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Sharbat Gula (Pashto: شربت ګله) (pronounced [ˈʃaɾbat]) (born ca. 1972) is an Afghan woman who was the subject of a famous photograph by journalist Steve McCurry. Gula 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. Gula was known simply as "the Afghan Girl" until she was formally identified in early 2002. The photograph has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Mona Lisa and is sometimes popularly referred to as "the Afghan Mona Lisa".
Pashtun by ethnicity, Gula was orphaned during the Soviet Union's bombing of Afghanistan and sent to the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984. Her village was attacked by Soviet helicopter gunships sometime in the early 1980s. The Soviet strike killed her parents, forcing her, her siblings and grandmother to hike over the mountains to the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in neighboring Pakistan.
She married in the late 1980s and returned to Afghanistan in 1992. Gula had three daughters: Robina, Zahida, and Alia. A fourth daughter died in infancy. Gula has expressed the hope that her girls will receive the education she was never able to complete.
At the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in 1984, Gula's photograph was taken by National Geographic Society photographer Steve McCurry on Kodachrome color slide film, with a Nikon FM2 camera and Nikkor 105mm F2.5 lens. 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 with her piercing sea-green colored eyes staring directly into the camera, became a symbol both of the 1980s Afghan conflict and of the refugee situation worldwide. The image itself was named "the most recognized photograph" in the history of the magazine.
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 troops 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 now-famous photograph. 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 falsely claimed 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. 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.
More recent pictures of her 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.
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 at the hands of her estranged husband. In making the photograph, Bibi was inspired by 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.