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Female Afghan Pilot Seeks Asylum In U.S., Sparking Fierce Debate

  • RFE/RL

Afghan Air Force Captain Niloofar Rahmani before she sought asylum in the United States.

Afghan Air Force Captain Niloofar Rahmani before she sought asylum in the United States.

Niloofar Rahmani, a celebrated Afghan female pilot who was awarded a "Women of Courage" prize by the U.S. State Department, has touched off a heated debate in Afghanistan by applying for asylum in the United States.

The Afghan government on December 26 described her decision as "shameful for those that are meant to stand for their country" and said that threats to accomplished Afghan women that Rahmani cited as her reason for leaving the country are "only an excuse."

Mohammad Radmanish, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said the government hoped that her request would be denied by U.S. authorities, who have spent billions of dollars trying to build up Afghan security forces.

"When an officer complains of insecurity and is afraid of security threats, then what should ordinary people do?" he said. "She has made an excuse for herself, but we have hundreds of educated women and female civil right activists who work and it is safe for them."

Rahmani was the first female fixed-wing pilot in the deeply conservative country. Her rise had raised hopes for further female empowerment in Afghanistan and led to her winning the U.S. State Department award last year.

But after 15 months of training in the United States, Rahmani announced last week in interviews with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal that she would not be returning home because she fears for her life.

"Things are not changing" for the better in Afghanistan, Rahmani told The New York Times. "Things are getting worse and worse," she said, citing the killing of female workers at an airport in southern Afghanistan earlier this month.

Rahmani said her family received threats from the Taliban shortly after she received her wings in 2013, forcing her family to move several times.

Rahmani, who carried a gun while working, said she felt unsafe because her male colleagues held her in contempt.

Her lawyer, Kimberly Motley, told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that Rahmani had received threats from the extremist Haqqani network.

"I think it is really important to know that Captain Rahmani was receiving death threats from the same insurgent network that attempted to assassinate [Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner and education campaigner] Malala Yousafzai,” Motley said in a telephone interview from Washington.

Afghans on social media have shown mixed reactions toward Rahmani's request for asylum, with some saying she had misused her privileged status and opportunity and others expressing sympathy.

"Dear Niloofar, do you think your problems are bigger than that of millions of other Afghan women?" photojournalist Maryam Khamosh wrote on Facebook.

"I sometimes wish I were Niloofar and could soar in the sky and bomb the enemies of my people. But you, Niloofar, who touched the skies from the ashes of our land have shamed our flag."

Other Facebook postings were sympathetic to Rahmani, saying a deteriorating security and human rights situation in Afghanistan gave her good reason to stay in the United States.

Rahmani is not the first Afghan military trainee who has sought to stay in the United States. Dozens of Afghan trainees have gone missing from U.S. military bases over the past two years, though all of the defectors previously were men.

Motley suggested that her client has come under pressure because she is a woman.

"For those that are condemning Captain Rahmani, I question their integrity to a certain extent and I ask them: why aren't they condemning the [Afghan] men who sought asylum and ran to Canada months ago?"

With reporting by AFP, dpa, Reuters, RFE/RL's Malali Bashir
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