Open Skies: My Life as Afghanistan’s First Female Pilot by Niloofar Rahmani with Adam Sikes

Many years ago, as a student in Italy, I met an older man with an extraordinarily weathered face waiting in a line at the post office.

“Where are you from?,” I asked, realizing he was not Italian.

“I come from a country that no longer exists,” he said. “I am from Afghanistan.”

The man’s country had been all but erased in 1979, when Soviet forces invaded and waged a bloody decade-long war against the Afghan people. “The Paris of Central Asia,” as Kabul was known, was “wiped from the face of the earth,” writes Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan’s first female pilot, in her memoir, Open Skies. For Rahmani, life has been as much about flying as it has been about war.

The conflict, which has been called “the Soviets’ Vietnam,” lost Russia around 15,000 of its soldiers. The Afghans, proud that historically they had never been subjugated for long, fought hard, with U.S. help.

When the Soviets finally left, the mujahideen and the warlords began bitter fighting that went on for years, crushing the country even more. Caught in the middle, suffering terribly, were the civilians, including Rahmani and her family. Their misery seemed never-ending.

From Kites to Planes

Niloofar Rahmani, born in 1992, was a young girl who had already endured enough trauma for a lifetime. Her family fled Kabul for Pakistan at the height of mujahideen fighting.

There, her hardworking and loving father, a university-educated engineer, took menial jobs, and the family lived in an unheated hut and scrounged for food. As Afghan refugees, they endured humiliation and poverty until they made an anguished decision to return to Afghanistan during the Taliban years. They didn’t think it would be so bad. It was.

The Kabul the Rahmanis returned to was even worse than what they had left behind. Her mother was brutally whipped when, rushing to take Niloofar’s sick sister to a clinic, her ankles had been exposed. Her father was forced to work as a farmhand to feed the family and was chided into growing his beard long.

Niloofar and her sisters were not allowed to go to school, but their mother secretly taught them math, science, Dari Persian, and Pashto. Niloofar’s best friend was taken away at gunpoint by Taliban soldiers, never to be seen again; the girl’s father was gunned down in front of the entire family.

For Rahmani, life has been as much about flying as it has been about war.

Despite this climate of fear, Niloofar’s parents told her she could do anything—highly unusual for Afghans, who usually refuse to educate their daughters and set them up for a life of drudgery. Her father told her she was brilliant, and that she should follow her dreams.

Afghans love kites, and once the Taliban—who banned kites—were removed from government, in 2001, Niloofar and her father and brother had kite fights from their roof. Watching the freedom of the kites in the sky, Niloofar realized she wanted to be a pilot.

She studied hard, was granted a place at an aviation school set up after the Taliban had departed, and found her way to basic training in the fledgling Afghan Army. Eventually, with much grit and determination, despite sexism, misogyny, and genuine hard-core bullying, Niloofar became the first female pilot in Afghanistan.

The abuse, though, continued. Niloofar received death threats from relatives as well as from strangers. Her brother was chased down by gunmen, her parents told they would be killed. As Rahmani started to become well known, she and her family were forced to move. She is currently in the U.S., her family elsewhere.

A Woman’s Place

Niloofar’s story is one of extreme resilience, of fighting a system and a culture that essentially despises women. I have reported in more than 60 countries, and Afghanistan is the most misogynistic country I have ever worked in.

I will never forget entering Kabul in November 2001 and visiting hospitals where women who had just given birth were chained to the beds. The male doctors told me this was normal, because women were hysterical, inferior creatures. Women who dared to show their faces rather than wear a full burka were called sluts, threatened, beaten, abused, burned with acid, dragged from the back of cars, killed.

Occasionally, in Afghanistan, I would meet a remarkable woman who had somehow fought back against this primitive, medieval society: a female police officer in Kandahar, a single mother who had adopted many children, a female lawyer or athlete. But they are rare. Even my translator, a man educated in Europe and trained as a medical doctor, told me he would marry a 14-year-old virgin from a village instead of the educated woman of his own age whom he actually desired. “She is tainted,” he told me, meaning she had had sex before marriage.

Most women are brought up with fear, and the understanding that they will forever walk behind men. A few days after the Taliban fell, I saw a group of giggling schoolgirls still covered in their blue burkas.

Rahmani with her classmates at Shindand Air Base.

“Take it off!,” I told them. “The Taliban are gone!”

“We’ll never take them off,” one of them said. “We’re too scared.”

“Domestic violence is rampant and considered normal,” Rahmani writes. “This is Afghanistan.” Open Skies is not a literary masterpiece—it reads like it was written for a TV mini-series—nor does it provide a detailed picture of the country’s years of conflict. But it is a basic primer—Afghanistan 101—and it paints a moving portrait of an extraordinarily brave young woman determined to succeed.

Today, with the pullout of U.S. troops, the Taliban are taking back more and more territory that had been fought over, and largely won, since 2001. Those who worked with the American military—the Afghan police force, the interpreters, the soldiers, the pilots—are at extreme risk. They will be hunted down and killed if they don’t leave the country.

Rahmani is now somewhere safe, and aims to start flying planes again. Until the Taliban are truly gone—which doesn’t look like it’ll happen soon, if ever—she will be like that old man I met many years ago in Italy: an exile, yearning for a country that no longer exists.

Janine di Giovanni is a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Her next book, The Vanishing, about Christians in the Middle East, will be published in October