187,000.

In this environment, the accomplishments of Hussaini and Saleh are remarkable, especially because both come from conservative families with no history of military service. They didn't know each other when they enlisted three years ago after seeing TV ads in Kabul seeking women for the military. They were two Afghan girls who had never been away from home.

The women graduated from officers' candidate school in Kabul, then took English classes. They received instruction in English and military technical language at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. At Ft. Rucker, Ala., they learned to fly U.S. Army OH-58 Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters.

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