Analyzing the Contemporary Colonial gaze through the eyes of the ‘Afghan girl’.

‘Names have power, so let us speak of hers. Her name is Sharbat Gula, and she is Pashtun, that most warlike of Afghan tribes. It is said of the Pashtun that they are only at peace when they are at war, and her eyes—then and now—burn with ferocity.’

–          Cathy Newman, National Geographic. 2002.

The most striking word in the above quote has to be ‘warlike’. This is for the simple reason that the word evokes emotions of anger, fear, blood, revenge, heroism and courage. And what better to have an image that explains all these words of ‘warlike’ to the world than the photograph of Sharbat Gula taken by national geographic photographer, Steve McCurry in 1984. The photograph is referred to as the ‘Afghan Mona Lisa’ in recent times and has generated a mass response and interest in the life of Sharbat Gula, who was traced after 17 years from when the photograph first appeared on the magazine’s cover in June 1985. However, the increasing popularity of the photograph has many underpinnings of complex commercial colonizing interests that are often neglected in the visual anthropological discourse. The image has been subjected to a wide commercial circulation exercise with equal media publicity by the magazine to mould the audiences’ viewpoint about Afghanistan and its women through the colonial lens of the American outlook of the ‘other’.

This essay traces the story of the iconic ‘afghan girl’ photograph and tries to comprehend the way in which women from the third-world are represented in the media during conflict and how the photograph became a part of a larger cultural commodity project by the National Geographic through its subtle colonial ideology that is very much present even today. The essay will explore in detail how the image has been subjected to Racial profiling by analyzing the ideas of ‘women as the image of a nation’, ‘women as the icons of tourism industry’ and the change in the western gaze of ‘women from the Muslim world post 9/11’.

Setting the gaze

The diplomatic policy of USA during the cold war saw the nation of Afghanistan as a strategic ally to defeat the Soviets against their occupation of the nation with their communist advances. The US who had taken little interest in Afghanistan before now, saw it as an ideal partner against its chief enemy, the USSR and hence recruited the Afghani Mujahedeen fighters to fight the soviets. The American- Soviet war in Afghanistan resulted into a complete devastation of the nation-state administration and the guerilla wars further damaged the already war-torn nation with Islamist groups chiefly funded by the US itself. In 1989, when the USSR finally retreated back, almost two thirds of its population, i.e. five million people had become refugees in Pakistan, Central Asia and US. (Cooley 1999). The structural disintegration of Afghanistan in the 1980s primarily by the soviets, as viewed by west, led to the US media coverage and interest in the nation that previously meant nothing to the American Media other than viewing it as an American ally. The emergence of the Taliban and the discovery of a previously unexplored Pashtun culture by the Americans led to something of an effect that the western colonizers had in the past in discovering the exotic American red Indians.

The national geographic magazine has worked on the same line of asserting the benefits of colonialism through its research in political and economic geography by publishing articles on the geographic and commercial possibilities of America’s new possessions. It brought into limelight the unknown or ignored world, now brought into view by colonialism and commercial opportunities. (Lutz & Collins 1993). On discovering the Pashtun culture as an exotic cultural story for the average non-traveling American reader, the magazine decided to frame Afghanistan and present it to its readers.

The ‘Afghan Girl’ photograph was shot in an Afghan refugee camp, in Pakistan in 1984 by National Geographic Photographer, Steve McCurry. The magazine published the photograph as its cover page in its June 1985 edition. The image quickly rose to fame and became one of the most widely circulated images of the late 1990s. Henceforth, various illustrations and reprints have made this iconic image into a mass commodity to be consumed as an exotic cultural artifact of the other world, which is unsafe and weary. As the famous photographer Martin Parr says, all photography is propaganda. The magazine tried to focus on the US political history, specifically, in conjunction with President Reagan’s initiative to aid Afghanistan during that time when the soviets had destroyed the country and the US propaganda lied in the fact of sympathizing with its allies. (Schwartz-DuPre 2010). So was the case in this photograph. Like a scripted reality show, National Geographic photographers always have a scripted story in their head which they articulate through their clicks with real people and real places. The ‘image of Afghanistan’ is what McCurry was looking for when he visited the refugee camp in 1984.

