As the first female airplane pilot in Afghanistan, Niloofar Rahmani became a powerful symbol of what women could accomplish in the post-Taliban era.
But in the ultraconservative country, the limelight also brought threats, sending her into hiding from insurgents and vengeful relatives.
Now, more than three years after she earned her wings, the 25-year-old Afghan air force pilot hopes to start a new life in the U.S. where she has applied for asylum, saying her life would be in danger if she returns home.
Capt. Rahmani went to the U.S. in the summer of 2015 to train on C-130 transport planes with the U.S. Air Force. The course ended Thursday, and under the terms of her training stint, she was due to go back to Afghanistan on Saturday. She won’t be going.
I would love to fly for my country—that is what I always wanted to do, Capt. Rahmani said from Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, where she completed the flight training. But I’m scared for my life.
Capt. Rahmani is the highest-profile member of Afghanistan’s armed forces seeking asylum in the U.S. or neighboring Canada. Three Afghan soldiers were detained after fleeing a training exercise in Massachusetts in 2014 and heading for Canada. One was granted asylum and another immigrated to Canada. The third soldier has been denied asylum and is appealing the decision, his lawyer said.
The head of Afghanistan’s air force, Maj. Gen. Abdul Wahab Wardak, recently warned pilots training in the U.S. against applying for asylum, saying they would be deported to Afghanistan and arrested if they attempted it, Capt. Rahmani said.
Asked Friday to comment about Capt. Rahmani’s decision to seek asylum, Lt. Jalaluddin Ibrahimkhel, a spokesman for the Afghan air force, said pilots must return home after completing their training abroad.
If she is granted asylum in the U.S., Capt. Rahmani says she will continue flying, either with the U.S. Air Force or as a commercial pilot.
Everything I went through, all my suffering, was because I really wanted to fly. That was my dream, she said.
Her asylum request comes just weeks before Donald Trump takes office as U.S. president and is expected to tighten restrictions on immigration, particularly on Muslims.
During the election campaign, Mr. Trump called for a total ban on Muslims entering the U.S. On Wednesday, he appeared to suggest that the deadly truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin had justified the controversial proposal.
You know my plans, Mr. Trump told reporters who asked if the Berlin attacks would lead him to reassess his proposals to stop Muslim immigration to the U.S. or to create a national registry for Muslims. “All along, I’ve been proven to be right. One hundred percent correct.
It wasn’t clear whether Mr. Trump was reconfirming his call for a complete ban on Muslim immigration or his subsequent clarification that he would block only those Muslims entering from countries with a history of Islamic extremism.
Last year, Mr. Trump was asked in a CNN interview whether the proposed ban would apply to people like Capt. Rahmani, a Muslim pilot fighting extremists.
Good, good, he said of her achievements, declining to say whether it would apply to her.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul didn’t immediately respond to comment on Friday.
Capt. Rahmani came of age in Kabul after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban in 2001, ushering in an era that promised unprecedented opportunities and freedoms for women in a country where few work outside their homes.
The U.S. and its allies spent millions of dollars in a bid to help narrow the gender gap by promoting women’s education and employment, including in the male-dominated military. The decision by Capt. Rahmani to seek asylum is emblematic of the limitations of those efforts, which drew the ire of extremists, including Taliban insurgents.
Despite those obstacles, Capt. Rahmani in 2013 became the first woman to graduate from the pilot-training program run by the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan and became a public figure, even a celebrity, in Afghanistan.
But she soon received threatening phone calls and a written death threat from the same branch of the Pakistani Taliban that notoriously shot and wounded the schoolgirl and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai.
The biggest danger, however, came from distant relatives, who believed her career choice had brought dishonor to the family. They wanted her punished and repeatedly tried to track her down in Afghanistan.
They also viewed Capt. Rahmani’s father and brother as accomplices to her offense and sought to punish them, forcing them to move every few months along with her and other members of her immediate family. Her brother was attacked twice, once in a shooting and then by a car that sped away.
The U.S. State Department last year gave Capt. Rahmani an International Women of Courage Award, acknowledging the dangers she has faced because of her career.
The threats to members of Capt. Rahmani’s immediate family have continued since she moved to the U.S., forcing them to move three times since she left Afghanistan.
Her superiors in the Afghan military have given her no support and instead have encouraged her to quit, according to Capt. Rahmani, her father and Western officials familiar with her case. Pressure from the U.S.-led coalition helped her keep her posting.
Under U.S. immigration law, an applicant for asylum must show a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
Capt. Rahmani’s lawyer, Kimberly Motley, who worked in Afghanistan for years, said her client’s asylum application meets those criteria.
There are great concerns for her safety if she returns. The threats she has received have been well documented, she said. Unfortunately, some of her superiors within the Afghan military have failed in their duty to protect her.