Cover Story

The Speech that Shook the Country  by Sunera Thobani
The Speech that Shook the Country

Sunera Thobani's speech at the "Women's Resistance: From Victimization to Criminalization" conference in Ottawa on October 1 2001, provoked a storm of controversy after her remarks were interpreted as blaming the September 11th terrorist attacks on U.S. foreign policy. Canada's Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, described it as a "terrible speech that we are 100 percent against."

Following attacks against Ms Thobani in newspapers based on isolated segments of address, the University of British Columbia professor received hate messages and threats. The publishers of Herizons believe that Ms Thobani's original speech, given three weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, belongs on the public record. What follows is the entire text of her speech.

By Sunera Thobani

When I was invited to speak on the current global crisis, I thought I would call my talk, "If We Are All Americans Now, What Is A Brown Girl To Do?" If we in the West are all Americans now, what are third world women and aboriginal women to do? If Canadians are Americans now, what are women of colour to do in this country?

We are living in a period of escalating global interaction now on every front, on every level. And we have to recognize that this particular phase of globalization is rooted in the colonization of aboriginal peoples and third world peoples all over the world. That is the basis for the current phase of globalization. And recognizing that we are on aboriginal land is a very, very important starting point for any one of our movements. But that can not be the end point. We have to recognize that there will be no social justice, no anti-racism, no feminist emancipation, no liberation of any kind for anybody on this continent unless aboriginal people win their demand for self-determination.

The second point I want to make is that there are profound injustices in the global order that we live in. For centuries, third world women have been making the point that no liberation for women will be successful unless it seeks to transform the fundamental divide between the North and the South, between third world people and those in the West who are now calling themselves "Americans." There will be no emancipation for women anywhere on this planet until the Western domination of this planet is ended. Especially as all of us are being herded into the possibility of a massive war at the behest of the United States. We need to hear those words even more clearly today.

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. All of us have seen and felt the dramatic pain of watching the September 11th attacks and are trying to grasp the facts of the numbers of people who died. We feel the pain of those attacks every day; we have been watching it replayed constantly on television.

But do we feel any pain for the victims of U.S. aggression? Two hundred thousand people were killed in the initial war on Iraq. That bombing of Iraq has continued for 10 years now. Do we feel the pain of all the children in Iraq who are dying from the sanctions that were imposed by the United States? Do we feel that pain on an everyday level? Do we share it with our families and our communities and talk about it on every platform that is available to us? Do we feel the pain of Palestinians who now for 50 years have been living in refugee camps? U.S. foreign policy is soaked in blood. And other countries of the West including "shamefully" Canada, cannot line up fast enough behind it. All want to sign up now as Americans and I think it is the responsibility of the women’s movement in this country to stop that, to fight against it.

These policies are hellbent on the West maintaining its control over the world’s resources at whatever cost to the people. Pursuing American corporate interest should not be Canada’s national interest. This new fight, this new war against terrorism that is being launched, it’s a very old fight of the West against the Rest. Consider the language that is being used. Calling the perpetrators "evil doers," calling them "uncivilized" intent on "destroying civilization," intent on "destroying democracy." They "hate freedom" we are told. Every person of colour, and I would say every Aboriginal person will recognize that language. The language of "the forces of darkness," this language is rooted in the colonial legacy. It was used to justify our colonization by Europe. We were colonized in the name of the West bringing civilization, democracy, bringing freedom to us. All of us recognize who is being talked about when that language is being used.

The terms "crusade," "infinite justice," the cowboy imagery of "wanted: dead or alive" posters, we all know what they mean. The West, people in the West also recognize who this fight is against. Calls heard all over the Western world that, "We are all Americans now." People who are saying that, recognize who this fight is against. People who are attacking Muslims, any persons of colour who looks like they could be from the Middle East without distinguishing them, they recognize who this fight is against. These are not just the slips of the tongue that Mr. Bush quickly tries to reject. They reveal a thinking, a mindset. And it is horrific to think that the fate of the world hangs on the plans of people like that.

It will be a big mistake if we just accept that these are slips of mind, just slips of the tongue. They’re not. They reveal the thinking, and the thinking is based on dominating the rest of the world in the name of bringing freedom and civilization to it. Look at the people who are being targeted for attack. Hindu temples are attacked. Muslim mosques are attacked, regardless of where these Muslims actually come from. These people recognize who this fight is against. And it is due to the strength of anti-racist organizing that President Bush has been forced to visit mosques, that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has been forced also to visit mosques and speak out against these attacks. We should recognize that it is the strength of anti-racist organizing which is forcing them to make those remarks.

But even as they visit mosques and even as they make these conciliatory noises, they are talking out of both sides of their mouth because they are officially sanctioning racial profiling at the borders, in the United States for entrance into training schools for pilots, at every step of the way. On an airplane, who is ‘suspicious’ and who is not? Racial profiling is being officially sanctioned and officially introduced. In Canada the guidelines that The Globe and Mail leaked were given to immigration officers at the border to step up security measures. So, on the one hand, they say ‘No, it’s not all Muslims,’ and on the other hand they say ‘Yes, we are going to use racial profiling because it is reasonable.’