But even while reporting the nation as a worn torn aftermath, the magazine has cleverly never even for once addressed the effect of the American influence on Afghanistan or its people. It has largely been anti-Soviet in its writing and chose to put a woman on its cover-page to represent the image of the nation rather than the Mujahedeen men who were a part of the larger reality funded by USA to defeat the soviets. By using the Afghan girl as the face of the nation, she was “framed,” “captured,” and “represented” and our understanding of war-torn Afghanistan was reinforced and essentialized through the narrow subjective gaze of the west itself. (Sekimoto & Simas 2004).  Hence the photograph wasn’t a decent attempt of a candid moment in the life of Sharbat Gula but it was a framed gaze that captured the candid look of her nation that McCurry imagined of Afghanistan itself, in his eyes.


 The Afghan girl as the image of Afghanistan

The cultural politics of representation requires the image of a woman to bear the burden of representing the image of her nation with her own embodiment as she is constructed as the symbolic bearer of the collective identity and honor, both personally and collectively. (Yuval-Davis 1997). The photograph of the Afghan girl came to embody the collective identity of Afghanistan during the soviet war and her image was used to understand the Afghan culture at multiple levels. These levels formed of the gender power relations, religion, ethnicity and the colonial historical context of the nation. Also as discussed above, it would be ironical to depict Afghanistan with a mascot of Mujahedeen soldiers as the image of the nation. In doing so, the magazine would endanger the concrete image of its own as an American exploring the world. The mujahedeen soldiers expose the strategic exploitation of Afghanistan’s people by the US against the soviets and put it on the wrong side of the story whereas, the picture of a helpless, innocent girl portrays the very western mythical notion of ‘damsel in distress’, who needs to be rescued from the evil. As Beth Baron points out, that a woman can easily suggest the attributes associated with the colonial occupation as her status in the society is passive, prone and weak. (Baron, 2005).

Using her as an agent and symbol of reaching out to the ‘other’, the magazine has portrayed a sympathetic tale of rescuing the ‘other’, in this case, Afghanistan from the clenches of the impure soviets who are destroying the beautiful, delicate and unexplored virgin territory of Afghanistan. As Lutz points out, in becoming America’s lens on the world, National Geographic has positioned itself as a key actor in presenting ‘primitives people’ for western perusal. (Lutz &Collins, 1993). The portrait of the afghan girl is very contradictory to the consumerist driven America of that time. The dirty, torn clothes of Sharbat, blurry background and tight focus on her facial features make her an object of direct gaze where the viewer will notice the misery in her clothing and the fear in her eyes at an instant. As the image makes the viewer uncomfortable in his position of relating with the ‘other’ world, the exploration becomes a necessity to feed the curiosity of the other.

The political and intellectual premise on which the geographers support their finding and work is based on sets of ‘objective’ ‘racial’ data that can be used as mapping a nation’s identity through the visual representation of difference in the women of that nation. (Bonnett, 1999). The scientific language used in the project makes the reader of the image imagine her as a complete different species from that of their own and distant from the reality that they live in.  Since the women are viewed as the custodian’s of the family, preservers and transmitters of culture to their children, while their men are out on the battlefield, the justification of a war lies in the protection of saving these women and the children who are the keepers of culture and the national identity. (Afshar, 1989). The photograph of the afghan girl speaks of all her brothers and male members, she has lost in the war and her survival as a refugee asserts her need for security and protection which the colonizer is obliged to provide. The need for the Americans to sympathize with Afghanistan as its rightful ally is asserted through this picture as a cover-page and the picture tries to engage the reader into a further reading of the country in the inside pages of the cover story. It has to be noted that at the time when the photograph was published as the cover page, the identity of the girl was unknown and McCurry did not bother to do any research on his subject at all. (Sekimoto & Simas, 2004).   The ‘unknown’ Afghan girl’s image was only used as a metaphor to provide an impetus to a larger story of Afghanistan’s socio-political condition of that time.

