Defiant Dreams

The Journey of an Afghan Girl Who Risked Everything for Education

About the Book

A searing, deeply personal memoir of a tenacious Afghan girl who educated herself behind closed doors and fought her way to a new life.
“Stories like this inspire me. Seeing the way people like Sola Mahfouz think about the world reinforces my optimism about the future.”―BILL GATES

Sola Mahfouz was born in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1996, the year the Taliban took over her country for the first time. They banned television and photographs, presided over brutal public executions, and turned the clock backward on women’s rights, practically imprisoning women within their own homes and forcing them to wear all-concealing burqas. At age eleven, Sola was forced to stop attending school after a group of men threatened to throw acid in her face if she continued. After that she was confined to her home, required to cook and clean and prepare for an arranged marriage. She saw the outside world only a handful of times each year.

As time passed, Sola began to understand that she was condemned to the same existence as millions of women in Afghanistan. Her future was empty. The rest of her life would be controlled entirely by men: fathers and husbands and sons who would never allow her to study, to earn money, or even to dream.

Driven by this devastating realization, Sola began a years-long fight to change the trajectory of her life, deciding that education would be her way out. At age sixteen, without even the basic ability to add or subtract, she began to teach herself math and English in secret. She progressed rapidly., Within just two years she was already studying subjects such as philosophy and physics. Faced with obstacles at every turn, Sola still managed to sneak into Pakistan to take the SAT. In 2016, she escaped to the United States, where she is now a quantum-computing researcher at Tufts University.

An engrossing, dramatic memoir, co-written with young Indian American human rights activist Malaina Kapoor, Defiant Dreams is the story of one girl, but it’s also the untold story of a generation of women brimming with potential and longing for freedom.
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Praise for Defiant Dreams

“Stories like this inspire me. Seeing the way people like Sola Mahfouz think about the world reinforces my optimism about the future.”―Bill Gates, philanthropist, author, and cofounder of Microsoft

“Sola reminds us that the greatest untapped resource around the globe isn’t gold or oil, but the female half of the population. Virginia Woolf wrote that if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister, she never would have been able to flower—and Sola is Shakespeare’s sister.”―Nicholas Kristof, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author

“Sola embodies the power of individual determination and serves as an inspiration to us allshe is nothing short of incredible. Her story speaks to the limitless potential of millions who have been held back by circumstances beyond their control. Defiant Dreams is a beautifully written reminder of the transformative power of education.”―Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy

“Captivating in its intimate details of life behind the burqa, this brave girl's determination to educate herself despite restrictive Afghan tradition, Talib gunfire, and American rockets is pure inspiration. Defiant indeedI could not put this beautifully written book down.”―Helen Zia, former executive editor of Ms. magazine and author of Last Boat Out of Shanghai

“Sola Mahfouz is a beautiful example of a young person who is searching, striving, and reaching. She was born in a city where speaking too loud was unacceptable for a girl—and yet her voice is now reaching overseas. Her story is one of how the impossible became possible. I found it a very moving and inspiring read.”―Homeira Qaderi, author of Dancing in the Mosque
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Defiant Dreams

Chapter One

In secret, Baba loves to dance. My father’s bare feet move slowly across the embroidery on our Afghan carpet, as the sleeves of his dove-­gray kameez billow to a beat emanating from a portable stereo. My mother peeks out of the kitchen, laughing softly as he throws his arms into the air. Like most Afghan men, Baba is guarded, steeled by the memories of war and the demands of a patriarchal culture. His tufted beard and piercing black eyes often intimidate. In photographs, he rarely smiles. But music betrays him, forcing a sheepish, mischievous grin across his face.

As a young girl, I was ashamed by these glimpses into my father’s more joyful dispositions. Our family and our province are ethnically Pashtun. In Pashtun culture, the strength of a man and the honor of his family are determined by his stoicism and authority. He is expected never to display emotion.

A man is also obligated to keep a tight rein on the women in his household. In the most traditional communities, it is the deepest shame for a man to ever allow his wife or daughters to be seen, even through the whispered shadows of a doorway.

Men in Afghanistan spend lazy afternoons under the dusty shade of local pomegranate groves, gather at restaurants to enjoy Indian biryani and cans of ice-­cold Coca-­Cola, and maneuver motorcycles every morning into the city for work. Women spend their days indoors, with only a brief respite to drink tea with friends before lunch. They squat low to the ground and sweep cracked tiles with brooms made of dried grass, the embroidered hems of their salwaar kameez dresses just brushing the floor. They wring sopping-­wet, hand-­washed laundry and hang it on clotheslines to dry. In the evenings, as a hazy dusk falls on the city, the women emerge from the kitchen. They serve elaborate meals to their husbands and sons, meals that they have taken the entire day to prepare: lamb soup with vegetables and coriander, rice crispy with crystallized sugar, lentil stews, fresh tomato salads, half-­moon flatbreads studded with caraway seeds. It is only after the men eat that many women do, spooning cold leftovers onto their plates from behind the kitchen doors.

Baba could never devote himself completely to this culture of conservatism. He grew up with a gravely ill father, so his mother filled the traditional male role at home. He was one of only a handful of university-­educated men in our province. He had spent years in the bustling capital city of Kabul and even visited Russia, a land devoid of restrictions in the name of religion. So he never forced the women in our house to inform him when they left for the bazaar or to visit a friend. He let his daughters go to school. When no other fathers would, he danced, listened to his children sing, and allowed us all to take photographs and watch movies.

