Anita Dhawan showed spunk as a girl of 11 when she broke an ancient taboo by embracing a low-caste woman in her native India. Later, she challenged the patriarchal society of her hometown, who mistreated her widowed mother because in their eyes a woman merited no dignity after losing her husband. As an adult, the iconoclastic Anita smashed yet another barrier by forcing York University to recognize her foreign credentials, paving the way for her teaching career in Canada.
The quest for social justice and equity is Anita Dhawan’s raison d'etre, the driving force of her life. This search has caused her much pain but has also provided her immense satisfaction as she tries to make the world a better place than she found it.
“I believe in challenging people about their preconceived notions. I am sure that by exposing them to new ideas, I can bring about positive changes,” Anita says. In March she became the first recipient of the Toronto and York Region Labour Councils Women of Labour Award for her work combating discrimination and raising awareness about rights and equity issues.
Anita is a librarian and ESL teacher at Lord Roberts Public School in Toronto. She views the award as a validation of the kind of social justice work women like her are doing all over the world. One of the criteria for the award was community contributions as a volunteer. “It is also a call for me to continue with our struggle and challenge systemic barriers for a more just and equitable society.”
Anita’s first battle against discrimination in Canada is the stuff to inspire every foreign-trained professional. After emigrating from India in 1979, she fought York University for six years to have her BA and MA degrees from Punjab University in India recognized. She persistently refused to be pushed to the bottom of the academic ladder and to “upgrade” her qualifications by repeating her undergraduate work.
“When I approached York University, I was told that my qualifications were equivalent to Grade 13 and I must do undergrad work. I felt that if today they tell me my academic qualifications are not good enough, tomorrow they’ll say my skin is not good enough, then they will say my hair is not good enough, and then they will say my accent is not good enough. When do we become good enough? I was determined to find out what were the specific reasons my qualifications were not good enough,” Anita said.
“I would go to York University and sit outside the director’s office and wouldn’t move, asking for answers. It took a good six years because they make it a very complicated process. Finally, I received a letter from the Ministry of Education upholding my degrees and York University had to admit me to the teachers’ college on my academic qualifications.”
The battle with York University established her credentials but not her identity. At teachers’ college many of her fellow teacher candidates found it tough to accept her accent, often asking her if she had come through the “back door,” implying that she had managed to get admission due to special programs and not because she qualified on her own merit.
“I faced discrimination at many levels. I was not given time for presentations at functions or interrupted rudely as I tried to speak,” says Anita. The flashpoint came when one of her professors interrupted her as she was practice teaching and corrected her pronunciation in front of the Grade 6 class.
“I was shattered. I cried for hours, and after I had cried out every tear in my eyes, another student teacher came and offered me a book, Sister Outsider, by the American gay black activist, Audre Lorde. She said though she could not take away my pain, the book might help.
“I read that book, taking in every word, every sentence. As I read, I felt my spine grow straighter, taller.” Ever since she has worn a button quoting her favourite line from the book: “Your Silence Will Not Protect You.”
Instead of suffering in silence, Anita filed a human rights complaint with the dean. She connected with the Federation, and instantly became involved in programs and workshops aimed at achieving equity and fighting discrimination of all kinds. In 2002-03, she received an award from the Elementary Teachers of Toronto for excellence in teaching equity.
“My union empowers me. I would have been fired at least ten times in my 11 years of teaching, for challenging school-and board-wide inequities that affect school learning were it not for the support and strength which my union gives me.” However, she does not want to get in a groove. “I never miss an opportunity to challenge everyone, to think critically, to look at ideas and views beyond the obvious, including my own school board, the local and the provincial Federation.”
She has not excluded herself from such continual soul-searching either and attributes to it her deep involvement with Pride Day, African Heritage Month, Aboriginal Awareness Week and all such events which are aimed at promoting equity for historically disadvantaged groups such as gays, lesbians, blacks, and aboriginals. She is a co-author of an ETFO curriculum document, “Imagine a World That Is Free from Fear,” which provides teachers with resources to address issues relating to homophobia and heterosexism. For the last 11 years, she has run the Young Women’s Club in the schools where she has taught. Through this program, she reaches out to the girls in Grades 4 to 8 on issues such as poverty, homelessness and the challenges faced by girls. Anita also presents a workshop to teachers, “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges: by Books.”
“There are four things which are very dear to me - my involvement in stopping violence against women, fundraising for charities, the December 6 Committee and the Daily Food Bank,” says Anita, who also volunteers for Frontier College, a 150-year-old organization which aims to spread literacy. “We go to community centres and read with children, their parents, babysitters and grandparents.”
Anita says she celebrates her role as a teacher and a librarian, and hopes that she is able to instill the spirit of social justice and equity in her students. “Sometimes I do panic to think that I started late, that I do not have enough years left to do what I want to do. But the consolation is that if I put my mind to it, I can still do a lot.”
Vitusha Oberoi is an ETFO staff member and freelance writer.