Four Afghan women have achieved something that would have been unimaginable a decade ago: they are training alongside male recruits to become pilots in the Afghan Air Force. Amidst headlines about poverty, illiteracy, and breathtaking levels of violence against women, their accomplishments are beyond heartening.
Second Lt. Sourya Saleh hopes to serve as a role model for other Afghan women after completing her aviation training in the United States.
“We are very happy to be going to open these doors for the other women to come and join the military, to show them you can do this and make our country proud,” she said. “We want for all Afghan girls to know they can do anything.”
Another newly minted officer, Second Lt. Mary Sharifzada, told the Air Force Times that becoming a pilot has been her dream since she was a little girl:
“I want to show the people of Afghanistan that women are strong,” Sharifzada said. “We want to show the people of the world that the women of Afghanistan are strong and they can do anything they want.”
“They said I’m as brave as a man,” said Second Lt. Masooma Hussaini.
As brave as men, and according to Lt. Col. John Howard of the Thunder Lab training program, as capable as their male counterparts. But these women and future recruits may not get the chance to prove “they can do anything they want” if the United States selects Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer to supply turboprop planes for the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan.
In the April 2011 issue of Smart Girl Nation, my friend Ashley Sewell explains how the Brazilian plane would bar skilled female pilots from flying Light Air Support (LAS) and light attack and armed reconnaissance (LAAR) missions:
The front-runners are the American-made Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 (a plane like the T-6 training aircraft that would accommodate 95% of women pilots) and the Brazilian-made Embraer EMB-314 (a plane that sticks to older standards thus eliminating the possibility of being flown by a woman).
Those older standards exclude more than 80 percent of women (and small men) from safely flying the planes that will be used to train and equip the Afghan Air Force.
There’s no question that operational performance and pilot safety should be the primary criteria in choosing between the Embraer and Hawker Beechcraft planes. But if the two aircraft perform comparably, can we afford to indulge the Commander-in-Chief‘s childish love affair with Brazil, forcing the struggling Afghan Air Force to sideline much needed talent?
That’s not the only reason the Hawker Beechcraft proposal is superior. The assembly of the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 planes would result in an estimated 1,400 American jobs, while the Embraer proposal will create a comparatively paltry 50 assembly line positions in the U.S.
And even more compelling are the risks of contracting with a company controlled by Brazil, a country that doesn’t have especially warm and fuzzy feelings about American foreign policy. Embraer’s corporate by-laws give Brazil a controlling interest known as the “Golden Share.”
The Golden Share allows the Brazilian government to maintain direct control and veto rights over the “creation and/or alteration of military programs, whether or not involving the Federative Republic of Brazil” as well as the “interruption of the supply of maintenance and replacement parts for military aircraft.”
Next month, the Department of Defense will make its decision. Will we put the Afghan Air Force at the mercy of a foreign government that has, at times, been hostile to the War on Terror? Will President Obama exchange friendship bracelets with Brazil as he promises them even more American jobs? And will the ambitious and capable women of the Afghan Air Force be relegated to second-class status before they’re given a chance to shine?
These are the women whose dreams of flying could be crushed by the “most feminist administration ever” before they even leave the ground: