Nisa-Nashim Changemakers conference: Jewish and Muslim women building bridges and creating change

Sunday 22nd April 2018 was the annual Nisa-Nashim conference here in London and if you’re a Muslim or Jewish women based in the UK, then you should have been there! It really was a great day to come together and be inspired to build positive change in our communities, across the nation and even the globe!

Nisa-Nashim: Building bridges

If you’ve not heard of Nisa-Nashim, then you may be surprised to find out that it is a UK-based NGO working to bring the Muslim and Jewish communities together by:

  • Building relationships amongst women
  • Fostering leadership skills and feelings of empowerment in women
  • Addressing some of the misconceptions in wider society about Jewish and Muslim relationships

As a proud volunteer/member of the organisation, I not only believe that this is a great – much-needed cause – but that it’s working! Nisa-Nashim is the largest movement of its kind in Europe and second only to the wonderful Saalam Shalom in the US in terms of size, cause and impact (do check it out if you’re in the US!).

In fact, in the current socio-political climate, it really is more important than ever to stand up against the increasing level of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia we’re witnessing. We must build bridges, form friendships and develop understanding between the two faith communities.

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#NNChangemakers 2018: Creating change

At this year’s conference, 200 Muslim and Jewish women from all over the UK came together to learn about a variety of issues affecting us all. This included: feminist activism, head coverings across the faiths, self-defence, how bereaved families in the Middle East are working together to create peace and to affirm that as Muslim and Jewish women: we can make great change.

This year’s theme was Changemakers and as women, fighting for change doesn’t just mean building relationships amongst sisters of other faith communities (and none) but also fighting the feminist cause! To gives us an idea of what we can achieve, we heard from some of the truly inspirational women from a variety of backgrounds (both Muslim and Jewish) who showed us that women (of any faith and none) can and do have a meaningful role to play both within and outside their respective faith communities. They crucially exemplified how women can and must be given greater room for leadership in the public sphere and the power we have to create positive change.

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Guest speakers included Helen Pankhurst (great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst – leaders of the suffragette movement here in the UK), Gabby Edlin of Bloody Good Period (a UK-based NGO working to fight period poverty) and Robi Damelin of The Parents Circle Family Forum (an NGO based in Israel-Palestine working to build peace amongst bereaved families in both areas). As you’d therefore imagine, the conference offered a chance to talk honesty in a safe space, to learn from each other and to remind ourselves of why it’s important for us to continue working together.

Head coverings: Freedom, autonomy and self-determination

One of the several workshops at the conference was focussed on head coverings and I was delighted to be a panelist. Chair Reina Lewis – Professor of Cultural Studies at the London College of Fashion (University of the Arts, London) – fascinated us with her research on modest fashion. Professor Lewis explained how modest fashion was not only important to Jewish, Christian and Muslim women but was also forging interfaith alliances amongst the different faith groups and also offering women of no faith a greater means of self-expression and choice in how they are able to dress.

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Regarding the Jewish faith, Lindsay Simmonds – our Jewish panelist who herself chooses to cover her head with a hat – gave a great insight into the topic of head coverings in Judaism. Lindsay explained how some Jewish women chose to cover their heads with a wig, hat or scarf after marriage. With so much to say, we could have listed for hours but alas, we (of course) had a time limit! The topic is of course broad, complex and very interesting!

From the Muslim perspective – as within the Jewish community – choice and personal autonomy is paramount. As a hijabi Muslim woman, I described my journey as a Muslim convert and how, when and why I first chose to cover my hair. This of course was an independent spiritual choice (and a very private matter) but as a convert, it also came with a very public declaration of faith (or stage of “coming out” so to speak). I therefore recalled my own personal journey and the process, from adopting long loose clothes to finally wearing a full hijab (khimar – scarf). My co-panelist Rabia Mirza of British Muslims for Secular Democracy also spoke about her experiences as a British non-hijabi Muslim and explained how hijab is never be an indication of a Muslim women’s worth and the importance of a woman’s choice to cover or not cover.

All in all it was a great session which really highlighted the complexities of the issue of head coverings in relation to identity, faith and tradition but which ultimately stressed the need for personal freedom of choice the choice to cover or not to cover your head/hair as you believe and so wish to do.

Here’s a brief overview of the session for more insight:

So, if you’ve been inspired then why not get involved? Look up your local Nisa-Nashim group if you’re a Jewish-Muslim female based in the UK or if not, find your local synagogue, mosque or a faith centre from outside your own community. Join a interfaith group, learn about another faith, discover new traditions and build bridges. It makes us all stronger!

Salam, shalom, peace ♡

Credits and acknowledgements

Photos: Yakir Zur (c)

Thank you Julie, Laura, Rabia, Shelley and the team for a great conference and allowing me to share my personal experience as a hijabi Muslim woman.

Thank you also to Lea, Bonie and the team at the Woolf Institute for their lovely podcast.

For more information on Nisa-Nashim, visit their website and/or social media channels: Twitter and Facebook.

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