Afghanistan’s most famous face belongs to a name few have ever heard: Sharbat Gula.
Mainly, she’s famous for enduring a very, very difficult life. As a child, she trekked fifty mountainous miles to escape the horrors of war, to the scarcely better conditions of a refugee camp in Pakistan. She was married off at 13, and widowed with four children by forty, though not before she’d contracted the hepatitis-C that killed her husband.
Back in 1985, she was simply called the Afghan Girl, a 12-year-old refugee with piercing green eyes staring out from the cover of National Geographic magazine. She became an instant icon, representing the plight of between four and six million people who fled Afghanistan amid its war with the invading Soviet Union.
Her face evoked empathy across the planet, and compassionate souls in the United States and elsewhere else gave cash and tears in hope they would help the Afghan people endure the hot war misery brought to them by our cold war foes. But that empathy did not last, and the people of Afghanistan have been ill-defined in our media since our owned armed forces invaded in 2001. Afghans are categorized as Talibanist, insurgent, warring tribalist, or Islamic statist; in nearly every case cast as faceless and fearsome, and cast as men. The women have been made to disappear, behind burkas, behind walls, and obscured by routine coverage of pundits advocating militaristic surges.
It’s telling that, for 17 years, Sharbat Gula hadn’t the slightest idea she’d become the poster child for Afghan suffering. She didn’t lay eyes on her famous photograph until she was grown, with a 13-year-old daughter of her own. That daughter, like her mother, spent her life deprived of education and self-sovereignty, kept indoors by a culture that has often required females to be chaperoned by men. Eventually, hepatitis killed her, too, leaving her own daughter in grandmother Sharbat Gula’s care.
Most of this is as little known as Gula’s name. Empathy has a tough time surviving war. It has a hard enough time surviving popular culture. But if empathy can be lost, or forgotten, we have to imagine it can be re-learned as well. Thanks to the success of his autobiographical novel The Kite Runner, male author Khaled Hosseini had the rare opportunity to return our attentions to the generations of Afghan women enduring lifetimes as pawns to global politics and religion with his follow-up novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. But that was ten years ago, an eternity in attention span, especially as our war there continues into its 17th year. An adaptation that gives new life to such stories seems all the more vital in a time when our own culture grapples with an empathy shortage.
Gula’s story finally took a turn for the better this year, when Afghanistan repatriated her and purchased a home in Kabul for her and her family. But only because she was The Afghan Girl, and her story has been shared.