However it is interesting to note that the stronghold of Taliban’s Islamic fundamentalism was not so strong at this time and that is why the present western obsession of defining the ‘other’ as primarily ‘Muslims’, was negligent. The stress on her clothing was not so much about the veil as with her eyes but 17 years later in 2002 when the National Geographic team went back in search of her and found her eventually, this photograph was the one they decided to publish as their cover page:

The face of the nation, the image of the same woman as a portrayal of the nation changed significantly. The 17 years of physical, psychological and social interaction that America had with Afghanistan came across in this photograph which had underpinnings of the 9/11 attacks, Al-Qaeda, Taliban and the justification of the Bush administration to unveil the nation for its precarious otherness. The ‘persistent cultural interaction and exchange’ through a prolonged state of violence in the nation by the US is what led to this ideological shift the gaze of Sharbat as the image of Afghanistan. (Featherstone, 1990).  The veiled photograph of Sharbat Gula transformed the image of the nation from its sympathetic, allied position with America to a nation producing terrorists and doing atrocities on their women in the name of religious fanaticism. And all this at the expense of a woman caught off guard by the voyeuristic gaze of a westerner, searching a subject to materialize his framed idea of a nation.

This also leads to comprehend that the ideological exclusion of the other will always remain persistent no matter how the physical boundaries of the nation-state change. The nation will always be viewed in terms of the dominant its culture and ethnicity. (Guibernau & Rex, 1997).  The two different photographs of Sharbat Gula on the two different cover pages of the same magazine only reassert the ideology that even in different times, the image of the nation as a woman is hard to be done with. As, In fact, the serious under representation of women in Afghanistan is a major human rights issue in recent times but still the face of nation is largely generalized and idolized through its women. The two photographs also justify yuval-davis’s claim that when we look at the role of women as markers of collective boundaries and differences and also as participants in national, political and economic struggles we often find a contradiction that women are constituted through the state but are also often engaged in countering state processes. (Yuval-davis, 1989). The first photograph portrays Sharbat as a national participant in war while the latter represents her as countering the state process to reveal her true identity and showing herself to the free world, when analyzed through the framed gaze of the magazine’s western viewpoint.

     The Afghan girl as an ‘Afghan’ souvenir

From the time the photograph first appeared in the magazine, it generated so much popularity and curiosity about the girl that the magazine cleverly used this interest to build up a saleable product of her story to sell as a cultural export of Afghanistan. The prints of the original photograph are sold from fifty dollars on the national geographic website to almost 4500 dollars with McCurry’s personalized autograph on it. As Lutz explicates, the magazine’s marketing department carries out regular surveys and research to test the popularity of cover pictures and their sale value. The selection of the images in the magazine is a lengthy process of determining the level of difference that can be consumed and will go down with the reader base’s interests. The photographers are drawn to people who are dressed brightly and differently, caught in strange seeming rituals or inexplicable behavior but who are beautiful. (Lutz & Collins, 1993). Even the wordage of the photograph’s captions can create a social construct around the image and give a political meaning even when the picture has been a candid shot of a decisive movement. The magazine captioned the ‘Afghan girl’ photograph as ‘the haunted eyes tell of an afghan refugee’s fears’. In reality, the girl was just surprised on her photograph being taken and her reaction could have been completely natural in such a situation but the clever wordage changes the whole viewpoint of the image as we perceive it and gives it an angle to be viewed from. As Moors explains in her essay on women and postcards, the photographs are constructed to enable particular ‘preferred’ readings and disable other. Captions may strongly direct audiences towards particular readings but they never capture everything present in the photograph. (Moors, 2003).

In marking the cultural authenticity of the picture and reproducing it to take a piece of ‘Afghanistan’ home, the magazine asserts the need of sympathetic treatment towards Afghanistan and support the cause of the American war against the soviets. This is done by making the reader conscious of the country in the first place, by using vivid images of the ‘other’. And once the individual becomes conscious that an ‘other’ exists, the choice arises concerning the way in which that ‘other’ should be treated. (Yuval-Davis,1997). The treatment of the ‘other’ in this case is seen through commercial selling of the ‘Afghan girl’ photo and feeling the ‘ferocity’ of the Afghan Pashtuns in her eyes. The National Geographic stores across the globe sell the image of the ‘Afghan girl’ in documentaries, DVDs, Photographs, travel postcards all the possible souvenir items one can take home after visiting a tourist place. It is interesting to note that even though there is hardly any real tourism in Afghanistan due to security reasons, the National Geographic magazine has managed to create a cultural souvenir of the country outside its physical boundaries and represent the country through selling the various items with the ‘Afghan girl’ photograph embedded on them. In ‘a world without boundaries’, Kaplan explains that The exoticizations of other cultures and people, particularly indigenous women, found in the colonial and postcolonial discourse of Euro-American feminism produce “surplus value” in the production of “knowledge” about a seemingly neutral “world.” The commoditization of “others” enacted in the internationalizing of Euro-American discourse can be linked productively to the more popularized manifestations that emanate from advertising and marketing these goods. (Kaplan, 1995). The magazine store acts as a cultural anthropology museum where you cannot just see the artifacts but also buy them. The scientific institution that the magazine claims itself to be is negated when such acts of imbalanced cultural representations are portrayed. (Lutz & Collins, 1993).

