It is natural to associate the concept of “the first” with the idea of “past,” as if the time to establish new records has gone and now the time to beat what used to be the best has come.
However, it both amazes and frightens me how there is still the need for women to be the first to win against daily stereotypes, against social injustices and human crimes. While thinking about all the outstanding women who, silently, made history, I realized that there are many who are still fighting to create and consolidate a new and fair path.
Among them, there is Niloofar Rahmani, the first female pilot to join the Afghan Air Force since the fall of the Taliban.
I know nothing about Air Force, planes and flying. However, her story and her personality speak to me with a strength and clarity that only something I love and know could create. Indeed, Niloofar shows me the answer to a question that I asked myself several times: what’s the price I would be willing to pay to achieve my dreams?
This question is extremely timely, because I bet I am not the only one wondering about this today. However, it’s timeless at the same time: how many people before us risked everything to pursue their happiness and how many others will be ready to do the same in the future?
Niloofar’s story is filled with obstacles, but she never let them become insuperable.
First, she had to learn English and be ready to learn and communicate with it. Then, she had to prove herself. And did she. She started by flying a Cessna 182 (a single-engined light airplane), but she eventually moved to larger aircrafts, becoming the first woman in Afghanistan’s history to fly a fixed-wing plane.
Despite the impressive achievement that this represented, Niloofar had to find a way to prove even further that she was capable and, as any other man in the military, that she was ready to do whatever was necessary to fulfil her duties.
It became clear that this was no longer about chasing her dreams. There was the need for a statement – an undeniable proof that nothing is unattainable, for her as well as for all the female pilots who will come after her.
One day, Niloofar was on a mission when she found several injured Afghan soldiers. The law forbids women from carrying wounded or dead casualties. This was a groundless rule, uniquely based on the discriminating belief that women are not as capable as men.
Defying every order she knew, she carried the wounded and flew them to the closest hospital, and followed her sense of duty. However, she was doing much more: by breaking that rule, she was founding a new one. Her commanding officer didn’t punish her for this. Instead, Niloofar’s bravery and determination quickly spread around the world, earning her substantial fame.
Fame, however, could be a dangerous weapon in Afghanistan. When her story spread all over the country, Niloofar and her family received death threats that forced them to move every two months.
Despite having put herself, her siblings and parents at risk, Niloofar was now fighting for all the women with dreams and against those trying to take the dreams away from them.
The fact that Niloofar was the first, meant that she had the huge responsibility to act in a way that would have allowed there to be a second, a third… She had to open a path, and this meant that she couldn’t surrender.
Niloofar’s story is filled with obstacles that, for the most part, are caused by stereotypes and rules rooted in an unbalanced social paradigm. First, she had to work hard to make her dreams come true – as any person with a goal must. When she finally made it, she had to prove that she was actually able to fulfil all the duties normally expected from a fixed-wing pilot, proving that there was no actual need to make distinctions between male and female. On top of that, she had to worry about her family and their safety, knowing that pursuing her own dream was the reason why their lives were all at risk. For these reasons, in 2015, Niloofar was awarded the Women of Courage Award.
Having a dream is often a privilege, being able to chase it is a risk, and making it happen is a tough job that requires many sacrifices. Fighting for it though is the only way to be yourself, to find your place and to own it.
Niloofar’s story may prompt us to criticize Afghanistan, their social system and rules. But we shouldn’t use it as a way to judge a world, to confine the greatness of her experience to her country’s limits, to be negative about it. There are many “Afghanistans” all around us.
What we should learn from Niloofar is that there are no excuses. No matter where you are from, no matter what you have to go through, what you have to give up on. If you don’t fight for your dream, you are giving up on yourself.