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Talking Radical: Sadeqa Siddiqui on the Struggle for Recognition in Quebec Feminist Movements
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The following is an excerpt from Gender and Sexuality: Canadian History Through the Stories of Activists, by Scott Neigh. Here, South Asian Women's Community Centre coordinator Sadeqa Siddiqui relates her experiences with the early work of the Centre, and struggles for recognition and participation of migrant women within the Quebec feminist movement.
Scott will be in Montreal to launch Gender and Sexuality, along with its companion, Resisting the State, on March 5. The launch starts at 7pm in room S1.255 of the Molson School of Business at Concordia University (1450 Guy, Metro Guy-Concordia). Visit the facebook event for more details.
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Siddiqui’s journey to SAWCC took a different path than Mulay’s. She immigrated to Canada from Pakistan in the 1960s with her husband and family. In 1983, Siddiqui was not thinking about becoming an activist or about working to empower women; she was just looking for a job. Nonetheless, Siddiqui said,
I had interest in the sense that from my childhood I saw my mother was very active in the community, so something was with me to help people and all that. But when I came to Canada, I thought that I left all of those things, those problems, behind.... When I started working in this organization, I realized that women are bringing the same sorts of problems here with them.
My first job [with the centre] was only for five months to work on a project. After finishing that project I never left this organization, because this is the work that I wanted to do.
According to Siddiqui, the centre approached their work in a way distinct from many mainstream organizations. “They take one problem at a time.” However, at the centre, “You don’t just work on one aspect of women’s problems.” She used the example, “If the husband is beating her, then why is she in this situation?” Starting from that kind of question foregrounds all of the ways in which the causes of such an oppressive predicament weave together in how such situations are actually experienced. Early in Siddiqui’s employment at the centre, the two biggest issues she saw were economic dependency and experiences of violence, and she saw them as part of the same problem: “[My] first thoughts were how to help them get out of that poverty and that dependence and get out of that violent situation.” This kind of holistic understanding of the lives of racialized women can result in action of many different sorts, depending on the resources available, the inclinations of the women involved, and the barriers to particular approaches both within and outside of the groups that are taking action. The centre has had to navigate all of these issues, and their concrete actions in support of the everyday struggles of racialized immigrant women have varied depending on circumstances, opportunities, and barriers.
The angle that the centre tackled first was that of financial dependence. In part this was because it was a problem seen as integral to all of the other problems that women were facing and in part because there seemed to be an opportunity, back in 1983, to have this line of work supported by money from the state. They wanted
to create opportunity for women to earn money by using the skills they have. We know that women have some kind of ability in them, skills in them. Almost all South Asian women can sew and cook at home; they make everything at home that they have no need to go out and buy, like clothing or handicrafts — anything. We thought that that would be the project, to take those skills and develop them into a business venture.
The initial vision was quite extensive: “Under one roof we wanted to have a seamstresses service; we wanted to have a small boutique with handicrafts; and a fast food take-out, a small café sort of thing.” However, at this point the centre was still very new, and they were unable to obtain the resources to plunge immediately into realizing the full scale of this vision. So they started smaller.
The first successful thing that we did was to have women coming to the centre and that created an interest to develop some kind of thing, to think about: “Yes, I can make things. I have the skills. I can make money with this.” We had four or five women who were really good and interested in cooking, so we taught them to do catering, how you could develop it yourself, what is needed to provide food for parties and so on. So they learned that.... We did not have the kitchen facilities so we went from home to home, to each woman’s home, once or twice a week, and we started preparing recipes and teaching all of these women how to use those recipes so that if one woman was not available then the others could use them. Learning each other’s recipes, ways to make food in an efficient way and how to serve the food, was part of the training.
As time passed, they moved to preparing sit-down dinners for groups from the centre’s membership, and then to advertising the service in the larger community and catering parties. The organization was quite informal: the centre fronted the money for the food, then when the women were paid they would pay the centre back and split the balance amongst themselves. It led, in turn, to other opportunities: women doing catering on their own, one teaching cooking classes, even a group of ten who were awarded a contract to run a cafeteria for a year.