The magazine’s attempt to duplicate the original prints of the ‘Afghan girl’ photograph lies in the way it is viewed by its readers. The readers view the afghan girl as a ‘culturally specific non-traveler’ who is representative of an imagined past and who is approachable at any moment to the reader when they wish to consume the ‘otherness’ of the girl and her nation by buying a piece of her culture through the means of her photograph. (Robinson, 1999). Of course the buying of the photograph is not going to be of any real help to Afghanistan, its people or Sharbat but the consumer feels a sense of solidarity with the people, their culture and the nation at an ideological level it the struggles that they are going through.

Lastly in determining the photograph as a souvenir of a nation, we must also take into account the male gaze and that the national geographic photographer has been predominantly a white man who is in search of visual treasure of exotic women in dark skin. (Lutz & Collins, 1993). The feminine images serve as a good showpiece that can be displayed as a souvenir of a distant exotic land with beautiful peoples. The contrasting green eyes of Sharbat Gula against her tanned skin serves as an indicator of the white western male’s voyeuristic gaze of the ‘other’. In her eyes, the white male can experience the women of Afghanistan for she represents the Afghan women as a collective whole and can me bought in exchange for money as a memory and reminder of the exotic land of Afghanistan.

Due to Globalization, the physical boundaries of authentic cultural experiences is breaking apart and one can now have the same experience without being actually present there. The national geographic magazine has identified the stories with an authentic cultural trait that promises the reader an experience of the place he or she is reading about to be rich with a different culture and otherness. Since the Afghan girl captured so much attention and continued to generate more curiosity through the coming years, the magazine decided to feed its viewers with the pleasure of finally being a part of their search in finding the Afghan girl, 17 years later in Afghanistan.

The Afghan girl mission post 9/11

The American occupation of Afghanistan in 2011 led to the withdrawal of Taliban forces.  So in January 2002, a National Geographic team traveled to Afghanistan to search the so far unknown Afghan girl and reveal her true identity to the world.  It had been 17 years since her picture was taken and a lot of political and social factors changed the diplomatic relations of Afghanistan with the US during this time. The September 11 attacks in 2001 on the World Trade Centre in New York changed the whole perception about Afghanistan in a single night.

Henceforth it would be known as a nation that creates Islamic terrorists who are totalitarian and have no respect for the American values of freedom, democracy and equality. As Entman illuminates in his essay on framing in political communications of the white house and American Journalists post 9/11, Framing is the central process by which government officials and journalists exercise Political influence over each other and over the public. Successful political communication requires the framing of events, issues, and actors in ways that promote perceptions and interpretations that benefit one side while hindering the other. (Entman, 2003). The media circulated a very negative viewpoint of not just the fundamentalist terrorists but also of Afghanistan as a nation on its own. It has to be understood that while the terrorists were a very small minority in Afghanistan, the media and the government portrayed the nation as a ‘terrorist nation’ where majority of the people were terrorists. The generalization was purely framed for political reasons to wage a war on Afghanistan as an act of vengeance for what a handful of terrorists did in New York.

The framing of the ‘Afghan girl’ image also changed along with its underlining meaning and the magazine aimed to capture this frenzy when the whole of the America was in front of their television screens watching every single news item about Afghanistan and war on terror. It was a good time to bring an element of a story about Afghanistan and its historical viewpoint that was still regarded as supreme. The magazine was aware of the vast impact the ‘Afghan girl’ image has on its audience worldwide and this was the right time to be reminded of that image and do some further exploration on it. But this time the exploration in to the Afghan girl story would have an angle of framing the ‘other’ with all the negative connotations in a humanitarian society.

