TAMPA, Florida — Sitting outside a sidewalk café on the waterfront in Tampa, a light breeze making for one of those perfect fall afternoons, is a feminist icon.
You might not recognize her — and the tourists eating ice cream and skateboarding kids certainly didn’t — but Niloofar Rahmani is one of the best-known Afghan women in the world.
That’s because Rahmani, 28, shot to fame in 2013 after she became the first woman to pilot a fixed-wing jet in Afghanistan’s air force. Photographs of her in dark aviator sunglasses, with a scarf loosely covering her black hair, went viral across the world. Look at what the women of Afghanistan can do, the pictures seemed to scream.
For Rahmani, it should have been a time of triumph. After all, she had dreamed of flying a plane since she was a little girl — however impossible that might have seemed to a young woman growing up in a conservative society.
But in the years since, her dreams have all but fallen apart. She has been accused of desertion, of acting improperly for an Afghan woman, and she and her family have received hundreds of death threats — some from anonymous trolls, some even from members of her own extended family. As Rahmani became more successful as a pilot and more famous, the threats against her multiplied until her life in Afghanistan became unbearable.
Rahmani’s family has been forced to move again and again, leaving behind the house in the capital, Kabul, that her family had lived in for generations. Her father lost his job because his employer saw the threats as a liability; her siblings couldn’t find work. Rahmani ended up having to cover her face with a niqab just to leave the house.
After years of living in hiding with her family, Rahmani — who prided herself on never giving a damn what anyone thought of her — did something she never believed she’d have to do: She fled.
Rahmani’s story is a testament to the cost borne by the women in Afghanistan whom the West has elevated as feminist heroes. As the US negotiates with the Taliban in hopes of a peace deal, women’s rights have been largely ignored, and women across the country face an uncertain future.
It’s not as if Rahmani ever really wanted to become a feminist hero — she just wanted to be a pilot. Now, she believes her only path forward lies in the US, where she sits in administrative limbo waiting for her life to begin again.
When the US invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from control in 2001, it ushered in a period of tentative hope for women, who were able to recapture some of their most basic freedoms, like going to school and joining the civil service. But those gains came at a heavy price. Women leaders in the country routinely endure attempts on their lives, death threats, and more.
Rahmani is no exception.
Sitting beside her sister at the café in Tampa last month, Rahmani wore her long hair loose and a black floral dress. Most of her face was covered — by a big pair of sunglasses, even if they weren’t the aviators she’d like to be wearing right now.
Rahmani has been living in Tampa since the US granted her asylum in 2018, while her sister Afsoon is still seeking asylum. Rahmani said she might be safe now, but it’s a hollow feeling. No longer able to fly, she works as a translator between the three languages in which she is fluent: Farsi, Dari, and English.
Rahmani dreams of flying planes again; this time for the US Air Force. To do that, she would have to become a citizen first, and, as it’s unclear how long that might take, she worries that her skills will decline in the meantime.
More importantly, her parents and most of her siblings remain in South Asia. (Rahmani wouldn’t say exactly where, out of fear for their safety.) Their support for her has never wavered, but because of the constant barrage of threats and violence, they’re still scared for their lives.
“It never goes away. Ever,” said Rahmani. “I thank God that I am safe, but always, half of my mind is still thinking about them.”
“My path, since I was born, has been difficult,” she said. “Kids here have so much. I never had that kind of freedom. I never got the chance to feel like one of those kids.”
Rahmani talked about the state of women’s rights in Afghanistan, bouncing from an explanation of social movements through the country’s history to interpretations of the Qur’an. Her arguments, which she makes eloquently in English, her third language, barely conceal the anger of a woman who has spent her entire life being underestimated.
But still she occasionally wondered if she was somehow at fault for what has happened to her and her family.
“Sometimes I doubt myself … I wonder if I did something wrong. Did I deserve to be treated that way?”
Rahmani was born in the midst of a civil war in the 1990s. The day her mother went into labor, she said, the building beside her family’s house in Kabul was bombed. There was no way to get to the hospital, so she was born at home.
Shortly after, the family fled to Pakistan. Rahmani came to learn about her home country through her parents’ stories of the ‘70s, when many women had relatively more freedom to dress the way they wanted and participate in public life. Her father grew up hearing Russian jets flying through the skies above his city. He had dreamed of being a pilot, but when he was young, he lacked money to bribe his way into a coveted job in the air force. Instead, he became a civil engineer. But he taught his children about planes and the way they worked.
In 2000 — the last full year of Taliban rule before the US invasion — Rahmani’s family returned to Kabul. She saw a country she couldn’t recognize from her father’s stories. Hardly any women could be seen walking the streets. One day her sister fell sick and had to see a doctor. Her mother tried to take her, but she forgot to put on socks under her sandals. An officer from the Taliban’s notorious religious police caught and beat her.
“When she came home, my mom was bleeding all across her feet,” Rahmani said. “I felt that this is not my country.”
The Taliban forbade girls from attending school, so Rahmani’s parents taught the children at home. When the US invaded, she heard the same sounds her father grew up with as a boy, but this time it was the roar of US jets. Rahmani, who was 9 at the time, knew she should have been afraid, but she wasn’t.
“I couldn’t keep my eyes off the sky,” she said. “I had never been on a plane. I was so excited by the arc of the jet trails, the noise they made.”
Standing on the same balcony her father had once stood on as a boy, she watched them soar through the sky.
In 2010, when Rahmani was 18, she went to apply for officer training school in Kabul. Even applying was bold, but she wasn’t thinking about gender equality. Mostly, she was thinking about flying planes.
It didn’t exactly go smoothly.
