At 18-years old, Latifa and her younger sister Lailuma, ethnic Uzbeks, became Afghanistan’s first female pilots in 1991. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Latifa recalled memories of her childhood and the air force.
Latifa and Lailuma always wanted to be pilots. Latifa said they played pilots instead of Barbies. They excelled in school and chose air school over medical and engineering school. When they joined in 1991, it was the middle of the Afghan civil war and they were immediately placed in combat fighting for the Najibullah government, which was a communist regime backed by Russia.
Latifa told The Daily Beast about her first mission and how it had a positive impact on the country:
Latifa calls her first solo flight in 1991, a 90-minute resupply mission to the Tajikistan border, “the most beautiful day of my life.” “That day I was proud and proved to the world that Afghan women are brave and equal to our Afghan brothers,” she says. After that inaugural mission, the male military pilots accepted her as one of their own. “It was a landmark day for my country where women are still oppressed and seen as less than men,” she says. “I showed the authority of Afghan women.” And soon afterwards she experienced “the happiest day of my life,” she says, when she took her mother on a flight from Kabul to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Before boarding, her mother–who was doubtful that her daughter was really at the controls–peered through the cockpit window to verify who really was in the pilot’s seat.
The regime fell in 1992, and the sisters were scared their jobs were over. The Najibullah government was pro-women’s education and rights, while the mujahideen had a negative view of women. But they were quickly called back and rejoined the air force.
The happiness did not last. It did not take long for the factions to battle each other, and Afghanistan was thrown into a new civil war. Latifa left Kabul as the factions destroyed the city and settled in her ancestral home Mazar-i-Sharif. She met Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum, a dangerous warlord. Yet, he protected her:
“He was a nice guy, protected my job and family,” she recalls. “The first time I met him he ordered his aides to provide me with a house, food, and inducted me in his air force.”
The Taliban took over Kabul in 1996 and started to capture surrounding cities. Latifa found herself working overtime to help Dostum’s forces, but the town fell in 1998. Latifa and Lailuma tried to flee but could not leave their family behind. Latifa went into hiding because the Taliban looked for her. The mujahideen oppressed women, but the Taliban were worse. They did not like a woman pilot and hunted Latifa. They arrested her brothers and tortured them, but they did not tell them where she was hiding. She escaped to Kabul and then Pakistan, but it was not better:
Clearly it was too dangerous for her to stay in Mazar-i-Sharif, so Latifa managed to flee to Taliban-controlled Kabul, dressed in a burqa. When she got to the capital she was appalled by the conditions of women who had to stay indoors, could not work, or go the school. “The women in the city were the living dead,” she recalls. A pilot friend of hers, who knew where she was hiding, used to buzz her home in an effort to keep up her morale. Tired of laying low, Latifa and her sister decided to escape to neighboring Pakistan in late 1998. It was not a positive move. They exchanged lives in hiding for an existence of near slavery. To survive she began working in an oppressive carpet factory. “I sewed carpets all day and into the night for just a handful of rupees,” she says. “It was painful and discouraging to fall from the high-ranking job of being a pilot to working as an ordinary, uneducated woman,” she adds tearfully. “All because of the Taliban.”
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, she and her sister were able to return and rejoin the air force. There are now five female pilots, and women are slowly gaining more rights in Afghanistan. Latifa is still a traditional woman. She married at 31-years old to a man her parents chose, and she gave birth to her child, Malalai, three years later. Unfortunately, her sister passed away during childbirth in 2007.
She also fears the US withdrawal will reverse the changes made in Afghanistan. She believes the Afghan women can overcome any fight that is thrown their way.
“I don’t want us to return to zero as we were under the Taliban regime,” she says. To prevent that, women have to be courageous. “If you don’t have courage, you can’t get what you want,” she says. “We are tired of the war but we don’t want to settle at the cost of our progress and rights,” she adds. “My message to the Taliban is to please stop the violence and let women be educated.”
She is grateful to the U.S .and its allies for all they’ve sacrificed for Afghanistan. “The blood and money you spent in Afghanistan has not been wasted,” she says. “You protected women and every human being of Afghanistan.”
Latifa realizes that it is ultimately up to Afghans to rebuild their nation and build upon their past success.