Meet Sultana, the Taliban’s Worst Fear

Jun 5, 2016

By Nicholas Kristof

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.


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15 comments on “Meet Sultana, the Taliban’s Worst Fear

  • 1
    Cairsley says:

    I do not know how the US officials in Kabul investigate applicants for visas, but surely they investigate enough to see that Sultana’s is an exceptional case worthy of a favorable decision. Good luck to her and her second visa application!



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  • Her strength is inspiring. I would like to trade her for Trump?
    If the USA can’t help her, that will be a failure of this country that won’t be forgotten.

    This is why immigrants made the USA strong in the past. People who had to endure this kind of everyday punishment and still excelled are perhaps our greatest strength. We need a nation/world full of people like her.



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  • alf

    I agree. If the US won’t give her a visa it will be a great loss. I hope she will apply to another Western country if the US stupidly blocks her from here.



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  • alf1200 #4
    Jun 6, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    Her strength is inspiring. I would like to trade her for Trump?

    Perhaps a three way arrangement!

    USA can offer her a visa and a university scholarship, while Trump can be appointed as Honorary Lord-High US Consul to North Korea, – (strictly on the understanding that they keep him secure for citizen viewing, as an example of a degenerate capitalist!) – where he has bragged he wishes to show off his “superior negotiating skills”!



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  • Alf @ # 6.

    Stafford #2 “Is this one of those “chicken or egg” questions?”

    I’m not quite sure what prompted your question, but no.

    I know what came first in that case; the egg.

    Because no egg could have carried a chicken until after innumerable generations of breeding had taken place to transform the Red Junglefowl into the domestic bird with which we are all now so familiar.

    All previous eggs could only have carried intermediary stage prototype chickens.

    I having a smart ass day!



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  • Stafford Gordon #9
    Jun 7, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    Because no egg could have carried a chicken until after innumerable generations of breeding had taken place to transform the Red Junglefowl into the domestic bird with which we are all now so familiar.

    OR : – Until even more numerous generations of Theropod Dinosaur had taken place to transform into birds!



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  • Stafford, I thought you meant the evolution of the “morononic ignoramuses”.
    How could they survived this long? How do they balance themselves without help?
    How did they survive the millions of years of evolution without participating?



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  • Interesting to read through the threads, as I go down I see Alf1200’s comment about the egg and the the first thing that pops into mind is I must make a comment of course it’s the egg came first, we had eggs in fish long before chickens and chickens are of course directly related via evolution. That saying has always bothered me for that reason – no offense alf1200. Then I see that at least 2 others beat me to it. This must say something about this site eh? 😉

    About the article: Just amazing. I have a year 8 class currently that I can not get moving, or motivated about science, actually slow progress, but they are just really resistant to education. I think I’ll bring her up as an example. Some people have no idea how much they take their education for granted.



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  • alf1200 #12
    Jun 7, 2016 at 11:34 pm

    Stafford, I thought you meant the evolution of the “morononic ignoramuses”.
    How could they survived this long? How do they balance themselves without help?
    How did they survive the millions of years of evolution without participating?

    If you look in the animal kingdoms, there are large herds of individuals with small brains and poor vision! They follow dominant leaders and the crowd. The weak or unlucky go to the wall with massive mortality rates and much suffering, but they breed replacements fast enough to keep pace!

    Sheep(les), oxen, and rabbits, are not noted for their brain power!



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  • Alan @ #14.

    “If you look in the animal kingdoms, there are large herds of individuals with small brains and poor vision! They follow dominant leaders and the crowd. The weak or unlucky go to the wall with massive mortality rates and much suffering, but they breed replacements fast enough to keep pace!”

    The cause and effect of religions encapsulated?



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