The World Famous “Afghan Girl” Makes Headlines as Refugee Arrested in Pakistan

Sharbat Gula captivated the world when she appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 as the "Afghan Girl"; 30 years later she remains a symbol of the refugee crisis.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Fair use/NADRA

The “Afghan Girl” became a worldwide phenomenon when she appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic. Just 12 years old, she had searing green eyes that pierced the soul, speaking of knowledge and wisdom untold. Photographed by Steve McCurry in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan, the girl was stripped of her name and her history, reduced to a symbol of propaganda in the Cold War.

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The “Afghan Girl” became “the most recognized photograph” in the history of the magazine, catapulting McCurry to new heights of fame. Described as “The First World’s Third World Mona Lisa,” the portrait became emblematic of the West’s approach to the refugee crisis, using beauty and suffering to drive newsstand sales.

The identity of the “Afghan Girl’ was unknown until 2002, when a National Geographic team traveled to Afghanistan to locate her. She was found in a remote region of her native land after leaving a refugee camp in 1992, where she was identified as Sharbat Gula, then age 30. There she saw the photograph for the very first time.

On October 26, Gula has made headlines once again when she was arrested in Pakistan by the Federal Intelligence Agency for living in the country using forged documents. She was arrested with two men, said to be her sons, and faces up to 14 years in prison and a fine of $5,000 if convicted. Gula was released on bail today, October 30.

In this handout photograph released by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Sharbat Gula, the ‘Afghan Girl’ who appeared on the cover of a 1985 edition of National Geographic magazine, waits ahead of a court hearing in Peshawar. (AFP PHOTO/ FIA)

In this handout photograph released by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Sharbat Gula, the ‘Afghan Girl’ who appeared on the cover of a 1985 edition of National Geographic magazine, waits ahead of a court hearing in Peshawar. (AFP PHOTO/ FIA)

“I think I will have to review this case because she is a woman and we should see it from a humanitarian angle,” Pakistan Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said at a press conference today.

Gula has been a refugee since the age of six, when her parents were killed by the Soviet Union’s bombing of Afghanistan. She, her brother, three sisters, and grandmother walked across the mountains to Pakistan and ended up in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp, where McCurry took her photograph.

She returned to her village in Afghanistan after the Taliban came to power, and lived there until she was forced to become a refugee once more. Today, she is one of 2.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, part of a group that has become unwelcome as politicians associate their presence with crime and terrorism. According to U.N. data, approximately 370,000 Afghan refugees have been deported from Pakistan since the beginning of the year, as Pakistan’s crackdown intensified, following the 2014 Peshawar school massacre.

In order to live in Pakistan, Gula obtained a computerized national identity card, a document she should not have been able to acquire as a foreign national. In 2015, local Pakistani newspapers published her photo from the document, which opened a lengthy investigation that resulted in last Wednesday’s arrest. Authorities suggest that Gula obtained a fake card in 1988, and a computerized one in 2014.

Omar Zakhiwal, who has been pursuing the case, announced on his official Facebook page, said that a court in Peshawar will hear the case on November 1, “in which we expect Sharbat Gula to be released.”

Update:

Sharbat Gula and her four children were deported from Pakistan on Monday, November 14, back to her native Afghanistan.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.