Meet Sul­tana, the Tal­iban’s worst fear


Of all the stu­dents pre­par­ing to go to col­lege this fall, per­haps none have faced a more haz­ardous jour­ney than a young woman named Sul­tana. One mea­sure of the haz­ard is that I’m not dis­clos­ing her last name or home­town for fear that she might be shot.

Sul­tana lives in the Tal­iban heart­land of south­ern Afghanistan, and when she was in the fifth grade a del­e­ga­tion vis­ited her home to warn her fa­ther to pull her out of school, or else she would have acid flung in her face. Ever since, she has been largely con­fined to her high-walled fam­ily com­pound – in which she has se­cretly, and per­ilously, ed­u­cated her­self.

“I’m un­stop­pable,” Sul­tana laughs, and it’s true: She taught her­self English from oc­ca­sional news­pa­pers or mag­a­zines that her broth­ers brought home, in con­junc­tion with a Pashto-English dic­tionary that she pretty much in­haled. When her busi­ness­man fa­ther con­nected the house to the in­ter­net, she was able to vault over her com­pound walls.

“I sur­rounded my­self with English, all day,” she told me by Skype. To­day her English is flu­ent, as good as that of some Afghan in­ter­preters I’ve used.

Once she had mas­tered English, Sul­tana says, she tack­led al­ge­bra, then ge­om­e­try and trigonom­e­try, and fi­nally cal­cu­lus BC. She rises about 5 a.m. and pro­ceeds to de­vour cal­cu­lus videos from Khan Academy, work out equa­tions, and even read about string the­ory.

Sul­tana, now 20, says she leaves her home only about five times a year – each time, she must wear a burqa and be es­corted by a close male rel­a­tive – but on­line she has been read­ing books on physics and tak­ing cour­ses on edX and Cours­era. I can’t in­de­pen­dently ver­ify ev­ery­thing Sul­tana says, but her story gen­er­ally checks out. Af­ter read­ing a book on as­tro­physics by Lawrence M. Krauss, a the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist at Ari­zona State Univer­sity, she reached him by Skype, and he says he was blown away when this Afghan ele­men­tary school dropout be­gan ask­ing him pen­e­trat­ing ques­tions about as­tro­physics.

“It was a sur­real con­ver­sa­tion,” Krauss said. “She asked very intelligent ques­tions about dark mat­ter.”

Krauss has be­come one of Sul­tana’s ad­vo­cates, along with Emily Roberts, an un­der­grad­u­ate at the Univer­sity of Iowa who signed up for a lan­guage pro­gram called Con­ver­sa­tion Ex­change and con­nected with Sul­tana.

By Skype, Emily and Sul­tana be­came fast friends, and soon they were chat­ting daily. Moved by Sul­tana’s seem­ingly unattain­able dream of be­com­ing a physics pro­fes­sor, Emily be­gan ex­plor­ing what it would take for Sul­tana to study in the United States.

With Emily’s help, Sul­tana has been ac­cepted by a com­mu­nity col­lege in Iowa, with a commitment by Ari­zona State Univer­sity to take her as a trans­fer stu­dent a year later. Emily started a web­site, let­sul­, to raise money for Sul­tana’s univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion.

Sul­tana 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 Sul­tana is Shake­speare’s sis­ter. Yet it’s also clear that in­ter­net con­nec­tions can some­times be a game changer.

Sul­tana’s fam­ily is wary of her pas­sion for ed­u­ca­tion but sur­ren­ders to her de­ter­mi­na­tion. “My mom said a lot of mouths will be open, a sin­gle girl go­ing to the Chris­tian world,” she said. “But I will die if they stop me.”

Un­for­tu­nately, the United States isn’t help­ing. Last month, the US Em­bassy in Kabul re­jected her ap­pli­ca­tion for a stu­dent visa. That hap­pens all the time: Bril­liant young men and women are ac­cepted by Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties and then de­nied visas be­cause, un­der US law, they are seen as im­mi­gra­tion risks.

(As a Mus­lim, Sul­tana would also be barred by Don­ald Trump’s pro­posed ban on Mus­lims. I asked her what she thought of Trump, and all she would say, with quiet dig­nity, was: “He thinks all Mus­lims are bad. It’s painful.”)

Michelle Obama has pushed an im­pres­sive cam­paign called Let Girls Learn, yet her hus­band’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has never seemed as en­thu­si­as­tic, and Amer­ica rou­tinely de­nies visas that would ac­tu­ally let girls learn. The United States spends bil­lions of dol­lars fight­ing ter­ror­ism by blow­ing things up; I wish we un­der­stood that some­times the most ef­fec­tive weapon against ter­ror­ists isn’t a drone but a girl with a book.

The Tal­iban un­der­stand this: That’s why their fight­ers shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. If only we were as cleareyed as the Tal­iban about the power of girls’ ed­u­ca­tion to trans­form so­ci­eties.

Sul­tana now spends her days work­ing on cal­cu­lus equa­tions, lis­ten­ing to Bon Jovi and do­ing house­hold chores while lis­ten­ing to the BBC or self-help au­dio­books. It also turns out that she is a long­time New York Times reader and gets my email news­let­ter. She’s now work­ing her way through more se­ri­ous read­ing: Kant’s “Cri­tique of Pure Rea­son.”

Sul­tana has set up an­other ap­point­ment for a visa, for June 13. It won’t be Sul­tana who is tested but US pol­icy it­self. I’ll let you know what hap­pens.

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