US-trained Afghan female military helicopter pilots battle sexism

Trained in the US to fly military helicopters, two young pioneers are frustrated in Afghanistan

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 6:00am


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, though, are experts in a more demanding mode of travel: they have flown 204 hours each as pilots of military helicopters.

The first female helicopter pilots in Afghanistan since the Soviets trained a woman as a pilot in the 1980s, the 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, the pair - both second lieutenants - have returned home as polished, confident Afghan air force pilots.

But they do not have uniforms, flight suits or an assignment. They have not even seen a helicopter, much less flown one. Since returning in late October, they have spent their days at home with their families, reading, watching television, 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 will be flying and serving their country soon.

"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."

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, General Mohammed Zahir Azimi, put the number at nearly 1,000 - in an army of 187,000.

Hussaini and Saleh enlisted three years ago after seeing television advertisements in Kabul seeking women for the military. 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 Fort Rucker, Alabama, they learned to fly US Army OH-58 Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters.

Two other Afghan women failed the US pilot's course, they said. Saleh and Hussaini passed, and graduated in an elaborate ceremony attended by American military officers, and by soldiers and pilots from other nations.

They expected a similar ceremony when they returned to Afghanistan in October, they said, but there was nothing.

When they asked to meet their Afghan air force commanders, they said, they were put off. They were not even told how many helicopters the Afghan air force has available. "Last week, they told us to come this week," Hussaini said. "This week, they told us to come next week. That's the way it's been. It's frustrating."