Published: Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Baby on board

Story of Latifa Nabizada- Afghanistan's first woman of the skies

Col Latifa Nabizada, the first female pilot of Afghanistan, often shares her cockpit with her daughter. "She has grown up in a helicopter," she says. Photo: BBC Online

Col Latifa Nabizada, the first female pilot of Afghanistan, often shares her cockpit with her daughter. “She has grown up in a helicopter,” she says. Photo: BBC Online

Col Latifa Nabizada, the first female pilot in the Afghan air force, has battled prejudice, the Taliban and personal tragedy – but her ambitions for her young daughter soar even higher.

A DREAM FULFILLED

“After we had finished school, my sister Laliuma and I told our parents we wanted to be professional pilots. They were quite shocked,” said Latifa in an interview to BBC.

“At the time, not many women in Afghanistan could work and there we were, thinking of becoming pilots. But we managed to convince them. My father’s support was huge and it helped us a lot,” she added.

Latifa and Laliuma were repeatedly denied admission to the Afghan military school on medical grounds, but they eventually joined in 1989 after being certified fit by a civilian doctor.

No women’s uniforms existed, so they made their own.

Eventually, they became the first two women pilots in Afghan air force history.

“The other students threw stones at us. We used to leave the classroom in protest – then our teachers would come out and apologise and we would go back in,” said Latifa.

FIGHTING AGAINST TALIBAN

After becoming pilots, Laliuma and Latifa were treated differently from the male graduates. During the war time, they were told to fly within the secure zones, avoiding the provinces with conflict and insurgency.

In 1996, the Taliban secured Kabul and Latifa and Laliuma moved to Mazar-e Sharif.

“General Dostum was commander at the time in northern Afghanistan and he helped us a lot, giving us a secure place to live. He wanted the news to go out all over the world that he was a supporter of women’s rights. During his time we flew missions – we fought the Taliban,” Latifa said.

But before long, the women were forced to flee to Pakistan, where they wove carpets for several years, keeping a low profile and fearing for their lives.

Eventually they were able to return to Kabul.

TRAGEDY

Latifa and Laliuma were both married, and in 2006 they became pregnant within weeks of one another.

They kept the news quiet from their commanding officers for as long as possible.

They even took part in a lot of missions during their pregnancies.

She gave birth to her daughter, Malalai in due time. However, due to a complication during pregnancy, Laliuma died, after giving birth to a daughter, Mariam.

Latifa breast-fed her niece as well as her own daughter, with her mother helping with childcare. She went back to work within months of giving birth.

A NEW DREAM

“Unfortunately, there was nobody to take care of my daughter at home and there is no kindergarten in the military. So most of the time I took Malalai with me in the helicopter,” Latifa told the BBC.

“She has grown up in a helicopter – sometimes I think she’s not my daughter, but the helicopter’s daughter!” she said.

She was almost two months’ old when Latifa took her on her maiden voyage.

“She would fall into a deep sleep and wasn’t any problem. As she grew up, she’d stand next to me and whenever she felt sleepy she would lay her head on my shoulder and fall asleep,” said Latifa.

“When our American advisers saw this they would say, “Don’t keep her here, she’ll be in danger – put her in the cabin.” But Malalai used to cling onto my clothes and say, “Mum, I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to go there!” she added.

Customarily, when you ask a kid whose child they are they give their father’s name, but Malalai always says “I am the daughter of Pilot Latifa”. That shows her immense pride of her mother.

“My ambition is for her to go to space – to become the first astronaut for Afghanistan. I hope my country will provide such opportunities by the time Malalai has grown up,” said a hopeful Latifa.