Canada’s Women Heroes : Sunera Thobani

Women who Named the Unnamed
Celebrate the (here and) Now

Sunera Thobani

Challenging the Colonial Overtones of Classic Saviour Rhetoric
By Rahat Kurd

Today, the United States is one of the most dangerous and the most powerful global forces that is unleashing prolific levels of violence all over the world. From Chile to El Salvador, to Nicaragua to Iraq, the path of U.S. foreign policy is soaked in blood.

Speaking at a feminist conference in Ottawa in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, Sunera Thobani in her speech ‘War Frenzy’, expressed clear alarm about the drums of war which were sounding from elected officials and opinion-makers in Canada and the US. She reminded her listeners how the 1991 US war against Iraq was followed by sanctions which had led to untold numbers of civilian deaths, and how exiled Palestinians had been living in refugee camps for (then) 50 years. Harkening back to the words of Angela Davis who had spoken a warning about the impact of the Vietnam war on women’s lives in the 1970s, she called upon Canadian feminists to stand against war and military occupation. ‘There is nothing new about this ‘war on terrorism’,’ she insisted. ‘This is more of the same that we have been fighting against for so many decades.’

The censure Sunera faced following this speech was immediate, infamously punitive (the RCMP investigated her for an anonymous hate crime allegation), and overwhelmingly ugly (she endured hate mail and threatening messages for several weeks, although the police matter was dropped). She credits the supportive letters written by members of immigrant communities with saving her job, against an aggressive corporate media drive to have her fired. But eighteen years after they were written, the words of her speech, War Frenzy, remain an eye-wateringly lucid indictment of militaristic abuses of power that continue to cause destruction and disruption in the lives of women from the US-Mexico border to Yemen to Palestine.

Resisting erasures of complexity within various strands of feminist thought, Sunera’s work pays careful attention to the anti-racist and anti-colonial scholarship and activism of Black and Indigenous women, and women in the global south, that have preceded and animated her own. Her practice of naming and acknowledging the influence of antecedents and peers rather than making claims of unprecedented innovation demonstrates her commitment to building solidarity. When pro-war voices called for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, in the name of Afghan women’s liberation and equality, Sunera was quick to point out the colonial overtones of classic saviour rhetoric.

Critical race feminists have a very different story to tell and it doesn’t fall quite so neatly into liberal socialist or radical feminism, or first-wave, second-wave, third wave. The story to be told there is of anti-colonial feminists, black feminists for whom the struggles against slavery and its ongoing legacy and impact in the lives of black communities continues to remain central, and anti-imperialist feminists for whom the, north-south divide and imperialism continues to remain central to their politics…there is a much stronger, a much longer continuity around the alliances that we’ve tried to build.’

Sunera’s rigorous analysis of the construction of race and nationalism, EXALTED SUBJECTS (2007) is considered required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the making of Canada as a colonial nation state. The pathbreaking study also provides a durable foundation for readers who wish to understand the current rise of violent xenophobia, authoritarian governments, and the politics of exclusion which not only continue to target racialized and historically vulnerable populations around the world in 2019 but to normalize white supremacy in ways that have even begun to threaten the conventional public narrative, firmly entrenched since World War II, of Western liberal democratic triumphalism.

Race is one of the founding blocs of capitalism, of modernity, of the global order as we are experiencing it today, of questions of sovereignty, power, subjectivity and nation-state formation. Race is foundational to all of these phenomena and entities and structures and systems with which we live. If race doesn’t emerge as central in a transformative vision, if race is not addressed, it poses very serious limits to transformative politics. And when I say race, I think that Islamophobia is an articulation of race politics, it is a racialization of Muslims. So that when we talk about Muslims today we know that in practice the category doesn’t only apply to practicing Muslims. Instead, ‘Muslim’ is used to apply to black and brown bodies. The young man who was shot by British security services in London was Brazilian but he was described as ‘Pakistani-looking’. So we know that the ways Islamophobia gets articulated the ways it actually targets black and brown bodies, for surveillance, for the harsh measures of the security state, means that Islamophobia is a discourse of racialization of our times.’

Sunera was born in Tanzania in 1957. After studying in England and the United States, she earned her Ph.D. in Sociology at Simon Fraser University in Canada in 1998. In recent years her research has included such topics as the War on Terror, the mass killings of Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, and the representation of Muslim women in Bollywood films. She has been teaching at the University of British Columbia since 2000, and is currently an associate professor at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice, and a co-founder of Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equality/Equity or R.A.C.E., a ‘non-profit committed to anti-racist, anti-colonial, and feminist scholarship and praxis’.

Sunera’s distinguished record as an activist in solidarity with global justice struggles, however, deserves particular recognition, for evincing the spirited agility of a compassionate intellect. Beginning from a young age (while she was a Master’s student in England, she spent a year living and working as a volunteer in occupied Palestine) and sustained through her academic career, Sunera aligned herself with the South African anti-apartheid struggle, Third World solidarity, and South Asian feminist movements, and against nuclear proliferation as a student in the US. But it was not until after she moved to Canada and became involved with the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, eventually being elected its president in 1993, that her qualifications and experience drew the reactionary notice of certain Canadians, including an MP who went so far as to question her citizenship status.

The decision for me to run as the president of NAC was not a personal decision; it was a collective decision that was made by the Women of Colour caucus within NAC. So the existence of that really strong caucus also gets erased in the story of ‘me arriving [in Canada in 1989] and four years later I’m president’, because, of course, the history of women of colour organizing within NAC is much, much older. The Women of Colour caucus made the decision that it was time…

An interdisciplinary scholar, Sunera Thobani is one of the foremost critical feminist thinkers currently working in Canada and around the world, creating new pathways for understanding the production of social, political and economic injustice through her work as a critical race feminist.

Researched & written by Rahat Kurd, with thanks to Seemi Ghazi for support. Quotations from ‘A Very Public Intellectual’, an interview conducted by William K. Carroll in Vancouver and published in Socialist Studies volume 8 (2), 2012.

Rahat Kurd is a Vancouver-based writer, editor and poet. She is currently at work on a critical memoir about the transformation of Muslim identity, once a matter of private conscience, into a politicized public spectacle. She recently guest edited the Puritan Magazine’s Summer 2019 issue on the theme, “What Does It Mean to be a Muslim Writer?” Her first collection of poetry, COSMOPHILIA, was published by Talonbooks in 2015.

Women Who Named the Unnamed
Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes

Saturday, September 28, 2019
6 – 9 PM
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