Afghan Girl

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Sharbat Gula was the subject of Steve McCurry's Afghan Girl. The photograph was shot in December 1984.

Afghan Girl is a 1984 photographic portrait by journalist Steve McCurry. It has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Mona Lisa[1][2] and has been called "the First World's Third World Mona Lisa".[3]

The subject of the photograph was called "the Afghan Girl" by the public until she was formally identified in early 2002 as Sharbat Gula (Pashto: شربت ګله‎) (pronounced [ˈʃaɾbat]) (born ca. 1972), an Afghan woman who was living as a refugee in Pakistan during the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when she was photographed. The image brought her recognition when it was featured on the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic Magazine at a time when she was approximately 12 years old.

1985 National Geographic cover[edit]

The June 1985 National geographic issue, as it was published.

At the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in 1984, Gula's photograph was taken by National Geographic Society photographer Steve McCurry on Kodachrome 64 color slide film, with a Nikon FM2 camera and Nikkor 105mm Ai-S F2.5 lens.[4] The pre-print photo retouching was done by Graphic Art Service, based in Marietta, Georgia. Gula was one of the students in an informal school within the refugee camp; McCurry seized a rare opportunity to photograph Afghan women and captured her image.

Although her name was not known, her picture, titled Afghan Girl, appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic. The image of her face, with a red scarf draped loosely over her head and her piercing sea-green eyes staring directly into the camera, became a symbol both of the 1980s Afghan conflict and of the refugee situation worldwide. The image was named "the most recognized photograph" in the history of the magazine, and the cover itself is one of the most famous of the National Geographic.[5]

Search for the Afghan Girl[edit]

The identity of the Afghan Girl remained unknown for over 17 years; Afghanistan remained largely closed to Western media until after the removal of the Taliban government by American, international and local allies in 2001. Although McCurry made several attempts during the 1990s to locate her, he was unsuccessful.

In January 2002, a National Geographic team traveled to Afghanistan to locate the subject of the photograph that had remained in the public mind for so long. McCurry, upon learning that the Nasir Bagh refugee camp was soon to close, inquired of its remaining residents, one of whom knew Gula's brother and was able to send word to her hometown. However, there were a number of women who came forward and identified themselves erroneously as the famous Afghan Girl. In addition, after being shown the 1984 photo, a handful of young men erroneously identified Gula as their wife.

The team finally located Gula, then around the age of 30, in a remote region of Afghanistan; she had returned to her native country from the refugee camp in 1992. Her identity was confirmed by John Daugman using iris recognition.[6] She vividly recalled being photographed. She had been photographed on only three occasions: in 1984 and during the search for her when a National Geographic producer took the identifying pictures that led to the reunion with Steve McCurry. She had never seen her famous portrait before it was shown to her in January 2002.

The Afghan Girl herself[edit]

Early life[edit]

Pashtun by ethnicity, Gula's parents were killed during the Soviet Union's bombing of Afghanistan when she was around six years old. Along with her grandmother, brother, and three sisters, she walked across the mountains to Pakistan and ended up in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984.[7]

She got married to Rahmat Gul between the age of 13-16, and returned to her village in Afghanistan in the mid 1990s. Gula has three daughters. A fourth daughter died in infancy. She expressed hopes that her children will be able to get an education. A devout Muslim, Gula normally would wear a burka and was hesitant to meet with McCurry, as he was a male from outside the family. When asked if she had ever felt safe, she responded "No. But life under the Taliban was better. At least there was peace and order." Until the National Geographic team found her again, she had never seen the photo of herself as a child. When asked how she had survived, she responded that it was "the will of God".[7]

Adult life[edit]

As of 2015, she has been residing together with her sons in Nasir Bagh camp established for Afghan refugees since she moved to Peshawar in 1984.[8]

In 2015 local newspapers in Pakistan reported that the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) canceled the Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC) to Sharbat Bibi and two men listed as her sons. Reports claimed the national ID cards had been issued illegally.[8] 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."[9]


