The Fight for Feminism: An Interview with Sunera Thobani

by Sharmeen Khan

Sunera Thobani is an assistant professor at the Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on race and gender relations, and migration, citizenship, and nation-building. She was the first woman of colour to serve as President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (N AC) between 1993 and 1996. During that time NAC, along with the Canadian Labour Congress, organized the National Women’s March Against Poverty. She made national news in October of 2001 as one of the first critics of US foreign policy and the “war on terror” when she stated, “From Chile to El Salvador, to Nicaragua to Iraq, the path of US foreign policy is soaked in blood.”Thobani is one of the founders of the cross-Canada Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equity (RACE) and is currently writing about media representation of the “war on terror” and its impact on gender, race, and empire-building. Sharmeen Khan interviewed Thobani in July 2007.

How did you get involved with the feminist movement and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women?

When I first moved to Vancouver, I joined many women’s organizations in the city. I wanted to connect with grassroots feminist movements. I wanted to know about the kinds of issues that women were organizing around and I wanted to become part of the activist community. I became involved with organizations like the Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of BC, the Ankur Collective, and the India Mahila Society. Around the same time, I joined NAC member groups like the Vancouver Status of Women and the BC Coalition of Abortion Clinics. I was elected as a member-at-large for the national NAC board two years before running for its presidency in 1993. At the time, my activism focused mainly on issues of racism, immigration, and reproductive technologies.

I decided to run for the NAC presidency when the women of colour caucus on the executive met to discuss the end of Judy Rebick’s term as president. Judy had been supportive of the anti-racist activism of the women of colour in the organization, and we wanted to make sure we did not lose ground when she left. During the course of our discussion, we decided that it was time for a woman of colour to run for the presidency. We all had long histories of trying to make anti-racism central to the politics of the women’s movement, and we thought this would be the time to carry that work to a different level. We also consulted with some of the women of colour who had been in NAC for a long time, and there was excitement; we felt we were strong enough to do this.

Given your history with NAC and with other forms of anti-racist feminist activism, what’s your sense of the women’s movement in Canada? Is there a national women’s movement in Canada today?

To answer the second part first, no, I don’t think there’s a national women’s movement in Canada today. At least not a very active, organized, or visible one. I think it’s been very unfortunate and damaging for women in this country that there is no strong national feminist movement right now. The reasons for the demise of the women’s movement are many and complicated – some were internal to the feminist movement and some are the result of larger dynamics occurring in society. The causes internal to the feminist movement were the divisions between different visions of what feminism is and can be, and which groups had been represented in the national women’s movement and which had been excluded. But I think the external forces were far more significant in the decline of the movement.

The massive budget cuts and the restructuring of the Canadian welfare state in the 1990s had a very depressing effect on feminist organizing. Women’s groups fought back strongly but were greatly weakened by this fight. The promotion of “free” trade through deregulation and privatization has had a major impact on feminist organizing in different parts of the world. Globalization really dealt a serious blow to most social justice movements, and the women’s movement was no exception.

With the end of the Cold War and the move to the right by most social democratic parties, there was a general decline of the left. The resulting disillusionment with social democratic and communist politics in Western countries had a very negative impact on feminist and other social justice movement organizing. The lack of an alternate radical vision for a just and egalitarian society, and the stark recognition of the serious limitations of “democratic” politics within existing electoral systems, have had a very depressing effect. Another major factor in the decline of the women’s movement in Canada has been the deep dependence of many women’s organizations on state funding. When state funding was cut, many groups were unable to survive. All these factors have shaped the context within which the decline of the women’s movement in this country took place.

I do want to stress that there is still local organizing by women’s groups, and sometimes it’s very intense. But it’s done in a piecemeal manner, with local and provincial politics coming to the fore and very little focus on national or international politics.

There was a backlash against your leadership of NAC framed in terms of how well you could represent Canadian women. How did you respond to this?

Who was this “Canadian woman” that I couldn’t represent? That was my question at the time. It was of course my “immigrant” status that people found so objectionable. If women activists like myself who come from immigrant communities and anti-racist movements can’t represent Canadian women, then who can? Is it just elite or privileged white women who can speak for Canadian women? One of my responses was to challenge this construct of the “Canadian woman” who was the subject of the women’s movement. My political argument was that the most marginalized women in society have to be represented by any self-respecting women’s movement. If this movement cannot represent the most marginalized women, then it is not going anywhere because it will always end up reproducing the status quo. In order to transform the status quo, which for me is central to the goals of the women’s movement, you need to be addressing the issues and priorities of the most marginalized women, and the oppressive and exploitative relations that hold women back.