We have to see how they are perpetrating racism against people of colour at the same time that they claim to be speaking out against it. These are the conditions within which children are being bullied and targeted in schools, women are being chased in parking lots and shopping malls, we are being scrutinized as we come to conferences. You can feel the coldness when you enter the airport. I have been travelling in this country for 10 years and I have never had the experience that I had flying down here for this conference. All of us feel it. So this racial profiling has to be stopped.

Events of the last two weeks also show that the American people that Mr. Bush is trying to invoke "whoever they are these American people, just like we contest notions of who the Canadian people are"we have to recognize that there are other voices in the United States as well, contesting that construction. But the people, the American nation that Bush is invoking, is a people which is bloodthirsty, vengeful and calling for blood. They don’t care whose blood it is, they want blood. And that has to be confronted.

We cannot keep calling this an understandable response. We cannot say ‘Yes, we understand that this is how people would respond because of the attacks.’ We have to stop condoning it and creating a climate of acceptability for this kind of response. We have to call it for what it is: bloodthirsty vengeance. People in the United States are contesting Mr. Bush’s nation as we have seen peace marches all over this weekend. President Bush’s definition of the American nation and the American people needs to be challenged here. How can he keep calling the U.S. a democracy? How can we keep saying that his response is understandable after President Bush of all people, who stole the election, how can we ever accept that this is a democracy?

Canada’s approach has been mixed. It has said, ‘Yes, we will support the United States, but with caution.’ We want to know what actions will be undertaken before we sign on, has been Canada’s approach. And I have to say we have to go much further. Canada has to say we reject U.S. policy in the Middle East. We do not support it. It is really interesting to hear all this current talk about saving Afghan women. For a long time now, Afghan women and the struggles that they were engaged in were known here in the West. Afghan women became almost the poster child for women’s oppression in the third world. And many of us were in solidarity when Afghan women were fighting and struggling against the Taliban, condemning the Taliban’s particular interpretation of Islam. Afghanistan women’s organizations were on the front line of this. But what did they become in the West? They became nothing but poor victims of this bad, bad religion and of these backward, backward men. The same old colonial construction.

We did not take the lead from them then, we turned them into victims worthy of our pity and today, even in the United States, people are ready to bomb those very same women, seeing them as nothing more than collateral damage. You see how quickly the world can change on you. And I say that we take the lead from the Afghan women. They fought back against the Taliban, and when they were fighting back they said that it was the United States’ support that put this regime in power. They were saying, "Look at U.S. foreign policy!" They were trying to draw our attention to who was responsible for this state of affairs, to who was actually supporting repressive regimes, as women all over the Middle East have been doing. So I say we take the lead from them and even if there is no American bombing of Afghanistan, which is what all of us should be working right now to do, is to stop any move to bomb Afghanistan. Even if there is no bombing of Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people have already been displaced, fleeing the threat of war you see the power of America, right?

One word in Washington and millions of people are forced to flee their houses, their communities. We have to bear in mind how many women’s lives have already been disrupted, destroyed and that it will take generations for them to put back together again. Inevitably, and very depressing in Canada, is of course the turning to the enemy within"immigrants and refugees. All of the right-wing forces in this country are calling for tighter immigration laws. This is depressing for women of colour, immigrant and refugee women. If anything happens now, even if George Bush was to get a cold, we know somehow it’ll be the fault of immigrants and refugees in Canada, and our ‘lax’ border policies.

I want you to understand how this anti-immigrant sentiment continues to be resurrected any time over anything in the world. In terms of any kind of military action, Angela Davis (an American activist) asked in the 70s, 'Do you think the men who are going to fight in Vietnam" who are going to kill Vietnamese women and children, who are raping Vietnamese women"do you think they will come home and there will be no effect of all of this? On women in the United States?’

She was asking this in the 70s. That question is as relevant today. All these fighters that are going to be sent there, do we think there will be no effect on us when they come back? So I think that is something that we need to think about as we talk about the responses, as we talk about this kind of jingoistic militarism. And recognize that as the most heinous form of patriarchal, racist violence that we’re seeing on the globe today. The women’s movement, we have to stand up to this. There’s no option for us, we have to fight back against this militarization and we have to break the support that is being built in our countries for this kind of attack. We have to recognize that the fight is for control of the vast oil and gas resources in central Asia, for which Afghanistan is a key, strategic point! There’s nothing new about this ‘war on terrorism.’ This is more of the same that we have been fighting against for so many decades. And we have to recognize that the calls that are coming from progressive groups in the third world and from their supporters and allies in the rest of the world, the three key demands they are asking for. End the bombing of Iraq and lift the sanctions on Iraq. Who in this room will not support that demand?

Resolve the Palestinian question. And remove the American military bases in the Middle East. Who will not support these demands? We have to recognize that these demands are rooted in anti-imperialist struggles and that we have to support these demands. We need to end the racist colonization of Aboriginal peoples in this country, certainly, but we need to make common cause with women across the world who are fighting to do this. Only then can we talk about anti-racist, feminist politics, only then can we talk about international solidarity in women’s movements across the world. The lesson we have learned and the lesson that our politicians should have learned is that you cannot slaughter people into submission.

For 500 years the West has believed that it can slaughter people into submission and it has not been able to do so, and it will not be able to do so this time either.

Thank you very much.