Afghanistan

Sharbat Gula biography: 13 things about Pashtun orphan who graced National Geographic cover twice

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Sharbat Gula is an Afghan woman living in Italy. Born in Nangarhar, Afghanistan to a Pashtun family, she has three sisters and a brother named Kashar Khan.

Gula is the woman in the National Geographic photo titled “Afghan Girl.” Here are 13 more things about her:

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  1. In 1978, her parents were killed as Soviet helicopters attacked her village in Afghanistan. She, her four siblings and their grandmother fled to the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan.
  2. In 1984, National Geographic photojournalist Steve McCurry, then 34, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States photographed her and other girls while she was attending an informal school at the Nasir Bagh refugee camp amid the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. McCurry did not know her name until they were reunited in 2002.
  3. Without her knowledge, her photo McCurry took in 1984 appeared on the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic. The photo was titled “Afghan Girl.” In 1985, she and Rahmat Gul got married. He was a baker. She gave birth to their daughters Robin Gula in 1989, Zahid Gula in 1999 and Alyan Gula in 2001. They had another daughter who died shortly after birth. They also have a son.
  4. In 1992, she returned to Afghanistan.
  5. In January 2002, a National Geographic team led by McCurry travelled to Afghanistan to find her. After encountering several women falsely claiming to be her and several men erroneously claiming to be married to her, the team tracked her down in the mountains of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. It was the first time she saw the “Afghan Girl” photo and learned about National Geographic’s June 1985 cover.
  6. She graced the cover of National Geographic again in April 2002. According to the magazine, she does not know her exact age but she was likely 28, 29 or 30 when McCurry found her in January 2002. She told the magazine she married Gul when she was 13 but he said she was 16 at the time.
  7. In 2012, her husband died from hepatitis C. In the same year, poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg, then 41, of Tacoma, Washington, USA started composing a work inspired by her. In 2017, the New England Review published the work titled “Afghan Girl.”
  8. In April 2014, she allegedly applied for an identity card in Pakistan using the name Sharbat Bibi.
  9. In 2015, Finnish metal band Nightwish dedicated an instrumental work to her titled “The Eyes of Sharbat Gula,” which was included in the band’s eighth studio album titled “Endless Forms Most Beautiful.”
  10. On October 26, 2016, she was arrested in Pakistan by the country’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for holding fake identity papers. After learning her arrest, McCurry took to Instagram to share the “Afghan Girl” photo. In the caption, he wrote in part, “I am committed to doing anything and everything possible to provide legal and financial support for her and her family.” After spending 15 days in prison and eight days in the hospital, she was deported to Afghanistan where the government promised to take care of her family housing, education and health.
  11. In January 2017, she told BBC that the “Afghan Girl” photo created more problems than benefits and made her famous but also led to her imprisonment. However, she said she was proud that the income from the photo helped many widows and orphans. She repeated that she was 13 years old when she got married and she was 10 years old when McCurry photographed her in 1984.
  12. She was 45 years old when she received a 3,000-square-foot house and a $700 per month stipend for living and medical costs from the Afghan government in November 2017, according to National Geographic.
  13. On November 25, 2021, it was confirmed that Italy’s prime minister Mario Draghi granted her refugee status and she has arrived in Rome, Italy.
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