Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Female High-Flyers Unrewarded

Women pilots recognised by yet to receive promised rewards.
By Haseena Sulaiman

During this year's Victory Day celebrations, commemorating the overthrow of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1992, two helicopters flew low over the dais where President Hamid Karzai and other officials sat.


Careful observers noticed headscarves covering the heads of the two pilots. "We wanted everyone to know we are women," said Colonel Latifa proudly, explaining how she and her sister had draped scarves over their military caps.


It was bright spot in the April 28 holiday that few citizens of the capital truly felt like celebrating. A decade after the mujahedin wrested power from the Soviet-backed communist regime, most people in Kabul have only bitter memories of the tragic events that followed, which left their city in ruins.


But that last few years have brought happier times for women dreaming of military careers. Latifa and her sister, Lailuma, are both pilots in the Afghan Air Force's 377th helicopter regiment. They've participated in Victory Day celebrations six times.


But Latifa says they were only officially acknowledged by the government for the first time last year. Then, Defence Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim issued an order for the two to be promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and provided with housing and a car.


Latifa says the minister's order was only partially carried out. They never saw the promised house. As for the official car, that was taken by one of the deputy defence ministers. "When we fly, our days are very long and since we don't have our own car, we must pay for a taxi, or take the bus," they said.


The women are philosophical about these shortcomings. "We don't work to get rewards," said Latifa, when she was asked if the defence minister's order was honoured this year.


Latifa and Lailuma come from a middle-class family in the northern province of Mazar-e-Sharif, where they live with their parents. When they are in Kabul, there is no government accommodation; instead they are forced to rent an apartment.


Latifa says she and her sister graduated seventh and eighth from flight school in a class mostly of men. "It was a man who encouraged us to fly," she said, of their instructor, Ustad Talab-uddin, who took them up in a chopper after they finished their theoretical studies and reassured them that there was nothing to fear.


"I kiss his hands," said Latifa, using an Afghan expression to denote great respect. "Now he is living in wretched conditions, but we owe all our success to him, because he taught us and he had no prejudice against women."


The first time Latifa flew solo she says she felt elated and powerful, flying over the green fields of Dehdadi, a region much loved by her mother. "I saw this area from the air, so green and full of flowers. It was as if I was standing high in the air, watching the scenery pass below me," she said.


Lailuma says she shared her sister's feeling of excitement, "During my first flight I felt like I was tearing open the air, which had previously been closed to Afghan women."


To date, the two women have logged a total of 900 flying hours. During the four-year guerrilla war waged by the Mujahedin against the Soviet occupation, they carried food, ammunition and supplies to the battle zones and transported out the dead and wounded. Only helicopters were able to get into the rebels' mountain strongholds.


Later, under the communist regime of President Najibullah, they flew humanitarian missions in the region around Gardez. "Our flights were to help, not to kill, because every woman has the heart of a mother," the women said. After the collapse of the Taleban, the warlord General Abdul Rasheed Dostum paid the women 4,000 US dollars in compensation for not having been allowed to work under the Taleban's hard line Islamist regime.


During this period, women were repressed but attitudes are starting to change and prejudices against them serving in the armed forces are crumbling.


On Independence Day last year, August 19, President Karzai promoted the first woman to the rank of general. Khatol Mohammadzai was the country's only woman paratrooper and had been deputy head of the women's military section.


She caught the president's attention on New Year's Day (March 21), when she attempted to parachute into Kabul's main stadium carrying a banner, demanding education and job opportunities for women, orphans and people with disabilities.


Although she missed the stadium, her gesture won her public acclaim and when she reached the stadium later by taxi, it was to roars of approval from the crowds.


Under the Taleban, Khatol had inevitably been forced to give up her military career and return to a life of domestic chores and approved women's tasks, such as sewing.


After the fall of the Islamist regime, she rejoined the army - but, as of last November, had not been paid her salary, despite being promoted.


Latifa and her sister might well empathise with her financial plight. The two women ought to be paid a salary equivalent to 85 dollars a month. But they have yet to see any of the money.


"We haven't been paid for the last two years," they said. "We do not even get the six dollars per flight bonus that we used to receive in the old days."


In post-war Afghanistan, Latifa and Lailuma spend much of their time ferrying passengers to and from the cities of Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Kabul. They have never been abroad.


Though riches have passed them by, the two sisters feel they have been lucky. "It was by accident that we became pilots," says Latifa, "It used to be impossible for a woman to become a pilot and it's still true today."


Haseena Sulaiman is a freelance reporter in Kabul