More recent pictures of Gula were featured as part of a cover story on her life in the April 2002 issue of National Geographic and she was the subject of a television documentary, entitled Search for the Afghan Girl, which aired in March 2002. In recognition of her,[10] National Geographic set up the Afghan Girls Fund, a charitable organization with the goal of educating Afghan girls and young women.[11] In 2008, the scope of the fund was broadened to include boys and the name was changed to Afghan Children's Fund.[12]

After finding Gula, National Geographic also covered the costs of medical treatment for her family, and paid for the costs of a pilgrimage to Mecca.[13]

In 2010, the South African photographer Jodi Bieber won the World Press Photo of the Year award for her photograph of Bibi Aisha, an Afghan victim of facial mutilation. In making the photograph, Bibi claimed inspiration from Afghan Girl. "For me, it was putting a moment of history in perspective. It was just one thing that added to the image", she said.[14]

In popular culture[edit]

In 2015, the Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish released their eighth album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, which included the song "The Eyes of Sharbat Gula". The six minute track is an instrumental piece with vocalizations from a children choir and an ethereal folk mood. [15]


  1. ^ Zoroya, Greg (2002-03-13). "National Geographic tracks down Afghan girl". USA Today (Gannett Company). Retrieved 2012-02-14. 
  2. ^ "Hollywood movie poster at the Kabul Cinema". Retrieved 2012-12-04. 
  3. ^ Wendy S. Hesford, Wendy Kozol, eds. (2005). Just Advocacy?: Women's Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms, and the Politics of Representation. Rutgers University Press. p. 1. ISBN 9780813535890. 
  4. ^ "Portfolio". Nikon World (Summer ed.) (Nikon) 4 (1): 9. 1988. OCLC 2265134. Archived from the original on 2012-11-27. Retrieved 2012-01-14. 
  5. ^ McCurry, Steve (10 April 2001). "National Geographic: Afghan Girl, A Life Revealed". The Washington Post (The Washington Post Company). OCLC 56914684. Archived from the original on 2012-11-27. Retrieved 2012-01-14. 
  6. ^ Daugman, John. "How the Afghan Girl was Identified by Her Iris Patterns". Retrieved 2012-01-14. 
  7. ^ a b Newman, Cathy (April 2002). "Afghan Girl: A Life Revealed". National Geographic Magazine. Retrieved 2012-01-14. 
  8. ^ a b Khaama Press (Feb 25, 2015). "Pakistan cancels National ID Card for famous Afghan Girl Sharbat Bibi". Khaama Press. Archived from the original on Feb 26, 2015. Retrieved Feb 26, 2015. 
  9. ^ Khan, Ismael (February 25, 2015). "Pakistan issues CNIC to Nat Geo's famed 'Afghan Girl'". Dawn News. Retrieved April 22, 2015. 
  10. ^ Braun, David (7 March 2003). "How They Found National Geographic's 'Afghan Girl'". National Geographic News (National Geographic Society). Retrieved 2012-01-14. 
  11. ^ "National Geographic Society: Afghan Girls Fund". National Geographic Society. August 2004. Archived from the original on 2004-12-06. Retrieved 2009-03-15. 
  12. ^ "National Geographic Society: Afghan Children's Fund". National Geographic Society. Retrieved 2012-01-14. 
  13. ^ "'Afghan girl' cameraman tells stories behind pictures". The Bosnia Times. October 30, 2013. Retrieved April 23, 2014. 
  14. ^ "Capturng Aisha". Montreal Mirror. 8 September 2011. [dead link]
  15. ^ Jarmo Lautamäki, Christian Lessner, Benedikt Deicke, Estevão Camargo. "Nightwish - The Official Website". 

Further reading[edit]

  • McCurry, Steve (2013). Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs. Phaidon Press. ISBN 978-0714864624. 

External links[edit]