A friend of mine from Pakistan, Feryal Ali Gauhar, who is an accomplished actress and a strong voice on development issues, has sent me the attached message that expresses her pain and anguish at what is happening in Afghanistan. As a UN Goodwill Ambassador, she had sent it to Mr Kofi Annan for wider circulation but for obvious reasons it was not done.

Devinder Sharma



A message from Feryal Ali-Gauhar in Pakistan (United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Population Fund)

A year ago I met many of you who serve as Goodwill Ambassadors and Messengers of Peace in New York where we shared our views and reiterated our commitment to the various causes with which we were associated.  At the open session held in the General Assembly, I remember the words of Ms. Anna Cataldi from Italy clearly -- I will not forget her concern for the women and children of Afghanistan who have suffered war and devastation for over two decades.  I also remember listening carefully to Mr. Michael Douglas as he spoke about his work towards disarmament. And I remember very well indeed the words of Ms. Nadine Gordimer and Mr. Danny Glover, both of whom spoke about the systemic causes of injustice.  Through this message I wish all of you to try to recall my words too -- I spoke when Mr. Riz Khan (of Pakistani origin, I am proud to say) opened the floor for any interventions.  I remember taking a deep breath and saying what had weighed heavy on my heart and mind.  I took a deep breath since just a few months before the October event in New York I had had the unpleasant experience of being told at a UNFPA conference in Geneva for Goodwill Ambassadors to, effectively, "belt up" since I seem to have earned the reputation of insisting on telling our version of the truth.  I use the words "our truth" despite the fact that, as an Ambassador of Goodwill, I am supposed to couch my language in diplomatic terminology.  I use the words "our truth" because I believe that it is because of this separation, this marginalization, that so many people have lost their lives not only in the terrible events of September 11, but throughout the history of the past century.

And I wish to speak to all of you today not just as a colleague but as someone who has always been identified as the "other" in the language of the powerful.  I speak to you from this perspective since it is important for me to align myself to the part of the world to which I belong, and for which I work, and for which I will continue to fight, struggling at all fronts.  I will continue to struggle as a Muslim woman who has witnessed the terrible crimes committed against my own people in the name of structural adjustment programmes and conditionalities imposed by international lending agencies which have crippled my people and enriched my rulers.  I will continue to struggle as a woman who has seen the rape of her sisters from neighboring countries, women who have fled a war which was fought to win the interests of the so-called free world.  So often I have wondered at the clichés and the rhetoric we hear on the airwaves, about the need to protect that free world from those who "envy" the freedom of the western world, about the need to bolster up the democracies which flourish in that free world.  And I wonder whether it would ever be prudent to speak of my experiences in private women's schools run in the United States for the daughters of the elite.  I have wondered for many years whether I should share the terrible suffocation I have suffered as the "other" in those hallowed campuses, being reported to the "authorities" for holding divergent political views, being asked to leave the institution since I was a "threat" to "freedom and democracy".  I was nineteen then, and the "subversive" act I had committed was to point out that the wealth of the western world was built on the rape and pillage and plunder of my world, the world which provided the men and the women to work the farms, and the gold and the cotton and the copper and the diamonds and the indigenous knowledge gathered over thousands of years of civilization.

Today, when I listen to the violence couched in "defence of freedom" rhetoric, I feel compelled to let you know that terrorism is often bred of terror -- an act of violence carried out by a "person of colour" is an act of terror -- the bombing of Vietnam and the Sudan and Afghanistan and the horrendous crimes of war carried out by people of "no colour" is always to protect freedom and democracy and the way of life of privileged people who have no idea how the other half lives, or, in this case, dies.  And what of this way of life, this need to fill up the vacuum of hearts and minds and spirits with toys and knick knacks designed for pleasure and created in the sweat shops of some captive labour camp in my world, the world which breeds terror?  What of a way of life which denies freedom to the people who are ruled by despots and tyrants propped up by the Godfathers of Democracy and the Archangels of Freedom.  What of the way of life which ensures that orange juice becomes a staple breakfast food while the orchards which grow the oranges are usurped from the tiller of the soil?  Do I need to remind the western world of the stranglehold put on the indigenous economies of Latin America so that a certain way of life could continue unhindered in far away lands which are now so frightened of the terror which breeds amongst poverty and deprivation and disenfranchisement? What of a way of life where loneliness is perhaps the only terror that may keep you awake, cushioned from hunger and pain and the anguish of knowing that the guns which are pointed at you are manufactured in lands where freedom and democracy flourish?

For seven years now, each time I visited the United States, I have tried to talk about the issue of Afghanistan to anyone who was willing to listen.  I tried to contact feminist organizations to discuss the possibility of helping Afghan women.  I contacted major television networks to raise awareness of the situation in that country.  Each time I was turned away.  Today I listen to my words being spoken out of foreign mouths, made legitimate only because those mouths are on the faces of the powerful.

Earlier this year I had anticipated that there was going to be a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and shortly on the borders of my country.  I contacted the UNHCR in Islamabad to ask if I could be of any assistance in its call for international donations.  I contacted UN agencies asking if I could help with the reproductive health needs of refugee women.  I received only silence.  A few weeks ago, a recently appointed Goodwill Ambassador, a star of Hollywood cinema, visited the Afghan refugee camps.  Her words were heard loud and clear. While I am glad to see how effective GWA's can be, I am also saddened to be reminded of how powerless and ineffective we are, as people who suffer, as people who are robbed of our voices and our rightful places.

Over the past two weeks I have seen my country being vilified and then embraced as an ally.  I have hung my head in shame at how desperately we must cling to any signs of pulling ourselves out of this quagmire.  Many years ago, while working with young Afghan children whose limbs had been amputated in hospitals in the city of my father's birth, I made a statement to the press regarding my concern for the people of Afghanistan.  I made the same statement in your presence, dear colleagues, at the General Assembly last year.  And I will state it here once again, that unless the western world and it's allies take cognizance of the fact that entire populations have been terrorized by the threat of military might for too long now, that unjust, unpopular governments have been propped up by those propagating freedom for their own people, denying freedom to the people ruled by monarchies and dictatorships, unless the resources of the world are made available for the development of two thirds of the world's population, unless the dynamic of dominance and submission is changed, unless greed and hatred and prejudice are whittled away, then terror will continue to breed in the camps of the disenfranchised and the desperate.

To know this, you have only to listen to the silence of Afghanistan. Even the birds have stopped singing in that land of my ancestors.