By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - Sourya Saleh, wearing a black scarf to cover her hair and an olive drab Afghan Army uniform, doesn't look like a cultural warrior.
But she and three fellow Afghan women, the first of their gender to qualify as pilots in the Afghan Army, may help change attitudes about women in their conservative Muslim homeland where women's voices often go unheard.
"We are going to open the door for other ladies in Afghanistan," the Afghan Army Second Lieutenant told reporters at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. "It is a big deal for us, to open this door for others. Other ladies who feel that they can't do it, we want to show them."
Afghanistan's first crop of female military pilots arrived for training this week, where they will first study English at the Defense Language Institute at Lackland. Dozens of male Afghan pilots have gone through similar training in the United States.
After six to eight months of language study, they will travel to Fort Rucker in Alabama for helicopter pilot training in the U.S. Army "Thunder Lab" program.
"What a great day this is," said Col. Eric Axelbank, Commander of the 37th Training Wing, which oversees U.S. Air Force basic training at Lackland. "This is a huge step, having female officers who will become pilots in a traditionally male dominated field."
Since the austere Taliban government was toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, women in Afghanistan have won back basic rights in education, voting and work, which the militant group considered un-Islamic.
But they face an uncertain future as Afghan and foreign leaders have embraced the idea of seeking a negotiated end to ten years of war, through talks with the Taliban. Some analysts warn that could mean a step back for women's rights.
The women pilots will among about 1,200 students at the Institute, where students from around the world learn English - the global vernacular of aviation.
Axelbank said the Afghan women will undergo the same course of study in the United States as have male Afghan pilots, along with thousands of other military personnel who have trained at Lackland over the decades.
"This is a stepping stone in the development of the Afghan military," said Col. Howard Jones III, head of the institute.
In Texas, the women will not only learn English, but also U.S. military history and American culture.
Axelbank said 'gender integration' was a key part of the role that the women will play when they return to Afghanistan.
In addition to training pilots, the women will return to Afghanistan where they will meet men who will "for the first time find a woman who is not a relative in the role of an authority figure in their lives."
Second Lieutenant Masooma Hussani said she just wanted to get her hands on the controls of a military helicopter to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a pilot, and to show that she was capable of the job.
"I want to do it, and I want to show that I can do it," said Hussani, of Bamyan province in central Afghanistan. "It used to be that the women of Afghanistan couldn't do anything."
She said when she joined the Army, her parents were proud.
"They said I was as brave as a man," she said.
(Edited by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)