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

Woman Skydiver Leaps Ahead

Celebrated female parachutist recently appointed army general urges Afghan women to reach for the skies.
By Haseena Sullaiman

At 16, Khatol Mohammadzai took her first leap for Afghanistan's women by parachuting from an airplane.


Nearly 30 years and hundreds of jumps later, Khatol’s achievements have been recognised by President Karzai who appointed her army general on Independence Day, August 19.


Khatol, the country’s only female paratrooper, and deputy head of the military’s women’s section, came to the president’s attention on Afghan New Year's Day (March 21) when she parachuted wearing a sign that said, "We want education, employment and salaries for widows, orphans and handicapped people."


Her pilot missed Kabul Stadium, where she was supposed to land. But after her jump, she took a taxi there and was greeted cheering crowds.


It was her first parachute dive in more than six years, but she was glad to do it to publicise women's rights. It wasn't a protest - the defence ministry actually told her to wear the sign, she said.


Khatol, who is of medium height and athletic build, boasts 38 military medals and her shelves are lined with awards for parachute jumping. She joined the army in 1982 after her husband died. In a military career spanning two decades, she served in various capacities and became a colonel under the Rabbani government.


But during the Taleban regime, she was forced to give up her position and earned a living working from home - sewing, weaving scarves and making mattresses.


When she re-entered the military after the fall of the Taleban, she became head of physical training for the air force.


The Karzai administration has attempted to take visible steps to promote the education and advancement of women, who have suffered terrible discrimination over the last couple of decades. Which makes Khatol’s achievements all the more impressive.


"General Khatol is brave and successful and a great woman," said Habibul Rehman, a worker in the military’s fortification unit. Mukhtar Ahmad, a member of the air force volleyball team, praised her intelligence and hard work. "She has helped us a lot,” he said. And, like several others, he noted, "Khatol deserves to be a general because she has done more than 500 parachute dives."


Khatol said her parachute jumping gave her the courage she needed for life in the military. "It’s the most dangerous sport,” she said. “You’re literally playing with your life – just one little mistake can lead to a serious injury.”


Despite the danger, she says she loves her sport, "I was very scared before doing my first jump, but when my parachute opened I felt very comfortable. When I landed, I kissed the ground.”


The first female parachute course in Afghanistan was set up in 1973, in the days when women worked as bus drivers and could wear short skirts in public. "I jumped from the airplane and risked my life because I wanted to introduce Afghan women to the world," Khatol recalled.


She was born into a wealthy and well-educated family, but now she and her sister and son live in a simple three-room house. Like many government employees, Khatol has yet to be paid her salary - 2 million Afghanis (about 40 US dollars) a month - since she returned to the military.


Nonetheless, she is proud of her army career, and hopes it can be an example for Afghan women. "I want them to work hard and try to get educated in science and technology fields," she said. And she hopes that others become as famous as her.


Haseena Sullaiman is a freelance journalist in Kabul.