Targeting the Distant Future

Photo of a young woman dressed in hot-pink and black athletic gear with a golf club resting above her shoulder after making a swing
Ashley McCabe
Shagufa Habibi, IBS MA’23

I was born in Afghanistan in 1995, a year before the Taliban came to power. The youngest of 11 children, I lived in fear, even as a little girl, of men in black robes with scary faces. They wanted to crush girls’ dreams.

Our family was poor. Though I was too young to understand poverty, I could feel my parents’ pain. My father, who became disabled during the Soviet-Afghan War, was unable to work. After each meal, he worried about finding the next one. He was a very strict and religious man, and I was too scared to ask him why he worried so much.

My head was full of questions when the mujahedeen came to Herat, my home city, in 2001 and seized power from the Taliban. I had no idea what was going on; I heard only the word “war.” My mother, my siblings and I had to quickly escape to a village, leaving my father behind to protect our house from looting.

After a few months, we returned to Herat. The Taliban were gone. A few weeks later, I saw young girls wearing black dresses and white scarves — a school uniform. They were learning to read and write. One of my sisters asked my father to allow us to go to school, but he considered it shameful for girls to be educated.

So my older sisters secretly enrolled me in school. Happy to hold a pencil and write the alphabet, I soaked up my studies. I was usually the earliest one to arrive at school and became the top student from second grade onward. I would run home after school and happily show my mother and brothers my grades.

Still, Afghanistan’s conservative culture and widespread poverty were powerful obstacles to girls’ happiness. For poor families like mine, the bride price — the money a groom’s family gives to their future in-laws — was seen as the solution. My family thought grades were just numbers. They would say, “What will these grades give you when you become a wife?” But I knew my grades were not just numbers. They were the result of hard work and dedication to my future.

One day, I was walking home from school, my heart filled with pain and hopelessness because marriage was looming. As I passed the Herat soccer stadium, I saw a sign for golf lessons. For some reason, I signed up — secretly — to learn to play. The moment I grabbed a golf club, targeted the distant flag and focused on the ball, I felt peace.

Golf motivated me to think differently about my family and increased my enthusiasm for education even more. It inspired me not to give up on my future. Golf was the turning point in my life. I saw that my dream of education was exactly like aiming a golf ball toward a hole. No matter how distant the flag, I was determined to hit the ball straight. No matter how challenging my life, I would fight for my education and my freedom.

One year later, in 2015, I played on the Afghan golf team in an international tournament in Bangladesh. Several months after that, I won a full scholarship to study economics in Bangladesh at Asian University for Women.

Then I turned 16. My family engaged me to a man more than twice my age. Though I was not ready to be a wife, I was married later that year. I fled his home several times. Every time, my family would send me back to him, until finally they let me stay with them. No matter how much the marriage weighed on me, I was determined never to give up golf. Every practice session — all of which I undertook secretly — encouraged me to plan my future.

Eventually, I managed to get out of the marriage and finished my undergraduate studies in Bangladesh in 2019.

I knew I had to leave Afghanistan to continue my graduate education. I wanted freedom. I wanted to find answers to my childhood questions about poverty. It was not an easy decision to leave my country, my family and my friends. But my brothers would never accept that I had escaped marriage, and thwarted cultural and societal expectations.

My educational journey brought me to Brandeis, where I found a great mentor, as well as love, care and support from kind godmothers and families who are excited about my solo odyssey.

After I graduate, I want to help end child marriage around the world, and increase women’s pursuit of sport, education, leadership and financial independence.

Life starts as an empty cup. But with determination and hard work, it can be filled with love, hope and opportunity.

Shagufa Habibi is pursuing a master’s in international economics and finance (with a concentration in data analytics) at Brandeis International Business School.