From 2001 onwards the image of the ‘Afghan girl’ meant that she wasn’t just a beautiful refugee girl who needed to be protected but it also meant that she was from a country where women were not equal to men, women wear a veil, are not allowed to communicate openly with the world and most importantly, they are Muslim. As a dutiful westerner would do in aid of charity, you were not meant to protect the Afghan girl but also liberate her from the wrongdoings of the men in her country. The afghan girl was not just any other Muslim girl but the given her already well-established image as the face of Afghanistan, She represented the Afghanistan under Taliban’s rule as a whole. Her image became a project for the larger xenophobic ideology of hatred against Islam and its followers. The magazine saw this as a good opportunity to trace down the identity of the afghan girl through whom they could trace the nation into becoming; Afghanistan from the time the first picture was published. It wasn’t just her identity that they were looking for but it was the transformation of Afghanistan into a fundamental Islamic nation from the previous allied roots it shared with the US.  In Schwartz-Dupree’s words, the central focus of the western gaze has always been on the representation of the ‘veil’ and suppression of women in Islam. More so after 9/11, considering how the sexist visibility of Afghan women constructed the ‘‘west as a beacon of civilization with an obligation to tame the Islamic world and liberate its women was broadly the scheme of the communication discourse. (Schwartz-DuPre, 2010).

When they eventually found her in Afghanistan in 2002, her story was captured on how she was constantly at war with herself because she could not send her three daughters to school and how her village did not have any of the modern basic amenities like school, clinic, roads, or running water. When the whole nation was ravaged by American tanks and troops, the development of these amenities was the last thing on the priority list of the Americans and the National Geographic magazine skillfully edited any negative US sentiments from the interviews of the people of Afghanistan. Their strategy to make the searching mission of the Afghan girl as a goodwill gesture to the savage, war –torn people of Afghanistan would be negated if any viewpoints of the American intervention came out in the course of their story. The anti-Islam was strong at the time and the magazine did not want to endanger its popularity and trust in any way by threatening to mention America’s role in Afghanistan’s downfall. The magazine wasn’t hoping for a happy story of liberation at all. They were convinced that either way, Sharbat Gula could have either been dead by hardships she had encountered or she would have a very low life with not much difference from the state she was previously found to be in. it is with this logic and surety that the magazine sent out its research team in search of her in the first place. The plot though loosely structured but was always there and well scripted to make Sharbat Gala’s life a fascinating revelation of the ‘unknown other’.

When she expressed her desire for her daughters to be educated, the National Geographic magazine set up a charitable fund organization for the Afghan children to be educated. The civilizing mission of the empirical discourse can be seen here to educate and civilize the Afghans of their savage behavior and take sympathy at their condition of poverty and political instability. By providing education, the Americans stress on the modern development and disseminating western outlook and culture into the Afghan culture that is seen as problematic in the first place. And despite civilizing the Afghan children, the National Geographic always maintains its writing about Afghanistan as a writing of others who cannot assimilate into our modern culture by any means. As Gibson Explains, Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding the ‘other’ in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content but its takes into account the history of the oppressed people and destroys it. (Gibson, 2003). Sharbat Gala’s story does not end here where of the national Geographic depicts a happy ending for her life by opening a charity in her honor. In fact the story takes a further turn from here as now she can be always in the media gaze and in the limelight. Her story and her image can be photographed in the several girls who come to have benefited from the charity and so forth. The civilizing mission running via the story of the Afghan girl will always trace its roots back to the photograph and every time have a new explanation for its exotic and appeal in its difference but its hard to tell if the photograph, given its history will ever be viewed without bias and the western voyeuristic gaze.