The public backlash againt me began with the accusation that I was an illegal immigrant. First put forward by a member of Parliament, this allegation had an interesting impact on the climate within NAC. On the one hand, NAC members publicly rallied together against this external attack and, on the other, those women who had not supported me in the first place took a back seat and were ready to pass judgment on everything I did. They did not work for the organization in the same way that they had in the past.

How did your organizing change with the advent of the war on terror?

My organizing changed in many ways. Most obviously, I was no longer doing it in the name of a national organization and so I didn’t have the support base inside the movement I previously did. In many ways, I was much more vulnerable to attack. But the most significant aspect of my post-9/11 organizing was that it very clearly revealed the limitations of the women’s movement in this country. After 9/11, we found ourselves living in a radically transformed political context both in this country and globally. American imperialism was on the rampage again, and Canada was a willing ally. The war on terror was clearly about furthering US control of the resources of Central Asian countries and the Middle East. Feminists were challenged more starkly than they had been before about the nature of the women’s movement and the responsibility it had to stand up not just for women’s rights (understood in the narrowest terms) but for a broader anti-imperialist feminist politics.

The women’s movement in this country did not transform itself into an anti-colonial or anti-imperialist movement. If this had happened, it would have immediately recognized the imperialist nature of the “war on terror” and the colonialist paradigm through which it was framed. Instead, in many cases, aspects of the movement ended up allying with the powers that be and not with the opposition to the war in Afghanistan. Although many individual feminists opposed the war, significant parts of the movement openly supported it. Very few feminist organizations actually stood up and opposed the war. For me, it was a very important turning point in terms of my own political development.

And Afghanistan remains the test, because it is still defined as a “just” war by many feminists who subsequently opposed the invasion of Iraq. They claim that Iraq was the unjust war. But I feel very strongly that if the Americans had not received so much support for their war in Afghanistan, it would have been harder for them to attack and invade Iraq, which had been their goal even before 9/11. I was completely opposed to the war on Afghanistan and believed that there were many other options in terms of dealing with the 9/11 attacks – what was crucial was to change US foreign policy. Instead, the legitimacy that the supporters of the war on Afghanistan gave to it allowed Canadian foreign policy to be brought even more into alignment with that of the US.

How has feminist organizing changed in Canada?

Feminist organizing has certainly changed a lot over the course of the years. When I first became active, there were very few women of colour organizations. There were even fewer women of colour who were comfortable working in mainstream women’s organizations. This changed very dramatically in the 1980s and ‘90s when many more anti-racist women’s organizations were created by women of colour and many more activist women of colour went into mainstream organizations and brought anti-racist feminist politics into these organizations. That has been an important transformation.

But now I feel like we’re seeing those politics backslide. We’re seeing a re-emergence of mainstream women’s organizations that have little to do with women of colour, and often blame women of colour for the decline of their particular brand of feminist politics. NAC was a classic example of that. Once women of colour emerged in the leadership, many white women left the organization and then blamed the women of colour for the decline in NAC’s stature. I think that’s leading to another important moment of transformation, and it might be very dangerous for us.

Right now, in the context of the “war on terror,” we are facing a barrage of claims about the supremacy of Western values. This is leading to a resurgence of white supremacy, and the banner of the superiority of Western values is often being carried by Western feminists – as we have seen in debates about veiling, sharia, and “saving” Afghan women. I see feminist organizing changing for the worse with this new self-assertive and self-confident white feminism, which supports the structures of white supremacy internationally. I think this is a moment of great setback for anti-racist feminists and feminists of colour primarily because of the very crass and self-confident assertion of white supremacy within feminist and other left movements. The “war” is to defend “Western civilization,” claims the Bush Administration. Unfortunately, many white feminists have adopted this project quite willingly. They are also participating in the further demonization of Islam by casting it as inherently prone to violence, and by viewing Muslim men as hyper-misogynist.

Given class and racialized divisions, do you still feel it’s useful to talk about “the feminist movement,” or do we need new terms and concepts to rename feminism?

