- Associated Press - Monday, May 22, 2017

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) - In the midst of Afghanistan’s civil war in the ‘90s, Shugofa Dastgeer and her family traveled south from their increasingly devastated home city of Kabul.

When they fled the capital, Dastgeer said her college-educated father brought along something that proved very valuable: papers. Her mother and father used them to create makeshift notebooks, so she and her siblings could continue their writing and reading. They had to write, erase, and write again, constantly taking care to not tear away precious strips of paper that were, at the time, irreplaceable.

“People couldn’t afford food and clean water. Paper was something people didn’t think about at that time and in that place,” Dastgeer, who is set to receive her doctoral degree in mass communications at the University of Oklahoma this fall, said. “In that situation, my family was so into educating us, it’s something I appreciate.”

Thanks to the support from her family and the determination to chase her dreams of becoming a news anchor, Dastgeer overcame war-torn surroundings, Taliban rule, a U.S. invasion, and societal views on women in education and the workplace to be where she is today. Before she was 16, it was against the law for her and other Afghan girls like her to go to school.

“To me it still looks like yesterday when I started,” she told The Norman Transcript (http://bit.ly/2pTACwY ). “I still remember my first day when I went to school. One thing I feel is I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, but I think people can do more than that if they try hard, if they have the opportunity. I still feel like I can do more.”

Born and raised in Afghanistan, Dastgeer’s father was always supportive of her education. He was an academic himself and had a seemingly secure job with the Red Cross.

Then in 1996, following a civil war, the Taliban rose to power. Dastgeer said her father was fired because he had received a western-style education, something the regime considered an action of an infidel.

“I grew up in Kabul city, pretty much in a good part of Kabul,” she said. “Unfortunately, the whole city was destroyed in war. From 1991 to 1995, the city was burned. There was no electricity, no water, no schools.”

The Taliban quickly imposed their version of fundamental Islamic law, and that included banning women from obtaining an education. Women were not even allowed to go out in public alone, though Dastgeer was still young enough to be considered a child.

This allowed her to go and work in her family’s shop alongside her father, which helped keep a steady flow of income going for the family.

“I was homeschooled, and I was pretty much good at being able to read and write,” she said. “I learned a lot, and I was reading the books and magazines in my father’s library. I was dreaming about going to school, and going to university, but I had no idea what it would look like. There was no way to get that.”

It was at this time Dastgeer also began to dream about journalism. During the war and subsequent Taliban rule, media outlets like the BBC and Voice of America were the only ones available, and her family would listen to the broadcasts and talk highly of the reporters.

“From that time, my dream was to become a journalist,” she said. “I was hearing from my mom and my sisters talking about news anchors, and I was dreaming to become one of those.”

In 2001, the bombs came again, this time from the U.S. and its military coalition as it moved to occupy Afghanistan, exile the Taliban and take down Al Qaeda following the Sept. 11 attacks. While the explosions were scary, Dastgeer said it was satisfying to know the oppressive regime would soon come to an end.

And for her, school could finally begin. Dastgeer said the Taliban used old school buildings around her neighborhood for prisons, and that by the time she was able to attend her first class, the school was so bombed out that it lacked even chairs to sit in.

So on a plastic mat, on a floor in war-torn Kabul, a teenage Dastgeer began her academic journey. It didn’t slow her down; she fit 12 years worth of education into four and ranked in the highest percentile of her grade in placement exams when she was 19.

Essentially, she could now go anywhere.

Her father wanted her to use the new found freedom to go to medical school. So she said it was hard for him to accept her decision to study journalism at Kabul University, but it was her dream.

“I wanted to do whatever I thought was right,” Dastgeer said. “I could see the need for a journalist like me in Afghanistan.”

Soon after college courses began, Dastgeer secured a job at Tolo TV, one of Afghanistan’s largest television networks. She started as a newsreader and appeared regularly at 9 p.m., and soon she was reporting in the field and producing news segments, something women in Afghan journalism rarely get the chance to do.

Adversity still followed.

Some of the more conservative Afghans took issue with a woman appearing on TV and being a news anchor. Even some of Dastgeer’s family strongly objected, she said. Sometimes, her father would call to tell her not to come home and stay with her sister so she didn’t have to confront angry family members.

Dastgeer said she heard some people had offered to provide her brother with a gun, because he would be doing the family well to shoot and kill her. She was almost kidnapped by groups of men upset by her career ambitions, and even some of her friends suggested it would be better for her to die than to face what the kidnappers had in store for her. Afghanistan’s national security officials even got involved in keeping her safe.

Still, she persisted. It was nothing new. Dastgeer had been fighting this battle her whole life.

“My life has been full of fighting against a lot of different ideologies and beliefs that I thought were not right and were damaging for my life, my career, and my future,” she said.

In 2011, Dastgeer graduated at the top of her class from Kabul University and obtained a Fulbright Scholarship to attend OU. She began by taking English classes but was able to start ahead of schedule; she had already been learning the language on her own.

After obtaining her doctorate, Dastgeer will take an assistant professor job at Texas Christian University, home of the Bob Schieffer College of Communication. When she looks back at how far she’s come, the struggles she’s faced, Dastgeer said she feels both pride and sadness.

After all, she’s just one of many people around the world who, due to war and oppression, faced seemingly insurmountable barriers to academic and career dreams. Many like her do not find a way out, she said.

So after some more learning and a few more steps down her own career path, helping those who think education is out of their reach might just be in Dastgeer’s future.

“One thing that bothers me is there are so many talents in my country and around the world, and there are so many people suffering through war and they are deprived of education,” she said. “I’m just one of millions of people who got out of that situation successfully. Definitely, that’s one of the things in my future. It can be anywhere, but Afghanistan will be one of my priorities.”

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Information from: The Norman Transcript, http://www.normantranscript.com

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