Women of Islam Soar in the Skies of South Asia

Inspirational women who are taking great personal risk, passionate about flying and their mission within their Islamic nations.

Lieutenant Nilofor Rhmani|

Islamic Women Take Flight

The Taliban has been waging a brutal war against women for two decades, but at least a few women are literally preparing for battle. On September 30th, 2012, Lieutenant Nilofor Rhmani became the first female pilot in the Afghanistan air force to fly solo in a military Cessna 182. She flew under the air force’s new pilot training program, which is the first in the country in more than 30 years. The program is part of a joint project between NATO and the Afghan Ministry of Defense that offers pilot training at Afghanistan’s Shinhad Air Base. Lieutenant Rhmani is one of five Afghani women undergoing training within this framework.

The “New Guard”

According to U.S. Air Force Afghanistan Country Director Major Jeremy Ponn, Lieutenant Rhmani had “graduated introductory flight training on July 19 and began the formal undergraduate pilot training program July 28.” Furthermore, he described her recent achievement as “trying to even out the odds” against that of the Taliban instigating brutal treatments against women. Major Ponn added that Lieutenant Rhmani is seen by the Afghan public “as a role model for Afghan females.” She has already received awards for her achievements. Lieutenant Rhmani and her class are set to undergo additional training prior to receiving their wings and are expected to graduate next summer. (1)

Colonel Latifa Nabizada|

The “Old Guard”

If Lieutenant Rhmani succeeds in completing her military training, she will join ranks with Colonel Latifa Nabizada – Nabizada is Afghanistan’s only fully mission capable female Air Force pilot. Latifa and her sister, Lailuma, were the first female graduates of the Afghan Air force Academy in 1980. It was a challenging endeavor, but they graduated. Unfortunately, Lailuma later died in child-birth. When the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996, Latifa was forced to flee to neighboring Pakistan. She returned after the ouster of the Taliban and rejoined the air force. Her dedication and profound love of country led Colonel Latifa Nabizada down the unlikely road to becoming the Afghan Air Force’s first female helicopter pilot. Initially, upon her return to the Afghan air force, she had an unlikely co-pilot. As there were no airbase child-care facilities, Latifa had to fly over 100 sorties with her daughter, Malalai joining her in the cockpit. Fortunately, her daughter has recently turned six and is now able to attend school. Latifa has flown hundreds of dangerous resupply missions in her MI-17 Hip helicopter. (2)

Much like Amelia Earhart motivated and inspired millions of women during the post-World War I era—when aviation and her exploits captured imaginations with new world records in flight—so these two women have both risen like a Phoenix from the ashes of Taliban rule and taken flight to inspire the women of Islam. Their success is a validation of the Afghan government’s forward progress to empower women. Latifa says that being a woman in the Afghan military is challenging and has toughened her. She is no longer harassed and cites an old Afghan saying that roughly translates as “steel gets harder with the hammering.”

A Pakistani Dichotomy

Across the border in Pakistan, the military has considerable power in governance. Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, as constitutional guarantors of the Islamic State, the Pakistani Army Generals have held the seat of power for more than 32 of the country’s last 66 years of existence. The Pakistani military and Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) are often accused of supporting the Taliban and other radical Salafi jihadists who wish to subjugate women according to “puritanical” Islamic law under which women are treated like commodities and disposable animals. However, a stark dichotomy has formed in the past few years due to the Pakistani military embracing new prominent roles for women in its organizations.

**Hina Tahir aboard an F-7 **|

In 2009, Hina Tahir became Pakistan’s first female fighter pilot. She successfully completed conversion in the F-7 Chengdu fighter jet. (3)In July 2009, Hina gave an interview on the popular Pakistani television show “A Morning with Farah.” During the interview, the host, Farah Hussein, asked Hina what most motivated her throughout her training. Her answer was insightful; Hina said, “There were many hardships… very tough, but … the driving force that keeps me motivated is the Noble Cause of defending my county.” She said there are multiple factors that contribute to her success, such as physical fitness, awareness, fast reaction and of course, hard work – but her ultimate goal was achieving F-7 fighter pilot transition.(4) She did not self-promote or talk about women’s rights or roles. Throughout the 20-minute interview, she was an example of a dedicated Pakistani Air Force (PAF) officer who just happens to be female.

Pakistani women have served in the PAF for well over a decade, but there is a fundamental difference in prominence between serving in a support role such as an aircraft engineer and flying frontline fighters such as the F-7. It is reported that there are now seven women fighter pilots in the Pakistani Air Force (PAF). This recent shift is a credit to the Pakistani military and reflects the government’s tilt towards empowering women within their Islamic society. Perhaps over time, as PAF female pilots prove themselves, whether in training or combat, more prominent roles for women in leadership will lead to more prominent roles in the broader Islamic society.

These three women of Islam soar and give rays of hope to multitudes of women in South Asia who fear the dark resurgence of the Taliban. Although the Afghan and Pakistan governments agree on very little, this is a mutually encouraging step: Both countries empowering women as military aviators, further tilting the odds towards freedom and liberty.

Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace.

The soul that knows it not, knows no release.

From little things:

Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,

Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear

The sound of wings.

─ Amelia Earhart

Her poetry, circa 1928


1. Al Arabiya, “First Afghan female pilot makes it to the skies,” Al Arabiya News (10/25/2012): http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/10/25/245917.html (accessed 11/08/2012).

2 Kiviat, Katherine, and Scott Heidler, Women of Courage: Intimate Stories from Afghanistan. Gibbs Smith, 2007. 9.

3 All photos of Lieutenant Nilofor Rhmani were taken by Staff Sgt. Melissa K. Mekpongsatorn, U.S. Air Force. The photo of Col. Latifa Nabizada with her daughter was taken by Tech. Sgt. Quinton Russ, U.S. Air Force. These images are work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made during the course of the person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain. All other photos in this article were taken from non-sourced websites including Pakdef.info, KabulatWork.tv, and YouTube.com.

4 Farah Hussein, “Hina Tahir First Female Fighter Pilot PAF,” Pakistan Defense Forum (11/07/2009): http://www.defence.pk/forums/pakistan-air-force/38334-interview-hina-tahir-first-female-fighter-pilot-paf.html (Accessed 11/08/2012).


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