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Afghan woman general jumps into men’s world

December 31, 2002

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KABUL, Dec 30: That Afghan General Khatool Mohammadzai has a chest full of medals and has completed no less than 600 parachute jumps is impressive. That Mohammadzai is a woman makes it even more so.

Dressed in full military uniform, Mohammadzai is a striking sight in Afghanistan, where most women wear the burqa.

Although a devout Muslim, the 34-year-old mother steadfastly refuses to conform to the norms of what remains a conservative society.

“According to our tradition and culture, women normally do not go out of the house. So once a woman does go out, she should do something extraordinary. She should do something to keep all the men quiet; that’s what I’m doing.”

Mohammadzai lives up to her claim. At age 16 she signed up for the airforce, dreaming of becoming a parachutist during an era of communism in Afghanistan when female equality was promoted.

“Even when I was a kid, I enjoyed sport, I loved planes and I liked jumping. I wanted to be in the airforce more than anything else.

“At that time it was not strange like it is today. We had lots of freedom. All women could join any university, women could reach any aims they wanted. It was not like this.”

Passing her classes at Kabul’s military university with flying colours, she became one of 17 women parachutists in the Afghan airforce. She is the only one still in service.

Then came the days of the Taliban, when women were banned from the workplace and most other walks of everyday life in Afghanistan, made prisoners in their own homes.

“I was not happy. How does a bird of the sky feel when it is locked in a cage? I spent most of my life being a parachutist. In the army I was trained for a long time and then one day I was told I could no longer work.”

Mohammadzai, who by this time had already become a popular figure in Afghanistan, was reduced to making embroidered clothes and handicrafts to scrape together a living.

Her husband and father of her only child had by this time been killed in the relentless conflict in Afghanistan, to which she also lost two of her brothers.

But such was her popularity that, after the fall of the Taliban late last year, the country’s new leaders were soon begging her to return to duty. She literally jumped at the chance.

“As long as I am alive and as long as I am able, I will continue to make parachute jumps,” she said, ruing the fact a knee injury sustained in a jump earlier this year will keep her out of action until into the new year.

Promoted to general by Afghan President Hamid Karzai earlier this year, Mohammadzai is now deputy director for women’s affairs in the country’s ministry of defence in addition to being sports director for the Afghan air force.

She also works as a parachuting instructor, teaches judo, runs her own boxing club and reluctantly admits to being a role model and inspiration for thousands of Afghan women who, she says, remain trapped by fear.

“Once a group of women came up to the car I was driving in. The people I was with thought they were going to hurl insults. Instead they came to me and said ‘you are the pride of our country’ and they would like to kiss me.”

Mohammadzai said she believed she could make a difference as Afghanistan struggled to rebuild itself after decades of conflict and reverse the oppression which has become the rule.

“I wear my uniform to encourage all other Afghans to follow in my steps. I do not mean they should be soldiers, but they should try their best to rebuild their country.

“I never see myself as unique. I am not the only woman who can do these things. It is the responsibility of every Afghan, man or woman, to serve their country.”—AFP