Sharon Weinberger Contributor
She registered to take the exams for officer candidate school. Just a few months later, she was selected for a new pilot training program.
The idea of female military pilots -- some of the most coveted military positions -- would have been unthinkable in Afghanistan just a decade ago, when the Taliban had relegated women to the bottom of the social scale, with no access to education, let alone jobs.
But now Hussaini, 19, and four of her female colleagues, have broken yet another barrier: They are second lieutenants in the Afghan air force, on a path to becoming the first newly trained female pilots since the fall of the Taliban.
Most of the women, like Hussaini, joined after seeing TV advertisements, but they also typically had support -- and even encouragement -- from their family. Khetera Ayoub Pur, another second lieutenant, rattles off the names of family members who have served in the military. For her, joining the military was a family tradition and a matter of national pride.
The women, who are still a novelty at the base, will not be Afghan air force's first female pilots, however. There is one female pilot, who was trained before the Taliban regime came to power.
But the young women are still very much an anomaly, and, if they do become pilots, they will face two divides: gender and age. The average Afghan military pilot is his mid- to late 40s, and typically trained somewhere in the former Soviet Union. The female pilot candidates -- most of whom are still teenagers -- will be Western-trained and decades younger than many of their counterparts.
That age gap -- perhaps as much as the gender divide -- could prove tough for the women. "There's a little bit of baggage" with the older pilots, said Col. Creig Rice, the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing vice commander. "With these young guys, it's not a problem."
But Rice also credits the Afghan air force commander, Mohammad Dawran, with helping to bring the women into the training program for pilots. "He's a pretty progressive guy," he said.
Integrating women into the training curriculum was planned out ahead of time, said U.S. Air Force Capt. Stacey Monaghan, who works closely with the female trainees. The U.S. and other NATO member advisers looked at everything from classroom seating to eating arrangements, she said.
In the end, all elements of the training were integrated, even physical training. The only strict physical separation is for living quarters -- the main building houses both the classrooms and the men's dorm rooms; the women live in a building next door.
Because there are no physical barriers between the men's rooms and the classroom, silver tape on the floor denotes where the women aren't supposed to go. Likewise, the male officers don't enter the women's living area or even come to close it, according to Lt. Col. John Howard, the head adviser at the Thunder Lab.
A joke among the other advisers, Howard said, is that if there were a fire, the men would shout to their female colleagues from the bottom of the building, "Please, please come out."
That sort of integration -- professional, but not necessarily personal -- was on display as the female candidates sat in a circle with their male colleagues: The women sat together in a group of three and two, and in a group photo lined up next to each other.
The women have only been at the Thunder Lab for two weeks, but in the most critical area of their current training -- learning English -- the women are already besting many of the men. "The women scored better than half the guys," Howard said.
In fact, Hassaini's score was high enough to qualify her to go the United States for additional training immediately, Johnson said.
But she --- and the other students –- still need cultural training before they depart. Once they do go to the United States, they may spend up to two years there getting additional English language training and then pilot instruction.
Later, they said that they would eventually like to have families, just not now.
That, however, raises another question: What role will the female recruits eventually have in a society that expects women their age to already be married and having children? (About half of their male colleagues at the Thunder Lab are married.)
Nobody, least of all the American advisers, has a good answer. "It's going to be an experiment," Monaghan said.