By Liz Arif-Fear, Co-Chair Nisa-Nashim Marylebone
Last Sunday, I had the absolute joy of attending the third annual Nisa-Nashim conference, which brought together around 250 Jewish and Muslim women from across the country. As the only organisation of its kind in the UK, it really is privilege to be part of this fantastic movement and to have joined Nisa-Nashin on this special day.
This year’s theme was Faith and Friendship: Shaping the Future Together, which really embodies what Nisa-Nashim is all about. In an increasingly hostile climate of rising antisemitism and Islamophobia, the friendships and relationships being developed through Nisa-Nashim are allowing us to grow, develop and face whatever lies ahead in Britain today.
What’s more, we’re not only building a sense of solidarity to face the future, we’re also striving to change things for the better. The new #ActiveAllies campaign is embodying the active role that wecanand musttake in challenging hate and being part of the change that we wish to see. As Nisa-Nashim ladies, we’ve pledged to take an active stance against antisemitism and Islamophobia as “active allies” to call out these forms of hatred wherever and whenever we encounter them, to challenge attitudes and to support our fellow sisters.
This very concept of standing against all forms of hatred (other than those affecting our own faith group) – and more specifically Muslim and Jewish women leading the way in this fight – is itself incredibly forward-thinking, bold and enthusiastic. For many people, we simply “don’t get on” (two words: Israel – Palestine!), so to stand together and take such a prominent stance in unity and friendship, would be normally (or apparently so!) unheard of. Well, here at Nisa-Nashim we don’t’ agree – we’re proof that we’re more than this (!) and we’re on a clear, visible, undeniable mission to put these misconceptions and the hatred surrounding them to rest.
As women and more specifically women of faith, we can learn a lot from each other and from being part of this united movement. As a proud member and local co-chair of the Marylebone group (London), here’s what my journey with Nisa-Nashim has taught me/strengthened my belief in so far!
1. The power of people is priceless
As the saying goes: “No man (or woman!) is an island” and that’s exactly what Nisa-Nashim is about! By coming together, we can great even greater change than if we work alone. Firstly, it’s by building these networks and friendships that we can start to break down barriers and tackle misconceptions. It’s these friendships based on mutual respect and trust which allow us to understand and empathise with one another. Only when we have such a solid foundation can we affect real change as we are able to tackle sensitive issues, understand each other’s experiences and have potentially difficult conversations. Secondly, on a wider level, it helps us to lead by example and reach out to wider networks and even more people. People power!
2. Don’t wait for others to lead
Nisa-Nashim is the only organisation of its kind in the UK and Europe. That’s not to say that there’s no need or scope for such movements – it’s just that it’s never happened. Again, this is another inspiring lesson I’ve learnt: don’t wait for someone else to start, to step in and get things moving. Do it yourself! Believe in yourself! You may have to do more initial groundwork in terms of getting people on board but likewise, if you’ve got the enthusiasm, expertise and passion, there’s nothing to stop you. If anything, this is what makes you so special!
3. Faith is far from homogenous
Working with the Jewish community and with such a large network of women, I’ve really learnt to appreciate the wide diversity of religious practice and religious-cultural expression. Lazy “clichéd” labels which fit into binaries of “practising” and “non-practising” really don’t work in the real world. Faith and the social, cultural and religious elements which build the rich tapestry of our identities are so much more varied and complicated than this “traditionally” expressed dichotomy. What I love about Nisa-Nashim is that the space it provides is inclusive, diverse and welcoming. No one judges, no one questions – you’re just simply free to be you, however you choose/feel to express that.
4. Women are great bond-builders
As cheesy as it may sound, I really do feel like I’ve found a home with a great extended family thanks to Nisa-Nashim. At conferences, dinners, retreats, meetings and gatherings you really do feel the power of women, sisterhood and unity as women, and both women of faith and more specifically sisters of Abraham. Our way of being as women and the ease with which we can engage in conversations, reach out and comfort one another, listen and empathise has enabled us to build such great bonds and effect such positive change. This is really where I feel as women, we have great strength and ability to build relationships and that’swhat Nisa-Nashim is all about!
5. Accepting difference is crucial
I think it’s fair to say that most of us don’t share everything in common with our friends. So, why do we expect this when making new friends from different religious communities? Think about the relationships you have at home and in your inner circle – do you agree on everything? No! But you dorespect and empathise with one another whilst maintaining a strong bond. The truth is though that there’s already so much emphasis on what divides Jewish and Muslim women (namely related to the Middle East!) when in reality, there’s far more that unites us than “divides us”! This is what makes our bonds in Nisa-Nashim so special. We strip away these emotional, social and cultural barriers and start from the beginning. We’re women, women of faith and sisters from the same Abrahamic faith family. There’s so much that unites us and when you’ve built that trust to be able to have those complex conversations, you may find you agree on more than you previously thought!
6. Keep it real – no elephants, please!
Where Nisa-Nashim really makes headway is that we’re not afraid to acknowledge any challenges or difficult areas of discussion – yet we don’t let them dominate either. Yes, we tackle the “elephant in the room” (Israel-Palestine again!) but in the right way. We acknowledge the issue is there and that it’s an emotional, difficult topic to address but we first reach out to one another, building the bonds, trust and empathy needed before addressing the subject in a safe, balanced, open, tolerant space when the time is right. We first did this at the 2018 conference by inviting the lovely Robi Damelin from The Parent’s Circle – Families Forumand this year by hosting the lovely Solutions Not Sides at the 2019 conference. It was powerful and moving, allowing us to move beyond the usual interfaith model of “tea, coffee, biscuits, pleasantries and ice breakers” and go one step further. With mutual sensitivity, trust and empathy and the aim to build mutual understanding, we canremove the “elephant” and create a safe, happy space for us everyone!
7. Balance is key
“Sharing is caring” as they say and Nisa-Nashim is all about mutual sharing and balance. With the name placing both faiths right at the centre (“nisa” and “nashim” literally mean “women” in Arabic and Hebrew), both Muslim and Jewish women are at the joint heart of what Nisa-Nashim does. Now, this doesn’t mean having an exact 50-50 split in terms of speakers, members and all sorts – that’s not always possible. What it does mean is ensuring fair representation and considering and respecting both faith groups – and within that the diverse range of needs this brings. For example, we provide strictly kosher food at events for our Orthodox Jewish sisters, as well as vegetarian (halal appropriate) options. We also host events on Sundays rather than Saturdays (the Sabbath) to ensure that our events are open to everyone. Respecting the diversity of each and every woman within and between each of the two diverse faith groups is crucial. With the values of inclusivity, respect and balance at the centre, everyone feels welcome and we can build a wider movement together!
Nisa-Nashim really is building change from the bottom up amongst grassroots communities and from the top down by reaching out to policymakers and governmental authorities to effect change on both micro and macro levels for the long-term future. I believe it’s these seven core lessons, values and ideals that are the key drivers of this ground-breaking movement, which the success of Nisa-Nashim and the changes that are taking place.