The Afghan air force’s doctors tried multiple times to deem her physically unfit to fly, she said, but eventually she was accepted into the officer training program. She was the only female pilot candidate, and said she was belittled endlessly. There wasn’t even a women’s bathroom.
“The men treated me like I would fail,” she said. “I was just 18 at the time. I tried to ignore it.”
She had no choice, she said, but to be twice as good as her male classmates, getting up extra early to study and ignoring their taunts.
“They always told me I’d fail because I am a woman, and because I am weak I would crash the plane and kill myself,” she said.
When she doubted herself, she’d call her father, who had always supported her.
The hard work ultimately paid off: She was one of only ten in her class selected to become fixed-wing pilots.
The night before her first solo flight, she was too excited to sleep, her heart pounding in her chest. When she got into the cockpit and felt the wheels lift off the ground, it was as if the weight on her chest had lifted too.
“I felt like nobody could reach me up there. Like I was on Mars,” she said.
Most of the other men on the base, she thought, had hoped she would fail. She had proven them wrong.
Rahmani’s flight made headlines and her accomplishment was hailed in the US as evidence of progress for the country’s women, and photos of her flew around the world. She remembers feeling “amazing” and powerful.
Other pictures of Rahmani started to show up on Facebook and Twitter. Some were taken out of context — like a photo that showed two US Air Force women throwing her in a pool of water. It depicted an international tradition after a pilot’s first flight but was a portrayal of an Afghan woman that many considered improper. Some speculated online that it could have been a man who had dunked her, or that she was being baptized by Christians.
Overnight, she became a public figure. The praise bolstered her, as did the thought that her fame might spur on other young girls to become pilots. She took time out to speak to girls in elementary schools about her career, wearing her uniform.
“I’m proud of that,” she said. “They’d say, ‘Oh, I saw you on TV.’”
But things soon took a dark turn. Her brother was shot at twice by militants in Kabul. The first time he escaped unharmed, but the next time he wasn’t so lucky and ended up in the hospital. From 2013, her family started receiving so many death threats that they had to move from house to house, once moving three times in a month. Rahmani stopped being able to buy vegetables at the market without attracting attention.
People would call every day to make threats — some were strangers, and others were people the family knew well. A letter arrived that bore a Taliban stamp. It said simply, “We know where you live.”
The Afghan air force did nothing to help her, Rahmani said, telling her she could quit if things were really so difficult.
But she still loved the job itself. On one mission, she saved a man’s life by flying him from the remote northern province of Kunduz to a hospital in Kabul; on another, she transported the bodies of Afghan soldiers so they could receive a proper burial. In 2015, she traveled to the US to receive an International Women of Courage Award presented by Michelle Obama, sparking another wave of press. When she returned home, her superiors didn’t even acknowledge it, she said.
“When I went home, it was like nothing had happened,” she said. “It felt like nobody had even noticed what I had achieved.”
From the outside, Rahmani’s life looked perfect — a story about a woman who had defied the odds and triumphed over patriarchy. But Rahmani felt crushed. She had gotten recognition from the White House, but her own colleagues treated her as if she were anonymous — or worse, with open contempt. She remembers these days as some of the hardest of her life.
“We tried to support Niloo, but inside we were scared too. It was hard in a different way for each of us,” said her sister Afsoon, who now lives with her in Tampa and spent years in hiding in Kabul along with the rest of the family.
In 2017, Rahmani traveled to the US for a yearlong training program for military pilots from around the world. It was a welcome break — she worked for months to earn the certification to fly a C-130, a military transport aircraft that can serve a variety of purposes.
The day she got her certificate, she called home. The sound of her father’s voice told her something was wrong.
“When can I come home?” she asked him.
Her father, who had supported her through so many years of pain and striving, sounded defeated for the first time. The family was going back to Pakistan. “I can’t live like this anymore,” he said.
“That was the moment I gave up on my career,” Rahmani said. “That was the moment I quit.”
That night, she cried herself to sleep.
Rahmani was granted asylum in the US after about a year of waiting — a process that was likely sped up because of her fame, said her lawyer, Kimberley Motley.
It wasn’t without its bumps though.
Soon after Rahmani filed for asylum in the US, she remembers a particularly humiliating moment when a US government bureaucrat made fun of her for not having a birth certificate. She didn’t have one, she pointed out, because she was born at home in the middle of a war, not in a hospital.
Afsoon had to flee her country for the same reason as Rahmani, but her asylum-seeking process may be longer, Motley said, because she isn’t a public figure.
The sisters have hardly a negative word to say about their adopted homeland. Afsoon’s Instagram — which she uses under a pseudonym — is full of snaps of the ocean and the Jet Skis they sometimes rent for fun. (“I love anything that goes fast,” Rahmani joked.) But Florida feels isolated compared to Kabul — you have to drive to get anywhere. And their status in the US still feels shaky.
Motley, a well-known defense attorney who has extensive experience practicing in Afghanistan, said she’d repeatedly requested that US immigration authorities expedite Rahmani’s citizenship — something they have the power to do — but has received no response.
Rahmani’s fame had been a double-edged sword, according to Motley.
“I’ve just seen so many women oppressed in Afghanistan who don’t get media attention, who are military personnel or police officers, and it’s a real struggle for them, even more so in some ways,” she said.
Rahmani is quick to say she does not blame the media attention or her supporters on social media for what happened to her — rather, she blames the people who came after her family and the Afghan military, which told the New York Times she shouldn’t receive asylum and accused her of lying about being threatened.
More than flying, now, she thinks about her father and the rest of the family she left behind. She and her sister hope to someday bring them to safety in the US.
“I feel like my life is on hold right now. I have to start from zero,” Rahmani said. “In truth I have felt alone for most of this time. I don’t want to die losing my dream for the future.” ●
Opening image: Shah Marai / AFP via Getty Images