Also, in understanding the Afghan girl mission, we have to pay very close attention at the design of the 2002 cover page in detail. Sharbat Gula is covered completely and is holding her iconic picture to the lens. The background is completely grey. The most striking however is the word ‘found’ in big bold red letters. The word is inscribed in the style they use for prisoners who have been absconding for many years and the police is on a lookout for them. The text doesn’t give any details about Sharbat Gula’s identity or her face now. It urges the reader very strongly to have a look inside the magazine to view the details. In further introspection of the story, it feels as if the magazine wanted to create a buildup to this final version of the story by helping its readers to fulfill their curiosities of her intimate details of her life. It is interesting to note that there were other photographs of Sharbat where her face is not covered and they were present inside the magazine’s pages but the editors decided to put the veiled Sharbat on the cover to almost justify that she was faceless. The notion of Afghanistan’s Women being suppressed by Islam was so strong that the magazine wanted to play on this emotion of the reader and state that yes, this is the face of Afghanistan, mysterious, hidden and unapproachable. There is no attempt to understand the ‘other’ or even a chance given to Sharbat to speak something on her own. The bombardment of questions by the journalists on her made her uncomfortable and once again she was taken by surprise at the outside interest in her life by the unknown foreigners. The magazine has treated her more like a subject for a saleable idea, an authentic exotic cultural commodity and a means by which it could create a readership interest into the nation of Afghanistan and every thing that is wrong with it relation to the western notion of a life and its everyday things. Also the continuous circulation of the two images together has created more interest the world over again the National geographic stores across the world consider the photograph and the memorabilia of it as its chief sales. The intrusion into her life is justified by the curiosity that her picture generated and as if it was her own fault for having such a captivating look in her eyes Just like in the case of Sara Baartman who was paraded the world over for her unusual looks. The photograph of Sharbat has circulated on the same lines and as Walter Benjamin says on defining history that, there is no document of civilization which is not at he same time a document of barbarism. (Benjamin, 1969). In the same way, in an attempt to scientifically analyze difference and race in a civilized manner, the cross over line to ignorance and negligence of diverse cultures is often termed as the ‘unexplored, exotic other’ by the National Geographic magazine. The Afghan girl image has been commercialized to such an extent under the capitalist pretext of reproduction of goods that the magazine has managed to sustain a large number of readership just on a single photograph and attract millions of new readers through it. However, it has to be note that while the magazine is extremely conscious of its royalty and copyrights of the image, hardly any money has benefited Sharbat or her family before the opening of the education charity. It is widely seen in the visual cultural discourse that the subject of the image hardly has any direct involvement with the commercial success and exploitation of the image by its promoters. In the cover story article of 2002 on her, the writer explains his disappointment in her when according to him, she had a ‘flat face without any expression and could not understand how her picture has touched so many and how she does not know the power of those eyes.’ (Newman, 2002). It is really striking to see the shallow approach that the writer himself has in writing an account of the woman who has never herself been a part of the media frenzy and who has been forced into a kind of exile from the world because of the political conditions in her country. How was she ever supposed to know what happened to her picture, evaluate her eyes the way the rest of the world did through media circulation and make a judgment about a sudden flow of journalists in her house to interrogate her and ask her intimate details about her life and her face. As mentioned in the article, she has been photographed only thrice in her life and she vividly remembers McCurry photographing her. But even in finding her and telling her story of being ‘lost and found’ the writer forgets, the compression of space and time that he has experience by being in the media gaze and her distance physically and psychologically to her own image that was taken 17 years back.


The power in the ‘Afghan girl’ image lies in the uncomforting feel that the viewer gets when he looks at her. The picture can be seen as a combination of good photography with a lot of luck and even more politics behind it. The National Geographic magazine has created a niche for itself in just marketing this one product of ‘exotic difference’ and ‘otherness’ and will continue to gain increasing fan base for the image but the question lies in the fact that have we just become mere consumers of anything with a difference and that looks strangely unfamiliar? In the fast globalizing world, the power relations and otherness are quickly converging and intermediating. In such a case, how will the cultural trajectory evolve, as culture is fluid? And validating culture as ‘authentic’ is highly becoming an increasingly problematic task. The Afghan girl image has made a permanent place in the minds of its readers and the continuing process of its circulation through various mediums has only made its presence stronger in seeing it as an image of Afghanistan and Islamic women itself. But given the continuing evolution of the post-colonial discourse, will the reading of this image be further stretched and justified even beyond the realms of nation, race and religion to be occupied by another concept of colonial gaze of the ‘other’? it is imperative that man has always found a historical and cultural context to justify the image of the ‘other’ and no matter how strong the globalization process may influence the inter-cultural hybridization, the notion of the ‘other’ will hardly manage to change its status in relation of similarity and exotic demarcation of one’s own self from the colonial gaze.

 Author: Pari Trivedi

Photo: Steve McCurry