Zahra Dhanani will lead this year’s Dyke March
Vince Talotta/Torstar News Service
Zahra Dhanani, this year's Honoured Dyke, has a not-so-secret ambition. She wants to be prime minister some day.
Dhanani, a 32-year-old immigration lawyer, feminist and social activist, has been involved with justice and equality issues since her teens. She has spent hundreds of hours volunteering at women’s centres and legal clinics, helping immigrants, refugees and women escaping violence. She is also a dynamic speaker, known for rallying cries such as, “Since when is a man’s fist in a woman’s face only a women’s issue.”
“Whether fighting for women’s rights or as a queer South Asian activist, Zahra has bridged the gap between different communities with messages of equality and justice,” says Natasha Garda, co-chair of Pride Toronto. “She personifies the theme of this year’s Pride Week: fearless.”
Dhanani was born in Tanzania, and her family immigrated to Vancouver when she was four. Growing up, she was the only child of colour in her schools and endured many racial taunts.
Along with discrimination, Dhanani coped with eating disorders and an “extremely abusive” father, who deserted the family when she was 10.
“I’ve been attuned to social justice since I was four,” she says. “I’ve always been looking for a community based on trust and respect.”
The family eventually moved to Scarborough and, after high school, Dhanani enrolled at the University of Ottawa. While there, she volunteered to work for the Liberal Party. “I chose to go to Ottawa to be close to power,” she says. “I learned there who I didn’t want to be.”
During the Ottawa years, Dhanani also explored her sexuality.
“At 17, I came out,” she says. “When I do something, I do it fully. I told my family. It was painful. My mother cried.”
Her family is Ismaili, a progressive Muslim sect whose motto is “work, not words,” and it was in this community that Dhanani learned the value of volunteering.
Although her family is supportive, she admits they still struggle with her overt lesbianism.
For this year’s Dyke Parade, Dhanani plans to dress in a sari and deejay from a float decked out with images of ancient fertility goddesses.
“It will be a big float with 10-by-10 images of goddesses, from around the world, representing different aspects of women’s beauty and sexuality,” she says.