It worked the same way for sewing.... People donated two sewing machines to the centre and some women already had machines. So what we did was we took orders from universities and colleges for uniforms — karate uniforms, judo uniforms — and the women would make them.
Creating opportunities for women to end their financial dependence, directly supporting survivors of interpersonal violence, and facilitating discussions around issues of violence in Montreal’s South Asian communities were all important. However, Mulay, Siddiqui, and the other women in SAWCC realized that this was still not enough.
One further response to these problems was exerting quiet pressure on the state behind the scenes to try and change some aspects of how racialized immigrant women’s lives were organized into states of dependence in the first place. One site where this happened was around rules barring most immigrant women from eligibility for employment training programs, which reinforced their dependence on their husbands. Governments are most likely to pay for employment training for those people who are already receiving money from other programs paid for by that level of government, so federal programs are targeted to people on Unemployment (more recently, Employment) Insurance while provincial programs are most likely to be open to people on welfare. Once they become employed, that reduces that level of government’s ex-penditure on support programs. Yet many racialized immigrant women who entered the country under the family class were, in Siddiqui’s words, “sitting home.” She clarified, “When I say ‘women sitting home’ I mean women who are economically depending on their husband and have never been in the job market or on welfare.” They are not eligible for unemployment or welfare benefits because of the terms of their immigration sponsorship and they have a great deal of difficulty finding employment because they have no previous experience doing waged work in Canada. SAWCC began by exerting pressure in meetings with funders to accept one or two women who had been “sitting home” into a training program. Siddiqui said,
After that, next year, we said, “Look, because of this program, those who were sitting home are now working, because these are the women who have the qualifications and now they are coming out.” So, slowly, they accepted them. At one point I had twelve women, all of whom had been sitting at home. This way we showed the government the rate of success of getting into the job market. Some of them started working at the centre here, some of them started working in other places. That’s all. There was no big campaign. It was a very slow process. This is how it happened.
With that, many women have found jobs and become independent.
Behind-the-scenes lobbying only gets you so far, however. To get farther requires more openly political action, and that is most effective not as one small organization in one city but as part of a larger movement. On December 6, 1989, Mark Lépine went on a rampage at Montreal’s Ècole Polytechnique and killed fourteen women who were engineering students there, proclaiming both aloud and in a letter left behind his hatred of feminists.7 The shock of this event led to organizing by women across Canada, particularly in Quebec, and it also encouraged women in South Asian communities in Quebec to begin to network more actively around issues of violence. The conference in 1991 came from this increased networking, and it was this conference, said Mulay, “that actually meant that we came on the radar screen of the Quebec [feminist] groups.” Up to that time, the centre had been largely focused only on the South Asian communities while the broader women’s movement had shown little interest in them.
Still, it was a long way from beginning to be aware of each other’s existence and activities to actually working together.
Siddiqui said, “First of all, there’s this organization called Fédération des femmes du Québec [ffq]. Up until 1990 the Fédération des femmes du Québec was not open to women from cultural communities. It was controlled by white Francophone women. It was so hard to get into that one.”8 To do so, she continued, “We developed a group among ourselves with the leadership of Madeleine Parent9 and Fatima Houda-Pepin,” who later became a Liberal mna in Quebec, to help bridge the divide.
Mulay remembered that Parent
essentially introduced us to the ffq, facilitated the discussions between the ffq and SAWCC. The reason why it needed to be facilitated is that ffq has had a very strong position about national independence of Quebec. As far as immigrant groups are concerned, their affiliation is with Canada.10 So immediately it raises all kinds of divisions. An Anglophone women’s organization that does not support the independence project of Quebec doesn’t fit very well within the ffq. So that discussion, and Madeleine facilitating that discussion, was very, very important because people in SAWCC trusted her. And the ffq also trusted her judgement considerably. So in 1992 the ffq held a conference called “Une société pluriel” or something like that, or “Un forum pluriel.” And in that they wanted to bring more immigrant women but they had no connections with immigrant women.
