While exclusionary immigration laws initially limited South Asian women’s migration to Canada, South Asian women now account for 24% of the racialized women’s population, and almost 4% of all women in Canada. Given the diversity amongst South Asian communities, the experiences of South Asian women are, of course, incredibly diverse. Some commonalities do exist, however – South Asian women in Canada have resisted marginalization from South Asian communities (sexism/patriarchy), women’s communities (racism), and from the mainstream Canadian consciousness (racism and sexism). South Asian women in Canada have resisted in varied locales:
feminist mobilization spaces
the writing world
… and more!
South Asian women were given the right to vote only in 1947, notably almost three decades after white women and thirteen years before Indigenous women were given the right to vote.
Young South Asian Women
The complexities of intergenerational issues, negotiating a first, second or third generation Canadian identity, and navigating the waters of racism have led young South Asian women to find creative strategies of resistance. According to one researcher, South Asian girls are “constantly negotiating the tension” between whiteness and their own relation to that, and as a result may be hyper-reflexive (Rajiva 2009, p. 92).
Part of a broader practice of conflating immigrants and racialized individuals, a scan literature reveals that most conversations about South Asian women are about them as immigrants. Given that there are second and third generation South Asian-Canadians (the former is certainly more common in British Columbia), this conflation can result in an uneasy problem of over-representation/erasure.
Over-representation: South Asian women’s issues can be seen as solely as immigrant women’s issues.
- This is part of a larger issue of racialized communities’ issues being not Canadian – for example, after the Air India disaster in 1985, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to offer condolences in spite of the fact that most of the South Asian victims were Canadians.
- Issues facing young South Asian women, such as the intergenerational struggle that most youth face, are viewed as issues explicitly and solely related to an experience of migration.
- When women of colour joined the leadership (such as Sunera Thobani, who was the first woman of colour to serve as President) of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), many white women left the organization.
Erasure: The diversity of South Asian women’s experiences can often be missing from the mainstream stories. This erasure is not limited to South Asian women though – for many racialized women, a simplistic, singular story about an incredibly diverse set of communities may be perpetuated by policy makers, educational institutions and, of course, the media. Advocacy organizations from across the country have responded to simplistic representations of South Asian women, instead providing a rich tapestry of experiences, actions and viewpoints. For many South Asian women engaged in current struggles, their activism is radical in its depth of analysis – they are engaged in Indigenous solidarity work, migrant justice, anti-violence, community accountability, environmental justice, anti-racist work, sex workers’ rights, and much more.
Utilizing the tools of the academy, South Asian women have resisted problematic understandings of their communities in the areas of violence against women, migrant labour and migrant justice, and identity in relation to the Canadian nation-state. These women have straddled academic and community organizing, making connections with and amongst communities, and include Himani Bannerji, Sunera Thobani, Enakshi Dua, Tania das Gupta, and Yasmin Jiwani.
Critical Creative Writing
The page is a critical space for naming oneself, for telling one’s communities stories, and for challenging all of the mainstream and troublesome narratives one hears daily. South Asian women have written critically and creatively, taking up issues of sexuality (Farzana Doctor and Shani Mootoo), community trauma (Anita Rau Badami), partition (Shauna Singh Baldwin), survivors (Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarashinha), and displacement (Priscilla Uppal).
South Asian Women’s Rights Organization (SAWRO)
In existence since 2007, this group of South Asian women living in the Crescent Town/Teesdale area of east Toronto has been mobilizing around issues facing them, as immigrant women. SAWRO has built capacity for women to support each other, has been vocal in their demands for government child care strategies, and have pushed for equity in provincial initiatives including full-day kindergarten.
South Asian Women’s Community Centre (SAWCC)
In existence since 1981, SAWCC has been engaged in “service, support and advocacy for South Asian women and their families in the greater Montréal area.” Their engagement and advocacy has included responding to governments on issues of anti-racism, including more recently the Bouchard Taylor Commission on “reasonable accommodation” in Quebec.
Formed shortly after the murder of South Asian teenager Aqsa Parvez in 2007, AQSAzine is a grassroots art collective of women and trans people who self-identify as Muslim. The collective publishes a zine (of the same name) celebrating Muslim women and trans people’s writing and art.
There are many, many South Asian women engaged in resistance. Some are well-known because of their public presence on issues such as migrant justice, workers rights and violence against women. A newly-formed collective based in Scarborough, Ontario called the South Asian Women’s Action Collective has established a “Sisters Spotlight” to share South Asian women’s herstories. See http://sawac.tumblr.com/sistersspotlight
The work on South Asian women’s communities, experiences and resistance is quite clearly focused on the cisgendered woman’s experience. South Asian trans women are engaged in critical conversations about equity – like Yasmeen Persaud who is a co-facilitator of the Gender Journeys Program at the Sherbourne Health Centre – but their stories are told less often or not told at all. This is a significant gap in knowledge, a gap in the documenting of a diverse set of South Asian womens communities.
Chui, Tina and Hélèn Maheux. 2011. Visible Minority Women. Statistics Canada, Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report, Catalogue no. 89-503-X
The Cracked Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982
D’Cruz, Heather, Philip Gillingham and Sebastian Melendez. “Reflexivity, its Meanings and Relevance for Social Work: A Critical Review of the Literature” In British Journal of Social Work, 2007, 37, 73-90.
Rajiva, Mythili. 2009. “South Asian Canadian Girls’ Strategies of Racialized Belonging in Adolescence” in Girlhood Studies 2(2).
Khan, Sharmen. 2007. “The Fight for Feminism: An Interview with Sunera Thobani.” Upping the Anti. No. 5. http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/05-the-fight-for-feminism/