As a rape crisis worker and collective member of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, I participated in the “Women’s Resistance: From Victimization to Criminalization” conference, a national feminist gathering involving frontline anti-violence feminists and anti-prison feminists, along with many more of the best feminist minds in the country. This landmark conference, jointly organized by the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres and The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, was held in Ottawa on October 1 – 3, 2001.
Two weeks prior, just days after the September 11 destruction of the World Trade Towers in the United States, I emceed the Take Back the Night rally in Vancouver, Canada. The collective members of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, including myself, barely had time to take a breath from the shock of the events of September 11. We wondered whether we should carry on with the rally. As the organizers, we worried that women demonstrating for our own safety from rape and sexual assault in public spaces might be seen as tacky. We worried that the state might respond even more harshly than in past years when police had tried to restrict us to particular parts of the street or sidewalk, threatening us beforehand with fines, and blatantly videotaping our faces as we marched. We resolved to carry on. We decided it was our responsibility to speak against going to war or using any state-sponsored violence as a response to the September 11 attacks in New York.
As the MC, I planned to address what we knew would be on the minds of all the women at the rally, as well as those who might see us on television. I trusted that most women would be distressed about impending war, but there was not enough space yet for ordinary women to say “no” to war. I was nervous about the possibility of being ignored or dismissed. The voices of women had disappeared from the media, and as an Asian woman, I was nervous about incurring more racism. We had already lived through two years of particularly distressing anti-Chinese racism with the arrival of desperate refugees from China by boat. Added to that was the media’s relentless incitement of hatred toward anyone non-white since September 11.
At the rally, I could see the great relief on women’s faces as I declared that we would not call for more violence, and I saw more relief still as my sister collective member Tamar, a 22-year-old, Israeli-born Jewish woman, also urged a non-violent response that would increase everyone’s sense of humanity. As we marched through the downtown core, stopping traffic and encouraging women to join us rather than watch us, numerous women approached me to voice their appreciation for what Tamar and I had said. Our local media covered the protest, but made no mention of our opposition to war.
Two weeks later, at the Women’s Resistance Conference, Dr. Sunera Thobani, former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and a professor of Women’s Studies at the University of British Columbia, spoke passionately against war. Her words and analysis were welcomed with several standing ovations by the more than 500 women gathered to talk about violence against women and the criminalization of women. It was all captured and broadcast nationally on our Cable Parliamentary Access Channel, which covers Canadian legislative meetings and other significant meetings affecting public policy. (Her speech continues to be broadcast on CPAC.)
The next day, Dr. Thobani was on the front pages of the mainstream national newspapers and the personal attacks on her began. It shocked us that high-powered executives of major companies used their influence to get newspaper columns published calling for her firing. Some of those attacking her demanded that she be deported to Afghanistan.
Another, sneakier attack took place at the same time. Dr. Thobani was, and continues to be, pilloried in public, while the conference itself, the groups that participated, and the issues we had gathered to discuss were entirely ignored by the media.
Whether or not those at the conference agreed with everything Dr. Thobani said, her speech did open some space for feminists to discuss September 11, its political context, and the international response. Yet the media was unwilling to allow us public exposure on any other facets of the conference.
The conference was unique. It brought together grassroots activists who run rape crisis centres, women who had used rape crisis centres, anti-poverty workers, prisoner advocates and women who had done time in prison, supreme court judges, and some of the most brilliant feminist legal minds in the country. We found that we agreed with each other far more than we disagreed. We debated, but the debate was mostly about strategy. The women at the conference represented a significant and powerful force in the country. Perhaps that is why the media carefully avoided giving the rest of us any exposure. To do so would have sent out the message to women across the country that women’s organizing is still a powerful and legitimate force that draws the support and interest of a huge number of ordinary women.
Most of those attending the conference clearly saw the connection between state-sponsored violence and the violence that women are subject to in the home and on the streets. We saw the connection between the jailing of women and the raping of women and our enforced poverty, and we understood that all are methods of control. We knew that women always pay the greater price of any armed struggle. In the end, we confirmed that no matter what each of us prioritizes in our activism — whether gender, race or class — it is necessary to continue pushing forward and search for common ground.
I saw in those attending the conference the same feistiness, brains, and compassion that I see all the time in members of our collective — the members who stayed behind to take care of our precious centre and callers, as well as those of us worked to represent the organization to the rest of the country. These qualities made it possible to advance a collaboration across race, class, ideology, and geography in the few days of the conference as we spoke to each other on the panels and in the workshops.
It was hard to not despair, though, when our provincial government slashed healthcare, welfare, legal aid and education an incredible 30 – 50 percent a few months after the conference, and Canadian troops were sent overseas to fight the U.S.-led war. The political and social landscape has altered for women since September 11.
Despite the obstacles, our collective continues to answer our rape crisis line, and to shelter women with their children in our transition house. We continue to plot. The conference reaffirmed our determination to struggle against the criminalization of women, to call for police accountability to raped and battered women, to press the state to ensure every woman’s economic survival, and to continue the direct action of providing safety for a woman seeking escape from a violent man. My collective learned a lot from the conference as well as the backlash. At the conference, we met ordinary women who, like us, are accomplishing something extraordinary through organizing. We are part of an international uprising of women that includes the women in Afghanistan. The uprising will be led by women who are informed by our lifelong experience of womanhood. We won’t allow any government to harness us, and we will be ungovernable until our governments support our liberation.
Suzanne Jay is a seven-year member of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter collective. She was born in rural British Columbia of parents who immigrated from China to escape poverty.