Siddiqui remembered that the informal group facilitated by Parent and Houda-Pepin
forced the Fédération des femmes du Québec at that time to let us be part of their annual general meeting and conference. We wanted to be part of their round table, and we wanted to give presentation[s] in their workshops on the issues concerning women of colour. We mentioned to them that our presentations would be in English and they should make arrangements for translation, and they did. That was our first introduction to meeting with ffq. It went very well.
After that, we became members of ffq. It took a little bit longer, one or two years, to be recognized as full members.... Now they like us to be part of their organization. In a token way, still, but it is there. It is like they recognize the importance of bringing other women into their organization.
These initial discussions “evolved into the Bread and Roses March,11 which took place in 1995,” said Mulay. Under the leadership of well-known feminist Françoise David, the ffq decided to push the Quebec government to take action on women’s poverty. They planned a multi-day march in late May and early June from Montreal to Quebec City, ending in a large rally in front of the National Assembly. This happened to be the same year as the Parti Quebecois’ sovereignty referendum, which was scheduled for the fall. Many expected that the desire to cultivate women’s movement support for the referendum campaign would make the government more open to listening to the demands of the march. It was in formulating those demands in the months leading up to the march that SAWCC women made their presence felt. Siddiqui remembered,
The demands were on the table and everybody was discussing them but there was no consideration of the difficulties of immigrant women. We said, “Where are we? We have disappeared in there. Yes, we understand all of your demands which are ours too, but how about issues specific to immigrant women in Quebec?”
They said, “Okay, you have your own meeting and bring your demands from there.” Then we brought our women together and prepared our demands to include in with the others. It became part of the demands and it is still in the Quebec demands.
The process among immigrant women focused on four demands: the recognition of degrees and training received abroad; funding for women to take French-language classes, including an allowance equivalent to that provided for men taking such classes; a reduction in the sponsorship period from ten years to three years, to make it easier for women to leave abusive relationships; and operating funding for women’s centres based in racialized and immigrant communities. Mulay particularly emphasized the significance of the third demand:
Until 1995 you had to be sponsored for ten years, which meant if you came as a dependent, for ten years you were supported by your husband or spouse or whoever had sponsored you, and you could not apply for an independent position, which meant that social services, language training services were inaccessible to women who had been brought over as dependants.... And actually the Quebec government accepted that particular demand and reduced the sponsorship period to three years and women became eligible for the language courses right away. These were all very positive changes.
The success of this march lead Quebec feminists and feminists in the rest of Canada to organize a similar march with a pan-Canadian focus on women’s poverty in June of 1996, in which SAWCC also took part. Over roughly the same period that SAWCC was challenging barriers to participation in the mainstream women’s movement in Quebec, it was also part of a similar challenge at the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (nac), the main coalition of feminist organizations at the federal level. Though it is beyond the scope of this chapter to talk in depth about this important and very difficult instance of anti-racist organizational change, what matters here is that SAWCC again played an important role in inserting the concerns of racialized women into this space, and again an important mediating role was played by Madeleine Parent, who at the time was the regional representative of nac in Quebec. An important early lobbying effort that involved SAWCC occurred in 1992. According to Mulay,
They had chosen fourteen cases of women — and the number was deliberate because, as you know, there were fourteen women who were killed at L’Ècole Polytechnique — so they took fourteen cases of women who were denied immigration to Canada on humanitarian grounds. And this was specifically looking at the whole question of gender discrimination. There were women from the South Asian sub-continent who were part of that particular initiative, and SAWCC was very much involved with that particular case, putting forward, lobbying for them, going to the Justice Department, going to the Quebec immigration, becoming part of that national campaign.
Mulay went on to become a member of the executive of nac for three years in the mid 1990s, and women from SAWCC became regular active participants in nac activities.
