How an Afghan Girl Risked Everything for Education

By Allan Spencer | August 17 2023 | College & University ReadsAll-School Reads

Contributed by Malaina Kapoor, co-author of Defiant Dreams: The Journey of an Afghan Girl Who Risked Everything for Education. A searing, deeply personal memoir of a tenacious Afghan girl who educated herself behind closed doors and fought her way to a new life, the book has received advance praise from Bill Gates, Sal Khan, and Nicholas Kristof, among others. 

At its heart, Defiant Dreams is a story of the unbelievable power of education. As a 16-year-old girl in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Sola Mahfouz could not even add or subtract. Her formal schooling ended abruptly at age 11, when a group of men came to her door and threatened to throw acid in her face if she did not stop going to school. From that moment on, Sola was confined to a home she only left a few times a year. She grew jealous of her brothers, who were allowed to go out with friends, attend school, and walk through Kandahar’s streets uninhibited. On the rare occasions Sola was allowed to leave her home, she was required to wear a suffocating burqa that enveloped her from head to toe.

But Sola refused to accept this life. She began secretly educating herself from her bedroom—at age 14 she started teaching herself English by reading scraps of newspaper and any other materials she could get her hands on. When she was 16, she discovered Khan Academy, a free online learning platform. She connected to the platform using an excruciatingly slow, dial-up internet connection and began to study in the middle of the night, because that was the only time when she wasn’t required to cook and clean as a woman in her household. Within just three years, Sola went from not knowing basic arithmetic to studying college-level math and physics. After overcoming many obstacles, she made it to the U.S. where she is now a researcher in quantum information at Tufts University.

Defiant Dreams offers a window to readers, especially those who are students, into a world where education is never taken for granted. Sola’s grueling, determined fight for education proves the role that learning can play in completely rewriting the trajectory of a student’s life, no matter where they come from.

The book is also a story of what women are forced to endure around the world, of the tremendous hurdles that stand between them and even the smallest of freedoms. When Sola was a child, men outside the walls of her compound hurled sacks of excrement at her and her cousins in an attempt to silence the sounds of young girls laughing. When she was older, she was denied simple pleasures like going out with her brothers for ice cream or swimming, all because she was a girl. And from the age of 16, she had to start preparing for an arranged marriage—in Kandahar, girls are married off by 18.

Finally, Defiant Dreams is also the story of an Afghanistan we rarely see in the media. It’s a story of simple joys and war-time humor, of mothers and daughters, of darkness and levity, home and escape. At a fundamental level, Defiant Dreams presents the chance to understand the pain, joys, and everyday experiences of those living beyond the classroom doors.

Defiant Dreams
The Journey of an Afghan Girl Who Risked Everything for Education
9780593359785
A searing, deeply personal memoir of a tenacious Afghan girl who educated herself behind closed doors and fought her way to a new life.
Paperback