When most people picture their childhood, they think of running around outdoors with their friends, playing with dolls, and learning to ride a bike. When journalist and academic Shugofa Dastgeer pictures her childhood, she’s reminded of the bombs constantly exploding outside her bedroom window, the sound of gunshots erupting from every direction, and the blazing fires that burned on the streets of Afghanistan during the late 1980s.
Most of Dastgeer’s childhood was spent in her home. When she was a young girl, the Taliban had control over Afghanistan and banned girls from going to school. She could not even leave her home to explore other parts of her city, as each section was controlled by enemy warlords. Remarkably, this didn’t stop Dastgeer from getting an education. Her parents taught her how to read and write at home, and she learned mathematics from her father.
“My father was a Western-educated person, which was considered bad and unacceptable during the Taliban regime because they viewed all Westerners and Western-educated people as infidels,” she says. “They fired my father from his job. He had a small grocery store and I was helping him there.”
It wasn’t until age 16 that Dastgeer was able to get a formal education in Afghanistan. She enrolled in sixth and seventh grade at the same time, and managed to finish twelve years worth of curriculum in only four years. At age 20, She graduated high school and scored in the highest percentile on her placement exams. Traditionally, students in Afghanistan who test into the highest category go on to medical school, with the next category down studying engineering, or maybe law – needless to say, Dastgeer’s chosen field of journalism doesn’t top the list. But despite her parents’ disapproval, Dastgeer would not be deterred: she enrolled in college as a journalism student and soon got a job at Afghanistan’s most popular news station.
Within months of beginning her career, Dastgeer was hired as the station’s prime time newscaster, anchoring the 9 p.m. news while at the same time pursuing her undergraduate studies. Soon, she was producing, directing, and anchoring her own segments, such as “Afghanistan in 7 Days.” Although she was young with little experience, the lack of educated women in Afghanistan had led to a shortage of women in the workforce. Dastgeer pioneered her way into the industry as one of the first prominent women in broadcast news. However, her workplace success came at a price: while in university, Dastgeer escaped two kidnapping attempts from men who didn’t approve of her lifestyle.
“Some people (in Afghanistan) don’t want women to be free and do whatever they want. They want women to be in traditional positions of wife, mother, sister. I was so independent. I didn’t care much about what people expected me to be or do. I was doing whatever I thought was right,” she says.
To this day, Dastgeer attributes her career to luck and excellent timing. While she could have taken the path of her older sisters, both married by age 15 and now mothers to teenagers, Dastgeer managed to remain independent. She graduated from Kabul University at the top of her class, and in 2011 earned a Fulbright scholarship to pursue her master’s degree the University of Oklahoma.
Before coming to the U.S. in 2011, Dastgeer even managed to teach herself English. She tried to take English classes at home, but her success as a newscaster had made the task nearly impossible. Even while wearing a niqab, she was recognized by her voice when she was in public. “The students and professors were treating me so differently and I didn’t like that,” she says. “They would bring me breakfast in class because they knew who I was. I wanted to be a student and learn and work hard and compete, but I was treated so different so I stopped going to those English classes and started teaching myself. I watched a lot of movies. I read a lot of English news.”
Despite her popularity and fame, Dastgeer decided to leave it all behind to pursue an American education. Although she wanted to leave home, the transition period was anything but easy. “I became so isolated,” she says. “I came from somewhere where everyone knew my name to somewhere where nobody could even pronounce it.”
But as the months turned into years, Dastgeer began to like living in America. She completed her Master’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, is currently in the final semester of a PhD in News and Information, and has already landed her first academic job: Associate Professor of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She hopes that while working in academia, she can help develop a business model to aid journalistic institutions struggling to make money in the digital era. “Journalism is a profession where learning doesn’t stop, and I want to be one of those who never stops learning,” she says.