Determined and Undeterred: A Young Afghan Woman Educated Herself Against the Odds

Sola Mahfouz writes how she pursued an education in isolation in Afghanistan, starting with online kindergarten math as a teenager

In 2007, when Sola Mahfouz was 11 years old, men came to her family compound in southern Afghanistan, and told her father that if she and her sisters went to school again, they would get acid thrown in their faces. It didn’t come as a shock—the region had many supporters of the Taliban in the late 1990s.

The quality of education at the girls’ school Mahfouz had been going to wasn’t good, but when schooling abruptly stopped, she was at loose ends. Her days soon became a series of listless activities in her family home—cooking, cleaning, watching Bollywood movies—with no end in sight.

Now, 15 years later, Mahfouz is a staff researcher in the quantum computing group at Tufts. She narrates that sometimes wrenching, sometimes heartwarming, and often astounding transformation in her new book, Defiant Dreams: The Journey of an Afghan Girl Who Risked Everything for an Education, published June 6.

Mahfouz—a pseudonym she uses to protect family members still in Afghanistan under the Taliban—wrote the book (with co-author Malaina Kapoor) in part to convey a far more personal and nuanced view of her country than most Americans have read or seen.

book cover for Defiant Dreams

“There are not a lot of books written about the Afghan experience by Afghans,” she says. “Journalists visiting the country observe things and then interpret it through their own experience. I have this urge to show the complexity of life there. The story is not just about me. I tried to pick stories to shed light on something bigger.”

She hopes that her book gives readers a glimpse of Afghanistan and the world through an Afghan woman’s eyes.  “I don’t know who said it, but the job of the writer is not to give you the solution, it’s to make you think, to see things clearly,” she says.

How History Plays Out

Hers in some ways is the story of Afghanistan’s recent history. To write the book, she had to research her own country’s history, and talked to her parents and other relatives to learn what they were doing long before she was born.

Afghanistan began to modernize in the 1970s, but in 1979 the Soviets invaded in support of one of the country’s political factions. Mahfouz recounts how many educated Afghans in Kabul preferred the Soviets to the ragtag mujahideen, the mostly Islamist guerrillas fighting the Russians and their allies in the Afghan government.

A decade later, the withdrawal of the Soviets led to civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s, with former mujahideen becoming warlords fighting over territory and power. Mahfouz was born in that period into an educated family—her mother graduated from Kabul University and taught there briefly. Her parents had been living in Kabul, but fled to their native Kandahar as the civil war raged and the Taliban took power in 1996. Her father set up a successful business and built a large walled compound that sheltered the family in the city.

As a young girl, Mahfouz was sent to a family-run religious school to learn the Quran and a local academic school for girls, but given the poor quality of education offered, learned little at either, except that she had a strong streak for defying authority.

After the threats kept her and her sisters out of school—her brothers by comparison continued to attend a private school—she was at a loss for what to do. For Afghan girls, marriage and motherhood were the typical common goals; a young woman not married by 20 was considered washed up.

Unable to go outside the family compound unless accompanied by a close male relative, and curtained in a ballooning burka on those rare excursions when she did leave, Mahfouz would instead bicycle around the inside perimeter of the compound, circling over and over. It was a metaphor for her days and life: going nowhere.

At one point in her very early teens, she thought that what she needed was Islamic religious devotion, and took to it with zeal, giving up the Bollywood movies, becoming ascetic. Her mother was worried: Mahfouz wasn’t herself anymore, and seemed uninterested in life.

A Window to the World

But slowly Mahfouz came to think that was not in fact the answer for her. She started to learn English, reminded of her maternal grandfather’s love of learning. “He said that learning English is like opening a window to the world beyond the mountains of Afghanistan,” she says.

Her grandfather was self-taught. For him, “learning was sacred,” Mahfouz says. “I grew up with the story of him saying he would only give up learning when he was coughing so bad or had so high a fever that he couldn’t study. These were the only two conditions that he would not study. He would say, ‘Don’t tell me that you don’t have time. If you learn one word a day, you learn 365 words a year.’”

Around this time, Mahfouz’s brother brought her a copy of Time magazine from Pakistan, which lauded the Khan Academy—a free online learning platform started by Sal Khan. Mahfouz checked it out on her laptop, and soon was obsessed with learning. She realized she liked mathematics—and that she needed to start at the beginning, with kindergarten addition and subtraction, from which she moved up quickly.

“If I want something, I feel stuck if I don’t get it,” she says. “When I am learning, unlike some people who say they are going to study for an hour, I have to learn the whole thing, even if it takes me many hours. And if I go to sleep, I’m going to be thinking about the thing when I wake up. It takes my whole brain space.”

She soaked up Khan Academy math and science videos—often at dial-up speeds on the Afghan internet. As her teenage years marched on, and she saw other girls matched with husbands by their parents, she anxiously realized that she had to leave the country.

Overcoming All the Odds

That was no easy task. There were obstacles everywhere she turned, but she was persistent. “I’m a really stubborn person,” she says.

In Defiant Dreams, Mahfouz details all those difficulties. She and her co-author Kapoor create constant tension on the page as one avenue after another is blocked. She had to get to Karachi in neighboring Pakistan to take the SAT, despite not being able to officially sign up for it in advance; she had to overcome American embassy personnel who instantly dismissed her first visa application. She beat the odds and got a special visa to study in the U.S., with help from many friends and acquaintances along the way.

Mahfouz began her American life at an Iowa community college, soon transferred to Arizona State University, and met supportive professors there who took her under their wings. When she was attending a 2019 CalTech summer fellowship for undergraduates in quantum information, she met Peter Love, a professor in the Tufts Department of Physics and Astronomy and Department of Computer Science who was there on sabbatical. They started talking at lunches, and Love was impressed.

“It was clear from our discussions that she was interested in working here and that she would benefit from being at Tufts and would contribute to the work of my group,” says Love.

She stayed in touch, and joined Love’s quantum computing team in 2020. “She does theoretical work in quantum information, focused on using quantum computers to study other physical systems,” says Love. “She coauthored one paper with myself and my graduate students and is completing a paper where she has taken control of the project. She calculates how expensive particular quantum algorithms are for example problems and works on improvements to these algorithms.”

Love is certainly impressed with Mahfouz. “Obviously she is one of the most determined and undeterred people I have encountered in research,” he says. “Her approach and way of thinking about physics come from a completely different experience than any other student. Her experience of being actively forbidden from studying and resisting, that gives her qualities of independence that are much stronger than usual.”

In addition to dedication to her research work, she has focused on writing—not just her memoir Defiant Dreams, but creative writing now, too.

“I’ve already started working on a novel while doing research here,” she says. It focuses on her native land. “I think Afghanistan is creatively unexplored—there are so many stories that need to be told.”

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