Thobani Speech Prompts Outpouring of Support

Article excerpt

(VANCOUVER) It seems hard to believe that a speech delivered on October 1, 2001 could whip the Canadian media, parliament and the country into such a frenzy. Had Sunera Thobani spoken the words on any day prior to September 11, they would surely have been ignored.

But she didn't and they weren't.

Thobani's comments came three weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the U.S. Petntagon. The former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women used harsh words to describe American foreign policy, President George W. Bush's immediate attempt to deal with the crisis and Canada's quickness to follow suit. The words that had originally been reserved to characterize terrorism were soon plastered all over newspapers across Canada, attributing to her a characterization of Americans in general as "bloodthirsty."

Thobani, a women's studies professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC), was the first of many women who spoke at the three-day conference in Ottawa organized by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) and the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres (CASAC). "Women's Resistance: From Victimization to Criminalization," attracted 500 delegates who met to discuss the justice system and issues that relate to violence against women. Thobani's speech brought delegates to their feet in applause no less than five times.

The next day, Thobani was denounced in editorials in major newspapers and the feminist movement was called into question. The speech was criticized in Parliament, prompting opposition members to accuse Multiculturalism minister Hedy Fry for "standing shoulder to shoulder" with Thobani because she did not walk off the stage in protest. Fry capitulated by condemning Thobani's speech and the federal government was slammed for contributing $80,000 to the conference. Upon her return home to Vancouver, Thobani found her voice mail and email inboxes full of sexist, racist and pornographic messages. Someone complained to the RCMP that Thobani had committed a hate crime. The accusation was later dropped and the RCMP apologized for having made it public.

What frustrated her most about the reaction to her speech was that there was very little discussion in the mainstream media about the content of her speech.

"The really serious issues were not being discussed and instead it was a kind of personal vilification and humiliation that many journalists and editors across the country resorted to," Thobani says. "So again, I have the same kind of response as I did to the hate mail: how can you deal with this? When somebody resorts to this kind of name calling and does not actually deal with the substance of my speech, there's just no way you can deal with them."

Thobani stopped speaking to the mainstream media because she believed that the media's reaction to her speech was jingoistic war mongering. "They all rushed to get on the band wagon," she recalls. "It became anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, anti-Sunera Thobani.... I would have been much more satisfied had there been a reasonable discussion of the issues."

It wasn't all negative. Says Thobani, "I did manage to create a space where dissenting voices could actually stand up and say `No, we actually do not support this war.' So in that sense I think it was positive because it did manage to crack through this awful war mongering that we've all been exposed to since September 11."

Other academics supported her position that dissenting voices were being threatened. Vice-president Barry McBride of UBC immediately said that the university supported her right to speak her mind. …