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July 16, 2004

Questioning Authority

U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Confronts the Powerful

Feryal Ali-Gauhar

Feryal Ali-Gauhar

Currently a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Population Fund, an independent film maker and published novelist, Feryal Ali-Gauhar admits she's something of a maverick. “I constantly question and seek clarity,” she says.

Fresh from attending the annual seminar for Strategic Leadership in Population and Reproductive Health, which was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health, Gauhar feels her leadership strengths reside in her ability to question authority. She insists on asking powerful people a short list of hard questions, over and over again.

How does one go about confronting power? “In a patriarchal context, you go to community leaders in both faith-based and ethnic groups. Then you go to the district level—government, communities and organizations of larger ethnic and language. Then, you must try to connect all these leaders.”

Gauhar more often asks such questions by means of lectures, op-ed pieces in Pakistan's powerful Dawn newspaper and television talk shows on human and educational rights, as well as through her books and independent movies. She has made films about child sexual abuse, violence against women and the Afghan war, and is currently working on a documentary about Pakistan's tradition of “honor killings,” where a man can murder an unfaithful wife with impunity.

Besides scripting and directing human rights films, Gauhar has taught the fundamentals of filmmaking and has coordinated academic and technical courses for the postgraduate diploma in film and television at the National College of the Arts, Lahore. Her well-received novel, The Scent of Wet Earth in August, was published by Penguin in 2002.

In spite of the humanitarian work by such people as Gauhar, most leaders choose to preserve their own status, and so institute only short-term “reforms” that don't really benefit the poor. “The beneficiaries of reforms must be outside the power structure. That's why India's ruling party was routed at the polls recently: their economic liberalizing policies since 1991 never trickled down to the large rural population.”

Asked if she is a very patient person, to keep whittling away at such imposing problems, she answers, “I have a lot of patience—and I don't!” But, she says, the opportunity to share experiences with participants at the Leadership Conference was “inspiring and energizing.”

Twenty high-level health officials from around the globe attended the Gates Leadership Seminar, which concluded July 16 and was under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. —Rod Graham