Green-eyed Afghan Girl From Steve McCurry’s Photograph Finds Safety in Italy
The famous emerald eyed ‘Afghan Girl’ who‘s 1985 portrait plastered National Geographic June issue and eventually the entire Western World, has been evacuated to Italy following the Taliban takeover.
Eventually identified in 2002 as Sharbat Gula- a now wife and mother of three, by her photographer Steve McCurry, the refugee idol asked for help to leave Afghanistan and has been promised a new settled life in Rome.
30 years later National Geographic writes “one of the world’s most famous refugees finally has a home. A big home” a patronisingly full circle moment.
According to an FBI analyst, forensic sculptor and the inventor of iris recognition to verify her identity, documented in the 2002 Search for the Afghan Girl film, yet she was only safely housed in 2017 by the Afghanistan government. After three decades as a refugee in Pakistan and a tumultuous return to Afghanistan, she again sets off this year to Italy following the Taliban takeover.
With her piercing green eyes framed by a tattered loose red headscarf – in place of a hijab, she became a symbol for her country’s plight and refugee women at the time. Somehow the Western world was finally able to recognise the depths of the traumatic circumstances refugees were facing, when framed by a mute angelic face – quiet and conveniently beautiful – “Haunted eyes tells an Afghan refugee’s fears,” taglined the 1985 cover, yet not a word was written about Sharbat.
Recognition and fame in our world was not enough to liberate this poor Afghan refugee, who faced backlash from the stunning photo. Normally in Pashtun and Islamic culture women are not welcomed to interact with men outside their family and certainly not encouraged to be objectified and posed in front of a camera by them.
The picture was published without her or her fathers consent and her refugee family continued to receive no benefits until she was identified in 2002.
Even then Sharbat proclaimed the famous photo contributed to her detriment more than anything else, she was arrested in 2016 for Fraudulent activity and eventually deported from Pakistan, where she originally fled, to Afghanistan after being imprisoned for two weeks.
Due to this unwanted spotlight Sharbat remained a target for conservative Afghans who disagreed with women being shown in the media.
“This woman is a symbol to Afghans and also a symbol to Pakistan,” said Heather Barr, a researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) who worked in Afghanistan for 10 years. “The way she was paraded by Pakistan felt like humiliation of the Afghan government:
The Afghanistan government responded by welcoming her back after her deportation from Pakistan. The message was: “We can take care of our own people.”
Yet due to the recent Taliban takeover, who are notorious for disregarding women’s rights and education this security was never guaranteed.
However, Sharbat’s fame has not been completely in vain, mirroring her 1985 debut her arrival in Italy has been used to make a broader statement, as the Italian government have decided to create a programme to evacuate and integrate Afghan refugees of course starting with her.
The story of the Afghan refugee girl who I would separate from todays 49 year old mother of three Sharbat Gula, massively reflects the Western world obsession with painting pretty pictures of oppression. Despite the Taliban takeover proven to be a time of bloodshed and violence observed by those who lived there its this singular shot of an innocent refugee girl we use to pinpoint it.
On top of the fact this famous picture – named as the Afghan Mona Lisa *eyeroll*- has arguably caused more harm to the model than good. I think the Western world need to question how and why we can only engage with certain topics when it is aestheticised by the media especially a violent and sensitive matter, far from pretty.