Cover Photography: Steve McCurry and the “Afghan Girl” | Photo © Bente Haarstad Photography
June 1985: The image of a young Afghan woman with intense green eyes in a red headscarf makes the cover of the National Geographic Magazine. The portrait was taken in 1984 by the amazing photojournalist and visual storyteller, Steve McCurry. Compared with Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of Mona Lisa, the portrait has been called “the First World’s Third World Mona Lisa” and it became a symbol of refugee girl / woman in a distant camp.
1990s: Steve McCurry made several unsuccessful attempts during the 1990s to find the Afghan Girl.
January 2002: A National Geographic team traveled to Afghanistan, in a new attempt to locate the young woman who had become the most recognized photo in the history of National Geographic. Steve McCurry found out that the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan (where he had taken the photo back in 1984) was soon to close, so he went on site, showing the 1984 photo to the remaining residents. Initially several women erroneously identified themselves as the “Afghan Girl”, some men mistakenly identified her as their wife. Steve McCurry and the National Geographic team continued the search and following the leads they finally identified the woman in the photo as Sharbat Gula, aka Sharbat Bibi (born March 20, 1972). Sharbat Gula was a 12 years old girl when Steve McCurry had taken her photo in 1984, she was now a 30 years old young woman. Sharbat Gula had returned to her native country from the refugee camp in 1992.
The life of Sharbat Gula: Pashtun by ethnicity, her parents were killed during the Soviet Union’s bombing of Afghanistan when she was around six years old. Along with her grandmother and siblings she walked across the mountains to Pakistan and reached the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in 1984. She married Rahmat Gul between the age of 13 and 16, and returned to her village in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s.
2015/2016: In 2015, local newspapers in Pakistan reported that the National Database and Registration Authority canceled the Computerized National Identity Card to Sharbat Bibi and two men listed as her sons. Reports claimed the national ID cards had been issued illegally. A NADRA source is quoted as saying “They may not be her sons but this is a common practice among Afghan refugees whereby they list names of non-relatives as their children to obtain documents.” A relative stated that the family lives in Pakistan, but “We travel between Pakistan and Afghanistan depending on the security situation.” (Wikipedia)
On 26 October 2016, Gula was arrested in Pakistan by the Federal Investigation Agency for living in the country using forged documents. She was sentenced to fifteen days in detention.
Steve McCurry has never given up on his “Afghan Girl”. He raised public awareness online and offline and his heartfelt messages traveled the world:
October 26, 2016: “Two hours ago, I got word from a friend in Peshawar, Pakistan, that Sharbat Gula has been arrested. We are doing everything we can to get the facts by contacting our colleagues and friends in the area. I am committed to doing anything and everything possible to provide legal and financial support for her and her family. I object to this action by the authorities in the strongest possible terms. She has suffered throughout her entire life, and her arrest is an egregious violation of her human rights.” Steve McCurry
October 27, 2016: “Sharbat Gula has been the symbol of refugees for decades. Now she has become the face of unwanted migrants. As a widow, she has endeavored to raise her four children alone. She represents all brave women and men who will endure any pain and hardship to protect the most precious thing they have – their children. In the past few hours, we have made contact with a prominent human rights attorney in Pakistan, who will take her case. We urge the international community to speak out on her behalf and the millions of others who simply need a place to live without fear.” Steve McCurry
October 28, 2016: Update on Sharbat Gula from Afghan Ambassador in Pakistan, Dr Omar Zakhilwal (as posted by Steve McCurry on Facebook): “Our legal team in Peshawar continued to meet with the relevant legal departments in Peshawar today about Sharbat Gula’s arrest case. A hearing has now been set by Peshawar court for next Tuesday (Nov 1) in which we expect Sharbat Gula to be released. Meanwhile, I called Mr. Sartaj Aziz, Advisor to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs regarding Sharbat Gula and followed that with a formal letter. Below are some key points of our conversation:
The arrest in Peshawar of Sharbat Gula, one of the world’s most recognized and famous and Afghanistan’s most beloved image has deeply saddened all Afghans without exception and has hurt their emotions. […]
We the Afghan government would then facilitate Sharbat Gula as well as her family’s immediate repatriation back to Afghanistan in dignity, and support her to resettle in her own country. In fact, just prior to her arrest she had sold her small house and was getting ready to return to Afghanistan anyway. […]
I also added that in 2002 when Sharbat Gula was rediscovered by the National Geographic and made headlines worldwide again, she along with her family received offers of resettlement in many Western countries but her preference was to continue to “live in an Islamic country”, and therefore stayed put in Pakistan. […]
I also would like to thank all Civil Society and Human rights groups in Pakistan for the outpouring of their support and their going to court and the police in Peshawar to help out with Sharbat Gula’s case. While these sentiments are greatly appreciated, I would humbly request them if they would allow only the designated legal team to represent Sharbat Gula. Should we need your legal services we would certainly contact you.” Full text here.
