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“The First World’s Third World Mona Lisa” Arrested in Pakistan for Falsifying an ID

Sharbat Gula in the women's jail of Peshawar.

Photo Courtesy of CNN

In December of 1984, American photojournalist and editorial employee, Steve McCurry, was profiling the livelihood—or, lack thereof—of the Nasir Bagh refugee encampment, residing on the outskirts of Peshawar, Afghanistan.  With Kodachrome 64 color slide film, a Nikon FM2 camera, and an 105mm Ai-S F2.5 lens in hand, McCurry developed a snapshot for the National Geographic Society that would latterly be internationally lionized as “Afghan Girl.”  

The radiant, yet hardened grassy irises, olive complexion, and tattered cinnamon headscarf of the subject were seemingly mythological following its publication to the June 1985 cover of National Geographic.  In spite of her anonymity, for McCurry had not documented her name, she revolutionized the Western understanding of conflict throughout the Middle Eastern countries.

For instance, “Interest in the photo increased after 9/11 attacks when the George W. Bush administration began using woman’s rights to help promote support for the war in Afghanistan.”

Adrian Howe and Maureen Cain, who co-edited a gender study on international law and society entitled Women, Crime, and Social Harm: Towards a Criminology for the Global Age, described McCurry’s portrait as “emblematic”, or symbolic, regarding the “Afghan Girl” herself as a, “refugee girl/woman located in some distant camp [deserving of the compassion of the Western viewer].”

The public, on the other hand, crafted a universality in recognizing her, likening her facial expression to Leonardo Da Vinci’s acclaimed classical illustration of the Mona Lisa.

As a result, the duality became a singular dynamic entity in Just Advocacy?: Women’s Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms, and the Politics of Representation, co-edited by Wendy S. Hesford and Wendy Kozol, where the “Afghan Girl” was deemed “the First World’s Third World Mona Lisa.”

However, upon the renewed January breath of 2002, following a string of exasperatingly failed endeavors by Steve McCurry to locate the model for what is considered “‘the most recognized photograph’ in the history of the magazine,” a National Geographic company determinedly ventured across the pond to Afghanistan.

“McCurry, upon learning that the Nasir Bagh refugee camp was soon to close, inquired of its remaining residents, one of whom knew [her] brother and was able to send word to her hometown.”

Thus, it was within her indigenous backwoods territory that the “Afghan Girl”—matured eighteen years into the dawn of her thirties—was at last identified as Sharbat Gula via iris recognition by British-American professor of computer vision and pattern recognition at the University of Cambridge, John Daugman.

Gula, a dutiful Muslim of Pashtun ethnicity, was uncloaked to have fulfilled the misfortune conveyed through the renowned photograph.  At what was estimated at the age of six, upon the catastrophes of the Soviet-Afghan assaults that perpetuated for nearly a decade, Gula’s parents perished within a merciless bombing.  In earnest need of sanctuary, Gula, her four siblings, and grandmother weathered the mountains of Pakistan, ultimately breaching the threshold of the Nasir Bagh refugee encampment.

Upon her engagement and union to Rahmat Gul within Gula’s early-to-mid adolescence, her homecoming to her native village was tailored within 1992.  Throughout their inhabitance, Gula would birth three daughters, a fourth succumbing in infancy, and ache for those persevering to receive an adequate education.  In spite of her multinational notoriety arising in Western society, however, Gula was oblivious to her modeled National Geographic print, only becoming privy to its existence and social observation upon cautiously greeting her shutterbug, Steve McCurry, in 2002.

In an interview, when questioned how she had outlasted her perceivably infinite trials and tribulations, Gula answered matter-of-factly that it was and had been, “the will of God.”

As her Wikipedia page states, “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, National Geographic set up the Afghan Girls Fund, a charitable organization with the goal of educating Afghan girls and young women.  In 2008, the scope of the fund was broadened to include boys and the name was changed to Afghan Children’s Fund.  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.”

Notwithstanding her newfound stature, unfortunately, Gula’s prior grief does not yet hail its curtain call in the recent 2015 and 2016 era.

“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. 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.'”

It was upon these legal charges that Gula was released; however, on October 27th, 2016, it was publicized by The New York Times journalists, Christine Hauser and Ismail Khan, that Gula was arrested on another occasion within Peshawar, Pakistan, by the Federal Intelligence Agency (FIA) for falsifying an identity card.

According to TIME Magazine, “‘[Federal investigators] along with security forces came [on Wednesday morning], entered her house, searched all belongings and took important papers, including $2,800,’ Gula’s brother in law, Shahshad Khan, told the Reuters news agency after she was moved to a prison in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. Her husband, he said, died five years ago, adding: ‘She is a poor widow. Her children her and she needs justice.'”

“If convicted, Gula could be jailed for up to [fourteen] years or be deported, said Zia Awan, a human rights lawyer based in Karachi[, Pakistan].”

Moreover, with reference to the Smithsonian Magazine, Gula may bear up against three thousand to five thousand dollars in legal fines.

A scattering of individuals have advocated on Gula’s behalf, including her lensman, Steve McCurry, who has unhesitatingly announced that he is guaranteed to aid Gula legally and financially.

“‘I object to this action by the authorities in the strongest possible terms,’ he said in a statement. ‘She has suffered throughout her entire life. Her arrest is an egregious violation of her human rights.'”

Alternatively, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) affirmed to CNN that, “”Sharbat Gula falls under the ‘undocumented migrants’ umbrella,’ said Duniya Khan with the agency’s Pakistan office. ‘The UNHCR cannot intervene since she is not a registered refugee.'”

“Though [Gula’s] arrest is a relatively high-profile one, she’s far from the only Afghan with forged documents being targeted by Pakistani authorities. Human Rights Watch [HRW] researcher Gerry Simpson says that while 1.5 million refugees in Pakistan have been issued documents protecting them from being deported, nearly a million more have been forced to get falsified documents to avoid being forced back to Afghanistan.”

Since July 1st, 2016, the HRW has repatriated, or restored an individual with their mother country, 370,000 Afghani citizens, approximately 220,000 of them registered with the UNHCR as refugees.

“‘They are joining more than one million internally displaced Afghans who are struggling to survive in a country still wracked by conflict and crushing poverty,’ the [HRW] said in a statement.”

What transpires for the refugees when displaced are barbarities that solely they will ever entwine into at dusk—in nightmares and sleeplessness.  Nationally, Gula’s detainment has flickered a limelight unto Middle Eastern refugee crises, and thus, there may be a glisten of hope that the survivors will—following upwards of thirty years of political unrest and turmoil—undertake justice and asylum.

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Alexandria Piette
Written By

A seventeen-year old staff writer and associate art director for Affinity Magazine originating from The Mitten, USA, who’s merely venturing to save the world (among alternative endeavors). Is starry-eyed by the assortment of shapes and sizes of social justice, being an unadulterated bookworm, harmonizing the occasional tune in the shower, and viewing the multitudinous seasons of Supernatural. Is essentially a local time warrior contending the cosmos one emotional codependency after another.

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