SAN ANTONIO – For women in Afghanistan, said Masooma Hussaini, it's not like "it was in Taliban times." Her sisters are in school, women work in offices and, by next year, Hussaini and three other young women could be among their country's first females piloting military helicopters.
Their training in the U.S. is significant. The Afghan military has a small but growing female rank, yet the skies are almost an exclusive province for men, except for one Afghan woman trained in the Soviet era.
Afghanistan remains a male-dominated culture — Afghan President Harmid Karzai spoke out as recently as last fall about women in his country still being oppressed. Hussaini, a second lieutenant, acknowledges that some Afghan men think "it's not good" that women are breaking new ground in the military, but she and her colleagues said Wednesday that they weren't joining the Afghan Air Force for themselves.
"We're going to open the door for ladies in Afghanistan," second Lt. Sourya Saleh said. "It's a big deal for us to open this door for the others. That these other ladies who have the dream and think they can't do it, we want to show them."
The four women, all in their 20s, arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio last week to continue their training. They'll stay in Texas until they master English — the international language for aviation — and are scheduled to transfer to Alabama early next year for actual hands-on piloting.
By September 2012, the women could have their wings.
"We are just at the beginning right now in terms of what's happening in Afghanistan, in terms of gender integration. But this is a huge step," said Col. Eric Axelbank, commander of the 37th Training Wing at Lackland. "Having female officers who will become pilots, a traditionally male-dominated field in the Middle East, is groundbreaking.
"Not just in Afghanistan, but in the entire Middle East."
The U.S. is among 14 nations advising the Afghan Air Force, which has about 4,700 members and more than 50 aircraft. The plan is for the Afghan Air Force to be self-operational by 2016, according to British Royal Air Force Group Capt. Adrian Hill, deputy commander of the NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is set to nearly triple its aircraft by 2016. The women are being trained on Mi-17 helicopters, which represent the bulk of the country's current stable of aircraft. The Afghan Air Force also has 11 two-engine cargo planes and nine Mi-35 attack helicopters.
The Afghan Air Force is being built to support the Afghan National Army, not to defend Afghan air space.
Hussaini said she always dreamed of being a pilot, even as her father tried pushing her to become a doctor. The opportunity for her and the other women came, according to Saleh, when ads in Afghanistan newspapers encouraged women to enlist in the military and join the Afghan Air Force.
"They are very brave. Their families are all for it," Hill said. "Their families are strongly behind them. In a society like (theirs), if they didn't have the sponsorship of their families, they wouldn't be here."
The four were the only females in their graduating class of 35, and they began training last May in Afghanistan. They got the hang of the lessons quickly: The women scored the highest marks for the first couple months before the men, by then getting competitive, started catching up, Hill said.
Piloting a helicopter, however, may present some unique challenges to Afghan women. Hill said many of the nation's women are short and have short arms, which prevents them from reaching the switches in the cockpit. Hill said pilots must have arms of a certain length, eliminating "quite a few" of the females.
"You can adjust the seat, but there is a limit and a lot of the Afghan women are pushing the outside limits," Hill said.
The women have now graduated to Lackland's Defense Language Institute, which teaches English to soldiers and personnel from other countries. Less than 12 percent of the nearly 1,100 students on the campus are female, said Col. Howard Jones, who runs the institute. Even fewer come from Muslim nations, but there have been some students. Some Iraqi women, for example, studied there to become English instructors back home.
But not until now had there been women from Afghanistan.
"In Afghanistan, I think (it's been) 32 or 33 years of war. The women of Afghanistan couldn't do anything on that time," said second Lt. Mary Sharifzada, also among the four women training to become pilots. "Now we should show that we are strong and we can serve our country."
Associated Press Writer Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.