New terms and new political concepts are always needed as social conditions change – they’re always necessary and it’s very important that we continue to develop them because the social order is never static. That said, I have thus far refused to give up the term “feminism.” I don’t think we can give it over to white feminists. I keep using the category “feminism” and I keep talking about “feminist movements.” I don’t think there is one single feminism, and I don’t think we can accept feminism as it has been defined by white-centered women. Women of colour and anti- racist feminists have invented new terms – like womanist – and new political concepts throughout history. These concepts highlight the intersectional nature of social relations, so we certainly need them – and perhaps now more than ever, since so much political discourse has fallen in line with the perspective of the war on terror. New terms and new understandings of old political concepts are certainly needed. But I refuse, at least for the time being, to give up “feminism.”

What do you think of today’s feminists and the work they are doing?

I think it’s heartening that there’s a young generation of feminists in this country working very hard to improve women’s lives. It’s important that so many young women are active today. What’s interesting to me is that many of them are not active in the women’s movement. If we look at the anti-war movement, or the environmental movement, or the immigrant rights movement, we see that many of these organizations have women activists in the leadership, but not in the name of feminism itself. Sometimes feminism is not even included within their organizing framework, but I think that’s okay. I think that young women need to be organizing from different spaces and in different movements.

However, one thing I worry about is the influence that second wave feminism has had in countries like Canada, where sometimes women’s rights have been framed within the context of individual choice. For a long time the second wave slogan “the personal is political” was taken to mean personal freedom and individual choice for women. I think that particular tendency within second wave feminism has promoted a kind of individualism and self-centeredness among young women that can be very damaging in the long-term.

Feminism for me was never only about individual freedom or individual choice. It always had to do with social responsibility, collective responsibility, and collective well-being. I worry about the focus on individualism that was so central to second wave feminism and how it has influenced young feminists today. I often have young women in my classes who will argue that – since they can choose what they wear, where they can go, and what kinds of jobs they can do – women are therefore free. The systemic and structural nature of women’s oppression is not visible to them and the “individual choice” version of feminism they espouse is not much of a threat to the status quo.

What would it take to rebuild the Canadian women’s movement? What are the obstacles to doing so?

It would take an inspiring vision of an alternative, and a lot of energy, dedication and commitment. Fundamentally, I think the vision is vital. Feminists need to ask some crucial questions: how do we think about possible feminist futures, and how do we think we can get there from where we are now? How can we develop a vision that speaks to the experiences, hopes, and dreams of the most disenfranchised women? What is the vision that could bring together groups of women who work in different organizations? How do we involve different movements and the many young women who are not even active today? We need to articulate what kind of community and society the feminist movement wants to build. We also need the resources to do this kind of organizing, and I don’t just mean financial resources. We need organizing capacity, which can certainly be augmented by funding but is not reducible to it. I think a strong vision and a commitment by groups of women who say they’re going to dedicate their energies to rebuilding a strong movement in Canada is what’s needed to reinvigorate the movement. It is not an easy task, but it is a vital one.

One of the biggest obstacles I see is articulating a vision that can inspire and bring women together. Globalization has created so many divisions at the international level, but also in the women’s community at the national and local levels. Some women are doing quite well under globalization, and many are not. We need to articulate a politics that is more effective in holding the women who have profited from globalization accountable. At the same time, we need to focus on issues of poverty, racism, indigenous rights, and anti-imperialism. This means that feminism must think of itself very differently and move away from the perspective where gender is the primary consideration. This vision, which speaks to the richness of our histories and experiences of living outside the mainstream, is one that many women of colour have been attempting to articulate.

What are some of the enduring lessons from the NAC experience?

The enduring lesson of NAC is that it was the only place in mainstream society, in any mainstream social justice movement, where the question of anti-racism became central to the agenda, politics, and organizing. I’m not saying this didn’t happen in coalitions and communities of colour where anti-racist or feminist politics have been central. That’s been happening for a long time. But in terms of mainstream movements and institutions, and in terms of national organizations, NAC was the first place where anti-racist feminist politics were central even if only for a short time. That will be an enduring legacy even though NAC was not ultimately able to sustain those politics and carry them forward. Despite our limitations and divisions, we shook up the whole country when we put forward that agenda. We also influenced other social justice movements and I think we had a far wider, broader, and – I hope – far deeper impact than we can see right now.