The neighbors gossiped about us: Did you know he allows his little girl to go swimming in that river near the pomegranate groves? Look, look! His wife’s sleeves aren’t long enough to cover her wrists. I was ashamed that my father was seen as weak. Why, I wondered, did he care so much about preserving our little delights and liberties, even in the face of ridicule?

Perhaps it was because he understood what I didn’t yet: in Afghanistan, freedom is transient and every small happiness is fleeting, forever threatened by the weight of tradition and the crossfire of war.

In 1952, Baba was born in Kandahar, a city ringed by mountains and accented by teal-blue mosques and brightly painted food stalls. The streets are without lane markings and swell with people. A cacophony of blaring horns and sputtering motorcycles pierces the air, and smells of stale oil and roasted meat emanate from open-­air butcheries and street vendors. A thick, dusty heat snakes through the city, enveloping gray buildings, slinking between the folds of ubiquitous blue burqas and pastel turbans.

Baba grew up in the decades after the British retreated from their occupation of our country, as an exhilarating spirit of patriotism surged across the nation. Under colonial influence, Afghanistan had been a poor country, one without electricity or a basic educational system. But independence offered the promise of cultural and institutional reform, led by King Zahir Shah and his cousin, Prime Minister General Mohammed Daoud Khan. Beginning in 1953, Khan enacted widely popular social measures centered on women’s rights. Most notably, he lifted restrictions on women entering the workforce and allowed them to decide on their own whether to wear a veil in public.

As a part of his broader push toward modernization, the prime minister also solicited investment and military assistance from foreign nations. Brimming Cold War tensions served Afghanistan well, as both Moscow and Washington poured money into the country in an attempt to secure political influence. In northern Afghanistan, the Soviets were dominant. They spearheaded massive infrastructure projects, improved the education system, and funded scholarships for young Afghans. In the south, where Kandahar is located, the United States had more influence. American engineers flew in to help build new highways, dams, and electric power plants. They started construction on the Kan­dahar International Airport, whose terminals were meant to have the same grandeur as those in neighboring India and Pakistan, with state-­of-­the-­art underground re­fueling stations and massive airport hotels for travelers who would spend layovers in Kandahar while traveling between Europe and East Asia. Local schools suddenly offered En­glish lessons taught by volunteers from the Peace Corps. It wasn’t uncommon to witness groups of sixteen- and seventeen-­year-­old boys belting out American nursery rhymes like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

Americans affiliated with government-­aid organizations or private contractors settled in southern Afghanistan. In Kandahar, many lived in homes or barracks erected at Manzel Bagh, a palace gifted to a private contracting company by the king. The nearby city of Lashkar Gah was nicknamed “Little America” for the number of American vacationers and workers who stayed there. As a child, I heard many stories of what my family thought of these visitors from the West. “They were wealthy and so different—­we loved to just peek at them as they walked down the street,” my aunt would tell me. “But . . . well, they were a little uncultured,” someone would chime in, before describing the brazen assurance with which American women walked through Kan­dahar. “They let doors slam behind them! When they would eat dinner—­Sola!—­they spoke so loudly, their voices carried to the next house over.”

As a child, Baba was mostly oblivious to this whirlwind of change occurring outside his door. Instead, he was consumed by domestic troubles. His father, whom I called Agha Jan, had been struck with an undiagnosed illness, likely diabetes. That left Baba’s mother, whom I called Ana Bibi, to care for their ten children and help provide for the family.

In the beginning, Agha Jan’s illness was not too serious, and he tried to maintain his dominance as the patriarch of the household. As Baba remembers him, his father was a simple man. He was set in his ways, stuck in the past, and cantankerous about the cultural liberalization occurring around him. In contrast, Ana Bibi, came from an educated family, though she herself never attended school. She possessed a fierce intellect and often wielded it against her husband.

For instance, Agha Jan did not believe that girls should be allowed to attend school. Ana Bibi disagreed but brokered a compromise. “Our daughters will attend school until fifth grade,” she said. “After that, we will pull them out.”

Agha Jan agreed. But somehow their daughters never seemed to reach the fifth grade. One girl supposedly failed the fourth-­grade final exam several years in a row. Another seemed suspiciously old for her class, but Ana Bibi promised she was still finishing second grade. Agha Jan was confused and exasperated. “How can these girls still not be in the fifth grade?!” he would ask. But somehow he trusted Ana Bibi, who cleverly managed to educate five of her six daughters right underneath her husband’s nose.

About the Author

Sola Mahfouz
Sola Mahfouz was born in Afghanistan and immigrated to the U.S. in 2016, to attend college. She is currently a quantum computing researcher at Tufts University Quantum Information Group. In her free time she is focusing on reading and studying different styles of fiction, as well as writing about the rugged homeland she has left behind. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts. More by Sola Mahfouz
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About the Author

Malaina Kapoor
Malaina Kapoor is a writer from Redwood City, California. She previously served as a Fellow at PEN America, where she advocated for international human rights, press freedoms, and election integrity. Malaina served on the management team of a refugee resettlement organization and was the producer of In Deep, a nationally syndicated public affairs radio broadcast program. She has received national awards for her poetry, personal essays, and short stories. Malaina will graduate from Stanford University in 2025. More by Malaina Kapoor
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Random House Publishing Group