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 Afghanistan in 1996. That same 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 backwards 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. She decided that education would be her way out. At age sixteen, without even a basic ability to add or subtract, she began secretly to teach herself math and English. She progressed rapidly, and within just two years she was already studying topics 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.
About the Author
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.
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.
“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 all―she 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 indeed―I 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