Women of colour have been able to move ahead in all sorts of spaces, even to the position of Governor General. I believe that the anti-racist feminist movement contributed much to opening up those spaces. It forced mainstream society to think of itself differently than it did before, and I think that will be one of the legacies of NAC’s anti-racist politics.

It seems that many feminist organizations are in the process of becoming social service organizations rather than social change organizations because of their reliance of state funding. How do you feel this dynamic impacts the current women’s movement in Canada?

Many feminist organizations do not see the provision of services as different from social change work – they try to do both at the same time. Of course, there were many organizations that were very comfortable slipping into the role of social service provider. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that there were many groups that – even when receiving state funding – developed services for women but also saw the provision of services as part of an empowerment strategy.

In this country, liberal feminists were the most comfortable getting state funding and slipping into a social service role. The more radical feminist groups tried to do social change and service provision at the same time. It’s interesting that when liberal feminists were at the leadership of the women’s movement, state funding was available and they didn’t have to fight for it. Ultimately, it was a means by which the state contained women’s organizing, and I think liberal feminists were quite comfortable in that role. But when national women’s organizations became more radical and more militant, we saw cuts in state funding.

State funding itself is a complex issue. There is an argument to be made that, if women are not participating equally in the political structures of the society, then the state has an obligation to fund organizations to provide services to ensure women’s needs are met and to enable their political participation. We need to keep making that argument. Of course the state will use the funding to contain the movement’s radicalism and disempower its militants. It’s a double-edged sword: the women’s movement has been far more dependent on state funding here than in many other parts of the world and now we’re paying the price for that. As soon as state funding was cut, many organizations did not survive. We have to ask ourselves: what kind of movement dies when the state pulls its funding?

It’s naïve to think the state will provide funding for you to actually bring about social change. But it’s still strategic, I think, to insist that women’s organizations have a right to this funding. The smart thing is to not rely solely on state funding, but to use state funding to become self-supporting and to push the movement’s agenda further. At the same time, because many women’s organizations became so comfortable with state funding, they stopped many organizers who wanted to develop an independent funding base for organizing. They didn’t support the ideas proposed by women of colour activists, whose organizations have never been funded by the state. White women-centered organizations were really comfortable with their access to the state and with their inclusion in state consultations and policy-making conferences. They were really comfortable with the funding they received and were actually against attempts to become self-reliant.

How did the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the trade union movement relate to NAC? Did these organizations assist in the development of a radical feminist practice or did they hold it back?

When I was president of NAC, we had a much closer relationship with the trade union movement than we did with the NDP. The trade union movement and the NDP were generally supportive of NAC and the women’s movement – particularly the more radical trade unions. But in terms of their analysis of racism or their understanding of anti-racist feminism, the commitment wasn’t as strong. I don’t think they understood the issue clearly.

In 1996, NAC and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) organized the cross-Canada Women’s March Against Poverty. At that time, both the trade union movement – most clearly the women’s committees – and the women’s movement put the poverty of women at the centre of our political organizing. Unfortunately, not much has been written about this march. In fact, that’s one of the things I continue to be very disappointed about. Middle-class feminists wanted to write about NAC, and feminist organizing like the abortion caravan and the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. They wanted to talk about how inspiring that organizing had been. Yet these same women have not acknowledged that an incredibly important cross-Canada women’s march took place under the leadership of women of colour. They act as if the Women’s March Against Poverty never took place. Despite their lack of interest, the march was an important moment because it was the first time the women’s movement in this country made women’s poverty the primary issue.

The women of the CLC were very much part of the March Against Poverty and that was very important. But because the leadership was women of colour, other feminists – even the most sympathetic white feminists – continue to erase that organizing. Although the CLC and the trade union movement are very sympathetic on women’s issues and gender equality, when it comes to anti-racist feminism, they tend to shy away. They don’t want to deal with this very difficult issue.

Today, of course, the situation is different, and many feminists are frustrated by the trade union movement. The labour movement has participated in the anti-war movement, but often at the expense of issues like Palestine. By not having an anti-racist politics, the labour movement has really limited its contribution to the anti-war movement. And while we have to continue working with them whenever we can, it’s a very frustrating experience. It sets a limit to how far we can go with the trade union movement.

