The Tragic Case of the Afghan Girl

Sharbat Bibi or Sharbat Gula, two names many people have never heard before. Yet her face is one the most recognisable images of the 21st century. Her sobriquet the ‘Afghan Girl’ is more likely to invoke the famous image than her actual name; there is a reason for this. Her name was not known by the photographer, Steve McCurry, until 17 years after the image was burned onto the Kodachrome film he was using whilst photographing at a refugee camp in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was National Geographic - the magazine which first published the famous portrait - which flew McCurry to Pakistan years later in search of the “green eyed girl.”

The original portrait taken on a Nikon FM2 and Nikon 105mm Ai-S F2.5 lens.

The life of an icon is often tragic; the case of Sharbat Gula is no exception, when she was six her parents were killed by soviet bombs which regularly desecrated entire villages. Sharbat, with her brother, six sisters and grandmother fled Afghanistan on foot to Pakistan, traversing snow covered mountains, begging for blankets, and hiding in caves from the ominous sound of planes. The arduous journey ended at Nasir Bagh, a refugee camp just outside Peshawar, the camp in which her portrait was taken.

The follow up portrait of of Sharbut shows a face coarsened by hardship, however, through her leathery complexion those familiar eyes pierce you with their gaze. The reunion of the photographer with his subject was a quiet one, Sharbut, obeying strict religious tradition, did not look at McCurry; It is interesting to note that it was only through McCurry's lens that he was able to observe and capture the full expression of her face. 

During National Geographic’s investigation they found that Sharbat had returned to Afghanistan to live the sedentary life that is typical of her clan. Sharbat belongs to the Pashtun tribe, an agricultural warrior clan who made an exodus to Afghanistan between the 13th and 14th centuries. In the mountains of Tora Bora - infamously known as Osama bin Laden’s lair-style headquarters - Sharbat forged a life of worship, modesty and of nurture towards her three children. At a young age Sharbat’s religious lifestyle would’ve compelled her to complete a tradition know as ‘purdah’, an almost monastic tradition that forces young girls, during puberty, into a life of seclusion. Also, as per religious tradition, her marriage was arranged at a tender age. (Sharbat claims she remembers being married at age 13, however her husband insists it was 16). Continuing the theme of modesty, Sharbat's husband worked as a baker in Pakistan earning a pitiful wage, the equivalent of one dollar a day, and with this he managed to raise three children. Again continuing a theme, this time of tragedy, her husband died leaving her to raise her three children alone.

In late 2016 I was travelling on my usual tube journey, when I glanced over someones shoulder at a copy of the morning Metro newspaper; I straight away recognised that famous portrait. On further inspection it transpired that Sharbat's narrative of hardship had thickened.  According to Pakistani officials Sharbat was arrested for carrying false identity papers which aren't issued to foreign nationals and she could face the sizeable sentence of 14 years in prison and an addition fine of $5,000.  After a failed attempt by her lawyers to get her released on bail, she was hospitalised with the same disease which killed her husband, hepatitis C.

It must be remembered that Sharbat's case is by no means exceptional; she is one of legions of refugees displaced from their homes by disease, conflict and poverty. However, to us these people are faceless, in Sharbat's case we can stare at her as she stares back at us, all thanks to the fleeting click of a camera's shutter. Her green eyed stare, unbeknown to her, would become iconic; a symbol, not just of the plight of refugees fleeing Afghanistan, but of refugees in general. Nobody, not even Sebastiao Salgado (a photographer who dedicated a whole project to the migrations of peoples in the third world) managed to capture an image that encapsulates what it is to be a refugee than this simple portrait of a young girl.