As badly as things went for her that day, Khatool Mohammadzai nevertheless glows at the memory. It was the first day of spring 2002, and she was standing in a helicopter as it hovered roughly a kilometer up in the sky above Kabul. Down on the ground, President Hamid Karzai and thousands of other Afghans were crowded into the country’s National Stadium to celebrate the first Afghan New Year since the fall of the Taliban, only four months before. The jubilant gathering was a sharp break from Mullah Mohammed Omar’s theocratic regime, which had used the stadium for public stonings and other executions.
And now came Mohammadzai’s moment: carrying a half-dozen doves, the woman who had been the first female paratrooper in Afghan history jumped from the helicopter. When her multicolored chute opened, she released the doves and floated gently toward earth, holding a Quran and an
Afghan flag. Unfortunately the pilot had missed his bearings. Mohammadzai landed kilometers away from the stadium—but instead of slinking home in humiliation, she hailed a cab. When she finally arrived, still carrying her parachute, the crowd erupted in applause and cheers. “For me and my country it was the beginning of a new life,” she reminisced to Newsweek. “I felt we had been reborn. I showed the world how brave Afghan women are and what they can do.”
She was a national hero, a living symbol of her country’s hopes for the future, featured regularly on television and at women’s events. She was promoted from colonel to general, the first Afghan woman to achieve that rank since the overthrow of the Soviet-backed regime in 1992, and she soon rose to three stars. “I remember her well,” says Georgia National Guard Brig. Gen. Larry Dudney, who became her friend in Afghanistan despite the language barrier. “I was very impressed with her. She exudes confidence, she really does.” At her speaking engagements she sometimes talked about that ill-fated jump. “It was a funny story,” says Dudney. “She told it as an example of perseverance, of facing up to adversity, never quitting.”
“I should be helping to train commandos and paratroopers,” Mohammadzai says. (Mikhail Galustov / Redux for Newsweek)
Those stardom days are over. Many Afghan women fear that their advances of the past decade are being whittled away—and Mohammadzai’s relatives and longtime military friends consider her a prime example. “I thought she would be a role model for the new generation of Afghan girls and women,” says Noorjahan Akbar. “But she has been sidelined.” The student activist, now 20, first met the paratrooper five years ago while helping a writer friend who was doing a book on courageous Afghan women.
Mohammadzai, 45, made more than 600 jumps in her 28-year military career, and her precise and daring skydives used to be a regular part of every Independence Day and New Year’s celebration in Kabul. Nevertheless, it has now been five years since her military and civilian superiors last allowed her to put on a parachute. Instead, she’s been shunted out of the spotlight into a make-work assignment in a Defense Ministry back office.
She doesn’t openly criticize her commanders—she’s too good a soldier for that—but her admirers aren’t so reticent. They say she has become a victim of biases that still plague Afghanistan. It’s not only that she’s a woman, they say: ethnic discrimination also plays a part. Mohammadzai is a Pashtun, and the Defense Ministry, along with the military’s top brass, is dominated by the Tajiks who led the Northern Alliance to victory over the Taliban in 2001. The ministry denies that gender bias or ethnic favoritism exists in the armed forces, but it seems unlikely that the men who run Afghanistan’s military would be free from the traditional sexism that pervades the rest of the country. “I don’t like her,” an ostensibly well-educated Kabul construction engineer says of Mohammadzai. “Women have no place in the military.”
With a photo of herself from the 1990s, in the days before the Taliban took over and ordered all Afghan women to cover up and stay home. (Mikhail Galustov / Redux for Newsweek)
Concern over Afghan women’s declining status is only deepening as the Karzai government seeks reconciliation with the Taliban, and the Americans prepare to go home. “Our rights are going downhill, because our government’s and the international community’s focus has shifted from protecting Afghan women’s rights to a politically correct option of negotiating with the Taliban,” says Akbar. “We women have little or no say in these discussions.”