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How one girl secretly defied Afghanistan's education ban

When Sola Mahfouz was 11, men threatened to throw acid in her face if she continued her education. But she was determined to escape that life.

An illustration depicting Sola Mahfouz, who defied Afghanistan's education ban

Defiant Dreams by Sola Mahfouz and Malaina Kapoor is out now (Doubleday, £16.99). Illustration: Giovanni Simoncelli

Stories of Afghanistan are often fragmented, incomplete and rife with generalisations. In the west, Afghanistan is commonly associated with Cold War politics or the events of 2001 – nothing in between. Headlines about the country can be cold and sterile. Factual reports of people killed or rights violated avoid entirely any emotion and empathy. And so a narrative grows that life as an Afghan has always meant war and victimhood. That Afghanistan is a place dramatically distant and different from the rest of the world. At some point, it becomes easier just to turn away and never start to care. 

We hope that Defiant Dreams begins to shatter these depictions and assumptions. From the first time we met, our shared goal was to tell a fuller picture of Afghanistan, coloured by the deeply personal experiences of Sola and her family. In the book, stories of violence are punctuated by the personal: a brother who went out for bread and almost didn’t return home because of a massive bombing; a young nephew unable to eat as the political future of his country suddenly reached a devastating inflection point. 

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We write about the experiences of Sola’s mother, whose own life story shines a light on a different Afghanistan, one where women and girls were afforded more freedoms. Sola’s mother was a student and then a professor at Kabul University, free to dress in skirts and to wear her hair uncovered. It was only after the Afghan civil war that she saw her liberties curbed – for the first time she only left the house covered in a burqa. We write about Sola’s female relatives who could only escape the country through arranged marriage – marriages that often took place when they were only 16. We describe the moments when the young people in her family began to really understand Afghanistan’s place in the world, to understand how much more hardship and restriction they endured than people in the US or UK. 

We also depict the beauty and lightness that can characterise life in Afghanistan – the food, fashion and opulent weddings. We write scenes from Sola’s life about the humour she and her family managed to find in moments of violence, how jokes about bombs or attacks eventually, like the war they reference, became part of the Afghan experience. 

At its heart, Defiant Dreams is about Sola’s life, and her story is one of the most compelling examples of the individualism and determination that is often missing from media coverage of Afghanistan. When Sola was 11, a group of men came to her door and threatened to throw acid in her face – or worse – if she continued her education. So from that moment on she was confined to the home, trapped within its walls as her brothers continued going to school and living freely. Eventually she only left home a handful of times a year, wrapped in a burqa that concealed her entire body from the rest of the world.  

But Sola was determined to escape this life. At the age of 16, without even the ability to add or subtract, she began to secretly educate herself. Using an extremely slow, dial-up internet connection, she accessed the online learning site Khan Academy. She progressed rapidly: in just three short years she was studying philosophy, physics, and college-level calculus. 

Eventually, Sola set her sights on a goal that seemed almost impossible: she wanted to escape Afghanistan and make it to the United States through education. The barriers she faced were almost insurmountable. For instance, she lacked any proof of her education (such as a certificate) that would allow her to apply to US colleges. She tried to get the right paperwork by visiting her local Ministry of Education, but the officials there wouldn’t even look her in the eye because she was a woman.

She then attempted to take the American GED (high school proficiency exam), but that wasn’t offered in Afghanistan or any other neighbouring countries. So the American SAT college admissions exam became her last chance. To take the test, Sola had to cross one of the most dangerous borders in the world into Pakistan, where she secured the last spot in a Karachi exam administration.

After many incredible obstacles like this one, Sola managed to make it to the United States, where she is now a researcher in quantum information at Tufts University. The true beauty in Sola’s story, and the stories of others in Defiant Dreams, is that they are deeply personal, but also emblematic of the determination and defiance that lives in young people across Afghanistan.

Today, as the Taliban continues to strip core liberties from all Afghans, Sola’s experiences and the experiences of those like her ring out as a powerful reminder of what the world stands to lose. Now more than ever, we cannot afford to return to old narratives. 

Defiant Dreams by Malaina Kapoor and Sola Mahfouz

Defiant Dreams by Sola Mahfouz and Malaina Kapoor is out now (Doubleday, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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