It all started when one day my friend said she felt very close to a woman who was sitting on a bench, just in front of us, wrapped in her blue-colored shawl. I thought it was a simple joke referring to the latest restrictions of recent months. I pointed it out. She, such an emancipated and bright way of life… How could she ever feel like that strange kind of woman? She told me it was a feeling she was having for a while now, and had nothing to do with veils or restrictions.
I nodded my head yes, just like a child, but I was a little scared. Of course, it was not just a matter of veils or restrictions, it had something to do with fear, uncertainty, with frustration. With a single colour and a single man. She was right, it hadn’t started today, maybe some while ago. In a distant place now no longer so distant. As everybody said, she was a girl who spoke through the shine in her eyes. Now that shine seemed to be turned off, forever.
Sharbat Gula was around 12 years old when photographer Steve McCurry took her picture. “It was this piercing gaze,” McCurry says. “A very beautiful little girl with this incredible look.” When he started taking Gula’s photo, she put her hands up to cover her face. But her teacher asked her to put her hands down so the world would see her face and know her story. She became an orphan and refugee of war at about age six. Soviet bombing killed her parents, and her grandmother led her and her brother and sisters on foot, in winter, to Pakistan, where they lived in various camps.
That’s where Steve met her, in a sea of tents near Peshawar. He reached that refugee camp after he heard the sound of children laughing. Inside the school tent he noticed Sharbat first. Sensing her shyness, he approached her last. She told him he could take her picture. “I didn’t think the photograph of the girl would be different from anything else I shot that day,” he recalls of that morning in 1984 spent documenting the ordeal of Afghanistan’s refugees.
At the age of 13, Sharbat would have gone into purdah, the secluded existence followed by many Islamic women once they reach puberty. According to Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, that’s when they suddenly vanish from the public eye. In the street they wear a burka, which walls then off from the world and from the eyes of any man other than their husband. “It is a beautiful thing to wear, not a curse,” Sharbat says now, telling her story, 18 years later. She remembers being married at 13, but her husband, Rahmat Gul, promptly interferes to say she was 16. The match was arranged.
Sharbat does not know her exact age. In the mid-1990s, during a lull in the fighting that has rocked Afghanistan for most of her life, she returned to her village. Hers has been a hand-to-mouth existence. She had not been photographed since Steve McCurry made her portrait, and she only agreed to be photographed again — to appear unveiled, without her burka — because her husband told her it would be proper.
The Afghan Girl ran on the cover of National Geographic in June of 1985. The photo has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. She cannot understand how her picture has touched so many. She does not know the power of those eyes.
Today, Rahmat and their daughters are the focus of her life. He lives in Peshawar and works in a bakery. He bears the burden of medical bills, the dollar a day he earns vanishes like smoke. Sharbat remembers her wedding day as a happy one — possibly, her older brother told, the only happy day of her life.
She said she hopes that her girls will get the education she was never able to complete. “I want my daughters to have skills,” she said. “I wanted to finish school but could not. I was sorry when I had to leave.”
In 2016, Sharbat has been arrested for living illegally in Pakistan under false papers. She has threatened to face up to 14 years in prison, but she was sentenced to fifteen days in detention and deported to Kabul, Afghanistan.
We had spent a few more minutes on that bench, in silence, our thoughts immersed in the hushed sounds of the square. The lunch break was about to end, but I had no desire to go back inside. It had been a hard day at the museum, we had been forced to remove some works from the walls because of their nudities. The ratification of the Faro Convention had justified the new measures as a “protection of the public interest and of the rights and freedoms of others.” But some was already talking about “cultural yield”, by considering that “protection” a further step towards the Islamization of the country.
It’d been a while since words like “protection” and “freedom” bounced in the air, yet I didn’t remember ever seeing so much sadness and fear in people’s eyes. “So… Pull up the mask, let’s go,” she suddenly said, ripping herself away from very deep thought.
She had walked away, without even waiting for me, as always. But cold and impassive, as if wrapped in an invisible dark veil. She had turned into someone else, but I could still see her beyond that veil. I kept seeing her skipping around in her white dress, shining like before, without any anxiety or fear.