October 31, 2016: “Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan says that as a first step Sharbat Gula should be freed on bail.” Steve McCurry
October 31, 2016, later that day: “It is our understanding from good sources in Peshawar, Pakistan, that she will be released tomorrow, Tuesday. We should all continue to press the officials to not only release her, but to treat her and her family with the utmost dignity, care, and respect as she prepares to make many important decisions which will affect her children in so many ways, including the continuation of their education.” Steve McCurry
November 1, 2016: “We are advised that the lawyers from both sides have made their arguments, and the Judge has reserved the judgement until tomorrow, Wednesday. We hope and pray that the Judge will allow release on bail.” Steve McCurry
November 2, 2016: “Sharbat Gula has been the symbol of refugees for decades. Now she has become the face of unwanted migrants. The officials in Peshawar, Pakistan, have denied bail for Sharbat. As a widow, she has endeavored to raise her four children alone. She represents all brave women and men who will endure any pain and hardship to protect the most precious thing they have – their children. We will continue to do everything and anything we can to secure Sharbat’s release.”
November 3, 2016: “The Daily Times of Pakistan is reporting on a press conference by the Afghan Ambassador in an article by reporter Arshad Yusufzai, <bail request was rejected by the court but thankfully she is not in the prison as the authorities have provided her with a hospital room, where she is free to meet her children besides getting treatment for hepatitis C, the disease that had snatched her husband and her young daughter a few years back>, Dr Zakhilwal informed the media.” We have set up a special fund where 100% of the donations will go towards Sharbat Gula, and other Afghan widows who are attempting to return to Afghanistan. We will now be accepting donations through our non-profit organization, ImagineAsia.” Steve McCurry
November 4, 2016: <With utmost delight, I announce that Sharbat Gula is now free from the legal troubles she endured over the past couple of weeks. She soon will also be free from an uncertain life of a refugee as she will be on her way back to her own country as soon as next Monday where she still is a beloved image and a national icon. She will be met by President Ashraf Ghani upon her arrival to welcome her back home and help her with her resettlement. I take this opportunity to thank all those who voiced their support and sympathy to the case of Sharbat Gula. This includes prominent as well as ordinary people within the Government, civil society, Peshawar Court and FIA office, media and the public in large. You all played a significant role resulting in today’s good news.> Dr Omar Zakhilwal, Afghanistan Ambassador to Pakistan.
Upon arrival, Sharbat will meet President Ghani in Kabul, and will be given the keys to her new house. “THANK YOU everyone for your support, your contributions and your concern.” Steve McCurry
November 9, 2016: “We are overjoyed that Sharbat Gula has now returned to Afghanistan. Our sources are telling us that His Excellency, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, has presented her with an apartment key in the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. This picture shows Mrs. Rula Ghani, the First Lady of Afghanistan, embracing Sharbat Gula. We thank everyone around the world who helped to make this possible.” Steve McCurry