By Laura Marks
The Jewish Museum was abuzz with women’s laughter, chatter and excitement. But this was no regular gathering and the driving under discussion related to the national agenda rather than to children in cars! The room was filled with over 100 prominent Jewish and Muslim women coming together to plan for the autumn launch of the Jewish Muslim Women’s Network. And what women: our very top academics, CEOs and trustees of NGOs, artists, businesswomen, rabbis, the highest level female communal leaders, activists and teachers. A group of women like this has probably never been seen in the UK before, all focused on the same aims of bringing the two communities together, of encouraging more Muslim and Jewish women into leadership roles, and of driving change in society at large. This was no party, it was work, important work.
The event was the first workshop of the fledgling network where the agenda was ‘tachlus’ not talk, action not idleness and collaboration not conflict. Supported by the Department of Communities and Local Government and the Board of Deputies through Women in Jewish Leadership, the group aims to set up at least twenty initiatives over the next 18 months. Every new project will be co chaired by Muslim and Jewish women working together closely but bringing in people from different sections of society, not just women from the two communities.
The idea came directly out of the meeting in January 2014 with the Prime Minister and representatives from the Jewish community. Invited back afterwards to meet Baroness Warsi, then minister for faith, and having raised the issue of interfaith integration, the idea started to form. Julie Siddiqi is the driving force behind the new Sadaqa Day (a Muslim Mitzvah Day) and the Big Iftar (watch out for this during upcoming Ramadan) was the obvious partner for this project which, with changes of personnel and the distractions from international events, was slow in development.
The next few months are where the work will start to take shape. The network is about women taking on the responsibility for making things happen themselves and for setting the agenda. In pairs, the women will think about how to work with one another on projects which will really make a difference, they will shape their ideas, consider how to run events and then, they will launch their projects in the fields of social action, culture, sport and well being, or business. The aim is to allow a thousand seeds to bloom, each one nurtured, cherished and encouraged by these pairs of inspirational women, volunteering their time and skills to the venture. In reality there may be anything from 20-100 events but each one will bring together Muslim and Jewish women who otherwise would never have met, talked, shared and challenged stereotypes together.
Make no mistake, we have no choice with this project. The political climate, the lack of understanding, and the prejudice driven by ignorance simply cannot be ignored any longer. We can’t change the world over night but by reaching out, getting to know one another, building relationships and bridges and focusing on the bigger picture not just on ourselves, things can get better. Women have led the way in other spheres where solutions looked unlikely; maybe, just maybe we can make a difference right here and now.
Laura Marks is the co-chair of the Jewish Muslim Women’s Network