VANCOUVER: It was Saturday night at an east end Chinese restaurant. Sunera Thobani was relaxing with a couple of old friends from the National Action Committee on the Status of Women after a massive turnout for a meeting on freedom of dissent held that afternoon.
As soon as she walked into the restaurant, a South Asian family asked her to come over. They congratulated her for speaking out. After dinner, a South Asian woman came over to the table and said, “I just wanted you to know, Ms. Thobani, that you gave my son the courage to speak from his heart in a national debating contest. He is only seventeen years old, and you inspired him to say what he really thinks about the war. I called him in Winnipeg [the location of the debating contest] just now and told him you were sitting at the next table. He said to thank you for your inspiration.”
One brief evening made it clear that Sunera Thobani is a hero to many in the South Asian community for the same reasons she was vilified in the corporate press.
That afternoon, the tremendous support she has in her hometown of Vancouver was also obvious. A hastily called meeting, organized only over the Internet, drew so many people that two simultaneous meetings had to be held — one in the hall and one in the park across the street.
Almost 500 people turned out to support Thobani, freedom of speech and an end to war.
Thobani spoke publicly for the first time since the talk at an Ottawa feminist conference that was so vilified by politicians and much of the media. The audiences at both then and now greeted her perspective with enthusiasm: in Vancouver, she received two standing ovations.
“This attack was not just against me,” Thobani told the meeting “but against the anti-racist women’s movement.” She has been shocked by the racism and sexism of the hate mail and messages she has received.
“I know now every word for the female genitalia and all the hate words for those who are black, brown or Muslim.”
Thobani pointed out that American interests in Afghanistan go beyond finding Osama bin Laden. “When the U.S. looks at Afghanistan, all it sees is the oil pipeline.” Negotiations for a lucrative oil pipeline across Afghanistan ended in 1998.
She also pointed out the growing opposition to war that we hear so little about. Berkeley, California is the first U.S. city to pass a resolution opposing the bombing of Afghanistan. Her sister, who lives in London, England, called with the news that 25,000 people took to the streets there to call for an end to war. Thobani was particularly touched by the parents who lost a son in the terrible attack on the World Trade Towers who are now travelling around the U.S. speaking at anti-war events, saying they do not want more innocent people to suffer in their son’s name
The meeting was sponsored by a broad range of community organizations and unions. Valerie Raoul, the chair of the University of British Columbia’s Women’s Studies Department, where Thobani is employed, was also a featured speaker at the event. The deluge of hate mail has also been directed at their department and, surprisingly, at Women’s Studies Departments across the country.