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Afghanistan's female powerhouses: a rapper, a colonel and 'mother' to hundreds

Soosan Firooz rhymes about Afghanistan and the many crises its people have faced. In a country where public performance by women is frowned upon, this is no easy feat.  NBC News' Tazeen Ahmad reports.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Odds are, if you are a female in Afghanistan, you have been forced to marry a man who has hurt you, denied access to an education and will die young. It takes extreme measures just to survive, let alone thrive, here.

There’s no denying the grim litany of evidence. But beyond the bombs and burqas that often define this country is a light shining through the darkness. It turns out some of the bravest women in the world live here. These are the stories of three women in Kabul who dared to defy the odds.

Soosan Firooz: Afghanistan's first female rapper
Demure, sweet and soft-spoken are not usually words one would choose to describe a rapper, but Afghanistan's first female rap artist gives a disarming first impression.

"Rap does not have to be angry," Soosan Firooz said. She uses it to express painful childhood memories of being a civil war refugee and sees rap as a medium through which she can defy the repression of women.

In her first music video recently released on YouTube, Firooz appeared in Western style clothing and jewelry – headscarf notably absent.

But pushing the envelope and breaking from Afghanistan's conservative cultural norms does not come without a price. Some members of her family have disowned her and she has faced numerous death threats. Her father quit his job so that he can protect her around the clock. 

But in the safety of her living room wearing stonewashed jeans and a sweatshirt, she smiled and seemed relaxed as she talked about how she loves Shakira. 

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"I am worried about it but refuse to just stay inside my house," she said. "I receive threats on phone...but I don't surrender to those risks."

Firooz explained that her creative expressions are not just for personal gratification because she bears the heavy burden of being the family's primary breadwinner. Firooz also works as a soap opera actress to bring in more income, but she hopes to make it big with her music.

"I am not only the oldest daughter of the family but also a son of the family and my family needs me. I need to do this job," she said.

Although she dreams of performing in other countries, Firooz takes pride in being an Afghan.

"Afghanistan is not a jungle where there are lions everywhere that scare people, there are human beings living in this country," she said.

"The people of Afghanistan are braver than the rest of the world."

According to government officials, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a mosque in northern Afghanistan, killing 40 people and wounding more than 50. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

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Col. Latifa Nabizada: Afghanistan's first female Air Force pilot
Grit, determination and profound love of country led Col. Latifa Nabizada down the unlikely road to becoming the Afghan Air Force's first female helicopter pilot.

As a little girl growing up in Kabul, she would stare at the sky for hours on end and dream of flying, Nabizada, 40, said. She hung on to the dream for years and at 17, applied for flight school.

Tech. Sgt. Quinton Russ / U.S. Air Force photo

Col. Latifa Nabizada stands with her daughter, Malalai, next to a helicopter at Kabul's international airport.

"As a female, when you want to become anything here, you face so many problems," she said, recalling the scrutiny and rejection she first faced. So she vowed simply to out-work and out-smart her classmates so that no one could question her capabilities.

"I graduated number one in the class of 72," she said with a grin.

In the years since, Nabizada earned the respect of her fellow pilots, many of whom she now considers to be her "brothers." The dangerous anti-Taliban missions they have flown together have further strengthened their bonds.

As she strolled around the Afghan Air Force base in Kabul, flight engineers, technicians and pilots all treated her with a reverence that seemed alien for Afghanistan. "I know many of them would die for me," she said.

Nabizada pointed to a neighborhood just beyond the vast tarmac of the runway. "My house is right over there. But this is my home," she said, heading toward the MI-17 helicopter she flies.

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Despite her extraordinary job, Nabizada is still like so many other women around the world, struggling to juggle the demands of work and family life – except that her particular challenges are less mundane.

She flew training missions while pregnant with her now-six-year-old daughter Malalai, and when she was born, Nabizada had no choice but to bring the infant to work. "There was nobody to take care of her," she said.

At two months old, Malalai began accompanying her mother as she piloted training missions, cradled in the arms of Nabizada's engineer since there was no room for a crib on the flight deck. We joked that she should have put a "Baby on Board" sticker on the cockpit window.

"I want all girls here to know that anything is possible," Nabizada said. 

Nabizada hopes that someday her own daughter will fly even higher than she has and become Afghanistan's first female astronaut.

'Mother' Laila: Rehabilitating Afghanistan's lost drug addicts
Last year, Laila Haidari found herself standing under a Kabul bridge, both heartbroken and horrified by what was before her: dozens of homeless drug addicts strung out on opiates, resigned to a hopeless life and certain death. 

Jamieson Lesko / NBC News

Waitress and mother-of-two Masooma, 24, weeps as she recounts the deep depression that led to her opium addiction.

She was visiting Afghanistan from Iran for a film festival and to see some in-laws, but this fateful sighting changed everything.

"No one was helping them," she said. "They were going to die there. I couldn't leave." Haidari, now 34, decided to move to Kabul. She didn't even go home to pack up her belongings.

With the help of a loan from friends, Haidari opened a free shelter for addicts and their families. She also established a café and staffed it with volunteers recovering at the shelter – a step toward reintegrating into the work force. She named it Taj Begum, which means "Women's Crown" in Dari. 

There was an oasis-like feel to the cafe when NBC News visited, with flowers and day beds sprawled across the outdoor space. Two white rabbits hopped around the grass freely, munching on dried rose petals in between the tables. 

On a recent evening, middle-class Afghans and ex-pats sipped tea in the café's outdoor patio, their plates heaped with rice and meat. A local rock band played after dark, donating their ticket sales to the shelter.

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"I love working here," said Hussain, 30, who works in the kitchen. "Laila has saved my life in every way."

He was addicted to heroin when Haidari found him under the bridge, and said he was still haunted by memories of last year's brutal winter when he watched several friends freeze to death.

"I had tried many times to get help but no one would take me in," he said. "I thought that I was going to die, too, just like them."

Although the shelter is mostly full of men, there are four women here. Drug use poses a major problem for women in Afghanistan but it isn't commonly known or spoken about, since so few emerge from the shadows of shame to seek treatment.

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Waitress and mother-of-two Masooma, 24, wept as she recounted the deep depression that led to her opium addiction. In the course of six months, both her husband and brother died, she said. "I was broken. I lost everything. I just wanted to escape."

As her addiction clouded over her, Masooma began having serious trouble caring for her sons and realized that she needed a way out of the nightmare. "They are innocent. I didn't want to hurt them," she said.

Masooma said she will never be able to repay Haidari for taking her in. She -- and most of the recovering addicts at the shelter -- don't refer to her by name, but instead by "mother."

These are the bonds that keep Haidari going, despite the high personal price she has paid for walking this path in life. Her marriage dissolved and she misses the family she left behind in Iran. She said she has been getting death threats, but that she won't give up.

"These people are my family now," she says. "I will not leave them."

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