In addition to being gendered, both Canadian society and the labour hierarchy remain deeply racialized. However sympathetic the trade union movement is on gender issues, if they fail to engage with how gender is racialized, they will limit how far the movement is able to go and how much change it is able to bring about.

You’ve written about the racialized category of terrorism in the context of immigration, security, and citizenship. How has the current climate impacted feminist organizing?

I think the current climate has had a very negative impact on women’s organizing. The category “terrorism” and the archetypical “terrorist” are associated with the immigrant and refugee Muslim. Unfortunately, many feminists and women’s groups have accepted this definition. Many feminists see themselves as “saving” Muslim women. They have been seduced by the way the war on terror has been framed ideologically as a fight against misogynist Muslim men who are medieval fanatics, and who not only hate women but also threaten the national security of the US, Canada and “Western” civilization itself. Many feminists have wholeheartedly accepted this framing and consequently have reproduced extremely damaging stereotypes of Muslim men and women. We are seeing a brazen return of the “civilizing” mission of the “West” that remains at the heart of white supremacy.

This framework has opened the door for a self-Orientalizing process among communities of colour. Muslim women who self-Orientalize by reproducing notions of Western superiority and Islamic misogyny – and especially the strereotype of Muslim men as misogynist and fanatic – have suddenly found that many doors previously closed to them have been opened up. They have found space in the media; they are now able to make films and get books published. But the price for this is that they must collaborate with a very racialized imperialist agenda – something for which they are celebrated in the mainstream. Any woman who is willing to stand up and attack Islam and Muslim men gets a lot of support and her bravery is lauded. She becomes a celebrity. The West holds these women up as role models, as examples of Muslim women who can be civilized and who are grateful for it.

The women’s movement, and indeed feminism, is going to stand or fall on the question of how it deals with this “war on terror,” which is remaking the world and our future. Feminism is going to have to oppose this war, in all its aspects. In Canada, it is going to have to oppose further involvement in Afghanistan. It has to work to break the Canadian alliance with the US. We have to foster a sense of social justice that doesn’t play into the current co-optation of human rights happening with the international NGO community. Feminism will either stand up and rise to the occasion and become an oppositional force against imperialism, or it will become historically and ethically bankrupt – nothing more than a handmaiden to imperialism.

Western feminism has played that role in the past. It colluded with colonialism and slavery. It colluded with empire-building. I think this is a moment where other forms of feminism must stand up against co-optation and transform the movement. Otherwise feminism will become one more instance of collaboration. It will be remembered as a movement that was contained, neutralized, and that actually sustained and strengthened American and Canadian imperialism so that they could continue their rampage over the globe.

Have you found anarchism and Marxism useful for understanding oppression?

Marxism and anarchism have both had a major impact on my thinking and political development. I think the anarchist critique of centralized state power has been very important. On a theoretical level, I think it’s an important development, but there are serious practical limitations that need to be addressed. For example, how would anarchist theory respond to the political developments in Venezuela? How would an anarchist support somebody like Hugo Chavez? What about Palestine and Hamas? Or Lebanon and Hezbollah? What would anarchists have to say about those situations? What do anarchists have to say about the resistance in Iraq or Afghanistan? I think anarchism advances a very good critique of centralized state power but, when societies come under foreign occupation, I question how much anarchism has to offer.

The question of centralized state power is very important and needs to be addressed. Both Marxism and anarchism are very important critiques of capitalism and they come from very important radical traditions in the West. However, I think they are limited because they continue to be shaped by the idea that lies at the heart of all Western ideologies – that they have to remake and educate primitive societies and primitive cultures in their Western image. Both Marxism and anarchism are limited by their core Western ideas and values. Black Marxist Cedric Robinson said “Marx made the mistake of equating European history with world history,” and I think he was absolutely right.

For me, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist politics are much better at shaking up Western supremacy and Western power. Anti-racist and anti-colonial movements have a radical critique of Western society, of its values and beliefs, and of how power has been organized to maintain Western domination. I feel that Marxist and anarchist movements in the West are seriously limited when they refuse to challenge some of their notions of Western supremacy – political supremacy, racial supremacy, and supremacy in terms of knowledge and ideology. These two movements are not able to completely critique and transform this core of Western ideology. Anarchism and Marxism can help us get a better understanding of capitalism, and of Western societies, but ultimately they are hindered by the frameworks they continue to reproduce in their practice, in their concepts, and in the knowledge they produce.