In the late 1990s, Quebec feminists also became a driving force behind an even more ambitious project: the World March of Women. Siddiqui became a part of the committee coordinating the World March, and it again became an opportunity to push for greater responsiveness to the needs and demands of racialized women.
When I became part of this World March coordination committee I realized that I was the only woman of colour there. We pushed the ffq to bring more women from cultural communities. “You are not doing outreach to immigrant women, especially to Anglophone immigrant women and allophone immigrant women.”
They asked us to find someone from our community do this job for a few months and contact with cultural groups. Though I felt really bad that it became our job — “We have to do it, they can’t do it,” sort of thing — then we realized that something had to be done. “If they’re asking us to do it, let’s do it.” This person contacted immigrant women from ethno-cultural communities and informed them about the World March and encouraged them to participate in it. And some of them became part of that march.
The hard work of countless women around the globe made the World March a success. It focused on issues of women’s poverty and violence against women. It culminated in October 2000 with local actions around the world and a rally at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. In Canada, intense organizing of the almost one thousand groups that participated in the campaign in more than two hundred communities across the country — coordinated by the committee of which Siddiqui was a part — culminated in a demonstration of 35,000 people on Parliament Hill on October 15, 2000. Almost a quarter of a million Canadians signed cards supporting the campaign directed at the U.N. (Krapper 2000).
These efforts by the women of SAWCC not only contributed to change in the broader women’s movement and to efforts by the women’s movement to create change in the broader society, but they also were very significant to the development of SAWCC itself. Mulay said,
When your vision changes from one of being a local organization to one connected to a large network, you begin to look at policies a little bit differently. Therefore, presenting briefs, participating in policy making, I think was an important next step for SAWCC. I’m not saying it was successful at all levels, but just making that shift, that transformation — that you are connected to a whole network of organizations, not only South Asians but other women’s organizations, immigrant organizations, whether they’re in Toronto or whether they’re elsewhere — that was important.
[As an executive member of nac] I was able to bring what was being discussed nationally to the local level, and from the local level to the national level. And that’s a very powerful two-way street to be involved in and to be part of.
It began by the case of these refugee women, but it grew in other ways so that for the first time representatives from SAWCC — excluding me because I was on the executive, but many other women — started going to the national lobby. You begin to see how the government functions, what are the issues that can be brought, what is the forum at which it can be brought, what is a successful tactic, what is not a successful tactic. These are very, very important lessons. You cannot learn them by reading about them in textbooks. You have to do it in order learn it. You might make mistakes, but you learn from that particular process.
My perception is that it is related to coming of age for the organization.
According to Siddiqui, SAWCC’s political work is far from over. “Still we are fighting with the Quebec government to give women a chance to develop, to improve their skills, and recognize degrees that they have from their home country. Still we’re fighting.”
And in terms of the relationship to the broader women’s movement in Quebec and Canada, she said, “No, it was not easy. And still it is not where we want it to be.... It’s still an ongoing struggle.” Still, she believes that what has been achieved is very significant. “Our women who were receiving our services became part of these marches. It’s like we broke their isolation. We exposed them to the mainstream society, mainstream women.... It’s like solidarity is built.”
Meanwhile, conversations among racialized women and their allies about how best to respond to both gendered violence and the violence of the state are ongoing. Though there are important differences in the ways in which non-profit, community, and activist organizations have formed in the United States, Canada, and Quebec, increasing attention is being paid in grassroots spaces in Canada to discussions originating from communities in the United States around some of these questions and to novel experiments in how to navigate the contradiction between the need for resources and the strings to which state and non-profit resources are often tied (Ng 1990; A. Smith 2005; Incite! Women of Color Against Violence 2006; Incite! Women of Color Against Violence 2007). Older organizations like SAWCC continue their important work to meet needs and mobilize women while younger activists, including significant leadership from young women of colour, have been experimenting in Canadian contexts with ways of organizing among immigrants and refugees that explore new approaches to addressing basic needs, mobilizing people, and challenging the violence organized into immigrant and refugee lives by the Canadian state (Scott 2006).