Sunera Thobani is a women’s studies professor at the University of British Columbia and the former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Thobani has been criticized for a recent speech she gave at an Ottawa conference on violence against women. Below are excerpts from her response to her critics
…In the aftermath of the responses to my speech, I am more convinced than ever of the need to engage in the language and politics of embodied thinking and speaking. After all, it is the lives, and deaths, of millions of human beings we are discussing. This is neither a controversial nor a recent demand. Feminists (such as Mahasweta Devi, Toni Morrison, Gayatri Spivak and Patricia Williams) have forcefully drawn our attention to what is actually done to women’s bodies in the course of mapping out racist colonial relations. Frantz Fanon, one of the foremost theorists of decolonization, studied and wrote about the role of violence in colonial social organization and about the psychology of oppression; but he described just as readily the bloodied, violated black bodies and the “searing bullets” and “blood-stained knives” which were the order of the day in the colonial world. In attempting to draw attention to the violent effects of abstract and impersonal policies, I claim a proud intellectual pedigree.
I have been taken to task for stating that there will be no emancipation for women anywhere until western domination of the planet is ended. In my speech I pointed to the importance of Afghanistan for its strategic location near Central Asia’s vast resources of oil and natural gas. I think there is very little argument that the West continues to dominate and consume a vast share of the world’s resources. This is not a controversial statement. Many prominent intellectuals, journalists and activists alike, have pointed out that this domination is rooted in the history of colonialism and rests on the ongoing maintenance of the North/South divide, and that it will continue to provoke violence and resistance across the planet. I argued that in the current climate of escalating militarism, there will be precious little emancipation for women, either in the countries of the North or the South.
In the specific case of Afghanistan, it was the American administration’s economic and political interests which led to its initial support for, and arming of, Hekmatyar’s Hezb i Islami and its support for Pakistan’s collaboration in, and organization of, the Taliban regime in the mid-1990s. According to the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, the United States and Unocal conducted negotiations with the Taliban for an oil pipeline through Afghanistan for years in the mid-1990s. We have seen the horrendous consequences this has had for women in Afghanistan. When Afghan women’s groups were calling attention to this U.S. support as a major factor in the Taliban regime’s coming to power, we did not heed them. We did not recognize that Afghan women’s groups were in the front line resisting the Taliban and its Islamist predecessors, including the present militias of the Northern Alliance. Instead, we chose to see them only as ‘victims’ of ‘Islamic culture,’ to be pitied and ‘saved’ by the West. Time and time again, third world feminists have pointed out to us the pitfalls of rendering invisible the agency and resistance of women of the South, and of reducing women’s oppression to various third world ‘cultures.’ Many continue to ignore these insights. Now, the U.S. administration has thrown its support behind the Northern Alliance, even as Afghan women’s groups oppose the U.S. military attacks on Afghanistan, and raise serious concerns about the record of the Northern Alliance in perpetuating human rights abuses and violence against women in the country. If we listen to the voices of these women, we will very quickly be disabused of the notion that U.S. military intervention is going to lead to the emancipation of women in Afghanistan. Even before the bombings began, hundreds of thousands of Afghan women were compelled to flee their homes and communities and become refugees. The bombings of Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and other cities in the country will result in further loss of life, including the lives of women and children. Over three million Afghan refugees are now on the move in the wake of the U.S. attacks. How on earth can we justify these bombings in the name of furthering women’s emancipation?
My second point was that imperialism and militarism do not further women’s liberation in westerm countries either. Women have to be brought into line to support racist imperialist goals and practices, and they have to live with the men who have been brutalized in the waging of war when these men come back. Men who kill women and children abroad are hardly likely to come back cured of the effects of this brutalization. Again, this is not a very controversial point of view. Women are taught to support military aggressions, which is then presented as being in their “national” interest. These are hardly the conditions in which women’s freedoms can be furthered. As a very small illustration, just witness the very public vilification I have been subjected to for speaking out in opposition to this war.
I have been asked by my detractors that if I, as a woman, I am so critical of western domination, why do I live here? It could just as readily be asked of them that if they are so contemptuous of the non-western world, why do they so fervently desire the oil, trade, cheap labour and other resources of that world? Challenges to our presence in the West have long been answered by people of colour who say, We are here because you were (are?) there! Migrants find ourselves in multiple locations for a myriad of reasons, personal, historical and political. Wherever we reside, however, we claim the right to speak and participate in public life.
My speech was made to rally the women’s movement in Canada to oppose the war…The manner in which I have been vilified is difficult to understand, unless one sees it as a visceral response to an ‘ungrateful immigrant’ or an uppity woman of colour who dares to speak out. Vituperation and ridicule are two of the most common forms of silencing dissent. The subsequent harassment and intimidation which I have experienced, as have some of my colleagues, confirms that the suppression of debate is more important to many supporters of the current frenzied war rhetoric than is the open discussion of policy and its effects.