KABUL, Afghanistan — Unlike most women in Afghanistan, Sourya Saleh knows how to drive — but she’s taken the wheel only with her brother beside her, out of respect for tradition. Her friend Masooma Hussaini is still learning.
Both young women, though, are experts in a more demanding mode of travel: They’ve flown 204 hours each as pilots of military helicopters.
The first female chopper pilots in Afghanistan since the Soviets trained a woman as a pilot in the 1980s, these two young Afghans are pioneers in a land where a resurgent Taliban is determined to deny girls the right to an education, and violence against women is on the rise.
After 18 months of military helicopter training in the United States, 2nd Lt. Saleh and 2nd Lt. Hussaini have returned home as two polished, confident Afghan air force pilots. But they don’t have uniforms, flight suits or an assignment. They haven’t even seen a helicopter, much less flown one.
Since returning here Oct. 28, they’ve spent their days at home with their families, reading, watching TV, shopping and helping with housework. A superior says their paperwork is “under review.”
“It seems we’ve been put on a very long vacation,” Saleh said in nearly perfect English, honed by months in Texas and Alabama with American women who were also training to be military pilots.
Saleh, 20, and Hussaini, 21, refuse to believe that the Afghan military has abandoned them. They prefer to believe that the country’s nascent air force is just slow and bureaucratic, and that they’ll be flying and serving their country soon.
“I fought too hard for the right to fight for my country — I’m not going to stay home and wait,” Hussaini said, picking at a chicken kebab in the women’s section of a restaurant near her home in Kabul. “To not fly now after all we’ve accomplished for women would mean that everything we’ve fought for would be wasted.”
The pilots’ imposed idleness elicits painful memories of their childhoods, when the Taliban government forced young women to stay at home, cooking and cleaning. Hussaini and Saleh were educated in secret, illegal girls’ schools until the Taliban regime fell in 2001.
“Things are much better now for Afghanistan, but there are still problems for women,” Hussaini said. “Not everyone tells the truth about the situation. It’s hard to know the truth.”
Hussaini is poised and forthright, with expressive eyes and a round face framed by a black head scarf. Saleh is more reserved, but speaks quietly and confidently, her smooth face lightly dusted with makeup beneath her head scarf.
The two women dress modestly, with stylish Western-style winter coats, boots and handbags. Both are ethnic Hazara, a Shiite Muslim minority that has experienced persecution by Afghanistan’s Sunni Muslim majority.
In a country where burqas are still common, especially in the countryside, the two pilots are portraits of modernity set against a backdrop of harsh patriarchal domination. Afghanistan’s women’s affairs minister reported last month that “extreme or brutal violence against women” is on the rise, with 3,500 reported cases in the first six months of the year.
“In Afghanistan, women cannot raise their voices,” Saleh said. “We wanted a way to raise our voices for all women, and flying for our country does that.”
This month, two women who did raise their voices were assassinated. A high school girl was shot by gunmen on her first day as a polio vaccination volunteer, and a provincial director of women’s affairs was gunned down four months after her predecessor was killed by a car bomb.
Sexism is deeply embedded in Afghan society. Schoolgirls have been poisoned or doused with acid, and young women have been beaten and killed by male relatives for refusing arranged marriages to older men. Women who work outside the home are often threatened, or condemned as morally deficient.
The Afghan military was slow to accept women, but it has admitted them in recent years under Western pressure. Today, about 350 women are in the Afghan military, according to NATO, almost all of them in administrative or support jobs. An Afghan army spokesman, Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi, put the number at nearly 1,000 — in an army of 187,000.
In this environment, the accomplishments of Hussaini and Saleh are remarkable, especially because both come from conservative families with no history of military service. They didn’t know each other when they enlisted three years ago after seeing TV ads in Kabul seeking women for the military. They were two Afghan girls who had never been away from home.
The women graduated from officers’ candidate school in Kabul, then took English classes. They received instruction in English and military technical language at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. At Fort Rucker, Ala., they learned to fly U.S. Army OH-58 Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters.
They are combat qualified, having passed courses in basic war skills and basic combat skills — “my favorite part,” Saleh said. They didn’t actually fire the Kiowa’s air-to-air missiles, but performed combat simulations so that they know how to launch the weapons.
Two other Afghan women flunked the U.S. pilot’s course, they said. Saleh and Hussaini passed, and graduated in an elaborate ceremony attended by American military officers, and by soldiers and pilots from other nations.
They expected a similar ceremony when they returned to Afghanistan in October, they said, but there was nothing. Only their families were on hand to greet them.
When they asked to meet their Afghan air force commanders, they said, they were put off. They were not even told how many helicopters the Afghan air force has available.
“Last week, they told us to come this week,” Hussaini said. “This week, they told us to come next week. That’s the way it’s been. It’s very frustrating.”
They did manage to meet Afghanistan’s only other female helicopter pilot, the colonel who was trained in the ’80s. Three other women have begun training as military pilots in Afghanistan, they said, two to fly helicopters and one to fly planes.
Hussaini and Saleh are glad to be back with their families, but they miss the United States: the open culture, the free expression, the friendships with American female pilots, the food. (They keep up with American friends via Facebook and email.) They fell in love with pizza, Southern fried seafood and Mexican food — “just like Afghan food, only spicier,” Saleh said.
On Dec. 8, six weeks after returning home, Hussaini and Saleh were invited to the Afghan military air base in Kabul to finally meet their commander. (Their only other visit to the base was two weeks earlier, for a German TV interview.)
The commander welcomed them and told them that he hoped to have an assignment for them in the future, they said. But there was nothing yet. They were not issued military uniforms, much less flight suits. They were told to call him in a couple of days.
“We’ll see,” Saleh said afterward, shrugging. “We’ve heard a lot of promises.”
Col. Mohammed Bahadur Raiskhail, an Air Force public affairs officer, said the pilots are reservists and cannot be issued uniforms until they are assigned to an active-duty unit. He blamed bureaucracy at the notoriously sclerotic Ministry of Defense for the delay.
Like any military, he said, there are time-consuming procedures that must be followed.
In the case of the two young pilots, he said, “The fruit is not yet ripe.”
The military is eager to show off its new female pilots, Raiskhail assured the two women, especially after the U.S. paid to train them. They sat, arms folded, on a couch in the colonel’s office. They were seated next to two Afghan women in smart green military uniforms, which only underscored their civilian clothes.
Saleh and Hussaini bristled when the colonel suggested that the three other women training as pilots in Afghanistan had progressed ahead of them.
“No,” Hussaini told him. “We’re ahead of them. We’re the first for this air force.”
Raiskhail smiled. “They are brave; they are showing the world what young women can do,” he said. “They’ve opened the door. Someday, we hope to have women commanders.”
The two pilots listened, but they did not seem encouraged. They stared straight ahead as the colonel spoke. Finally they mentioned that their piloting skills were atrophying by the day. The colonel, a pilot himself, agreed that one must fly almost daily to keep skills sharp.
There was one more thing: The two women were trained on American helicopters. The tiny Afghan air force (Raiskhail would not reveal the number of aircraft; the website GlobalSecurity.org calls Afghan air force capabilities “extremely limited”) relies largely on Russian-made helicopters. That would require several more months of training before the women could fly on active duty, the colonel said.
“But I cannot say when,” he said.
The two pilots were free to go. It was a sunny day, ideal flying weather. But there was nothing for them on this base. They went back into the sunlit city to hail a cab ride home, where once more they would wait.
(Los Angeles Times special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.)