The words are spoken softly, but with delicate precision. They flow in the melodious lilt of the Indian subcontinent, home of her ancestors, but with more than just a hint of North London. In her 35 years, Sunera Thobani has travelled many roads—and three continents—before landing in Toronto last month, where she officially began her duties as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). But while Thobani’s personal style is much more muted than that of her firebrand predecessor, Judy Rebick, she is no shrinking violet. And with a federal election call expected within the next few weeks, the new head of the NAC, which claims a membership of three million women across the country, is eager to enter the fray.
‘This is a critical year,” she says. “On the whole, things are getting worse for women. The choices we make as a society could take us further along this path—or get us off it.”
From the delicate flower of jewelry piercing her left nostril to her salwars (loose fitting, Indian-style pants gathered at the ankles), Thobani represents a dramatic shift from the traditionally white middle-class leadership of the 22-yearold NAC. Add to that the fact that she is an immigrant, a woman of color and a single parent, and Thobani is the embodiment of the sort of political correctness that many associate with the NAC. “I think,” she says with a smile, “the organization was looking for a person like that.”
Indeed, the pace of Thobani’s ascension to the presidency of Canada’s most prominent feminist organization has been breathtaking. She ran unopposed for the post at the NAC’s annual meeting in Saskatoon on June 6, barely two years after she first joined the organization. She entered Canada on a student visa in 1989, received landed immigrant status in April and intends to take out citizenship in 1996. Both Thobani and her supporters within the NAC say that it is her résumé, not her race, that qualifies her for the position. “We are breaking a taboo by electing a woman of
color to lead a mixed-race organization,” says Rebick. “And I think that people think that it must be some kind of put-up job because she couldn’t have achieved it herself. It’s the kind of racism that is pervasive throughout our society.”
According to Thobani, repeated brushes with racism have shaped her political ac-
tivism. While her grandparents on both sides of the family were originally from northern India, her mother Roshan, 62, was born in Tanzania and her father, Nurali, who died of a heart attack at 58 last year, was born in Uganda. Thobani herself was born in Bukoba, on the shore of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. In 1970, her parents moved Sunera, then 13, and her two sisters, Munira, 12, and Karima, 11, to London. “We wanted to make sure the girls had the best possible education,” says Roshan.
The family settled in North London, where Nurali, who had worked as an electrician in Tanzania, took a job as a pipe fitter. Thobani excelled at school—but she also had her first encounter with racism. “Nobody would sit next to me in school,” recalls Thobani. “People would call me ‘Paki.’ When you’re young, it really hurts.”
young, In 1979, Thobani’s parents and sister Karima emigrated to Golden, Colo. Thobani remained in England, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from London’s Middlesex Polytechnic. After working at a number of odd jobs, including as a grocery clerk, bookkeeper and secretary, Thobani visited her parents and sister in Colorado in 1985. There, she met the father of her daughter, Sitara, now 8. “I have absolutely no contact with him,” says Thobani. “He has had nothing to do with my daughter since she was born.” After a brief return to England, Thobani and her infant daughter moved to Colorado in 1986. “I wanted to go to school, and I didn’t have much support in London,” she explains. “I knew that if I was close to my sister Karima, she would help me with my daughter.”
Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Thobani’s father lost his job as a pipe fitter. Her parents then moved north to Vancouver, where several of her father’s brothers had settled in the early 1970s after former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled all Asians from the country. In 1989, now with an MA in social sciences from the University of Colorado, Thobani joined her relatives in Vancouver. “I wanted my daughter to have a sense of family, not just me and her,” she says.
Thobani enrolled at Simon Fraser University and started work on a doctoral thesis on the experiences of immigrant women. But she also became increasingly immersed in a variety of minority rights and feminist causes. At a panel discussion on reproductive issues in Vancouver in November, 1990, Thobani gave an impassioned plea on behalf of migrant workersmostly from South Asia—who, she said were exposed to infertility risks as the\ toiled in the fruit and vegetable fields o: southern British Columbia. “It bothered me that women of color were working with pesticides and herbicides that were affecting their reproductive capacity, and they were not even part of the debate,” recalls Thobani. “We needed to say, ‘Look, the problem of infertility is not only that of middle-class white women who can afford $10,000 for in vitro fertilization.’ It is also a problem for poor women, for immigrant women who are working in unsafe conditions.”
Rebick, who heard Thobani speak in Vancouver, was struck by her eloquence and composure. "I remember thinking immedi-
ately that this is a person I’d like to see on the NAC executive. Later, when I started thinking about a replacement, I started focusing in on her.”
Thobani was elected to the 24-member NAC executive in June, 1991, and later served as co-chair of the organization’s committee on violence against women. She was approached last winter by several B.C. women’s groups about running for the $50,000-a-year Torontobased job of the NAC president. Initially reluctant because of the pressures the work would place on her personal life, Thobani finally de cided to seek the office after her family suffered another encounter with racism. Her mother was hit last winter by an icy snowball thrown by some white youths as she walked home from her job caring for the sick and elderly at Vancouver’s Paramed Agency. “When she was hit, that made up my mind,” recalls Thobani. “Who speaks for women like my mother?”
Thobani’s acclamation as the NAC president is part of a deliberate—and often divisive—make-over of an organization that was once the preserve of professional women. Under a 1991 amendment to the NAC’s constitution, one of four vice-presidents and all four member-at-large positions on the body’s executive are reserved for women of color, aboriginal women and women with disabilities. In fact, some critics say that the NAC has gone too far in trying to appease minority interests. “The NAC leadership is not as representative as it used to be,” says Liberal MP Mary Clancy, who serves as her party’s critic on women’s issues. “They have taken on the interests of doubly or triply disadvantaged women—and left mainstream women feeling alienated. Of course, disadvantaged women need help. But being a woman in this country is a disadvantage in itself.”
Thobani makes no apologies for the NAC’s determination to give minority women a higher profile. In fact, one of her key criticisms of a federal panel on violence against «"'men, which issued its final report on July 29, is that it failed to adequately address the concerns of minority groups, immigrants and die disabled. She is also scathing in her criticism of what she sees as some of the comnission’s more naïve recommendations—inluding one asking men to give up their need ir power and control and to pledge not to be iolent. “The whole thing is out of touch with eality,” she says. “The timing of this report is a cheap election ploy.”
Thobani is similarly outspoken in her views of Canada’s first female Prime Minister, who, she says, is no friend of feminism. “Kim Campbell’s position is not a victory for us if she does not use her position to help women,” she says. “As feminists, we look for feminist policies.” It is a litmus test that the NAC’s new leader intends to apply to all political parties and candidates in this fall’s federal election campaign.
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