Nisa-Nashim is a network of Muslim and Jewish women across the UK who came together to combat ignorance and learn from each other.
Its local groups take part in regular projects around monthly themes – November was Islamophobia Awareness month, for example.
By mobilising these groups under one voice, Nisa-Nashim can effect change at national level and have an impact on policy.
“We thought of using women because we hoped they would approach this differently and build lasting relationships and therefore be able to change the narrative,” says Laura Marks, co-founder of Nisa-Nashim.
Laura Marks and Julie Siddiqi, both active members of their respective communities, were troubled by the gulf that existed between Muslims and Jews in the UK. They also knew women were under-represented as voices in both the Muslim and Jewish community.
The idea to build a network of women bridging these chasms stemmed from a meeting in January 2014 with then-Prime Minister David Cameron and representatives from the Jewish community.
Laura was invited back to meet Baroness Warsi, who was Minister for Faith, among other roles, and was very passionate about women and about bringing Muslim and Jewish communities together. An idea began to form from that meeting.
Julie, a very active member of the community behind Sadaqa Day (encouraging generosity) and the Big Iftar (inviting the community to break the fast with Muslims during Ramadan), was the obvious partner according to Laura, who had previously met her through various social projects.
“Our message has always been reducing hatred and reducing ignorance that leads to hatred, but our primary focus is on Islamophobia and antisemitism,” says Laura.
The idea was simple: creating local groups of Muslim and Jewish women who could build friendships and work on social projects together. As the groups got to know each other better, the solid friendships could naturally lead to better understanding within the wider community.
Laura says it was easy to set up because so many women were already looking for ways to reach out and wanted to be involved in changing narratives.
Nisa-Nashim – meaning “women” in Arabic and Hebrew respectively – allowed women to take leadership roles in the community, avoiding the normal leadership structures.
One of the reasons the network was so successful according to Laura is that they have not been working through mosques and synagogues, but rather connecting individual women from both communities.
“So we bypass the whole problem of women’s roles within organisations – we don’t go to the imam or rabbi, we go to the influential woman who lives in the area,” says Laura.
Nisa-Nashim operates at both a grassroots level and policy level. The number of women that are part of the network – 24 local groups with an average of 30 members each – creates a cohesive voice that give Nisa-Nashim representatives weight to call for change at policy level.
Last November, Laura and Julie spoke with a high-ranking member of the Metropolitan Police about hate crimes against Muslim women.
“We can do that – not because we’re a little group of women meeting in Harrow, but because we’re a national organisation of women from across the country,” says Laura.
Most groups are based on geography but some are based on professions. There is a group for Jewish and Muslim teachers, for lawyers and even for senior managers in big faith organisations, to come together and share experiences and mentor each other.
The local groups all use the same branding and run some of the same projects. Every month has a theme, some of them faith-based like during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, and others are more action-based such as an Islamophobia or charity-giving month.
All are designed to bring people together and combat ignorance. Last year, Nisa-Nashim organised more than 100 events, ranging from local group meetings to their first national conference bringing over 200 Jewish and Muslim women together, making it the largest of its kind in Europe.
Nisa-Nashim representatives also visit young Jewish and Muslim children in class to talk about their work and push them to see the similarities between the two faiths.
“We are addressing hatred by learning from each other. We don’t always need to be overtly political. In fact mostly we’re not. We believe that by bringing people together to get to know and understand each other, we are going an enormous part of the job in breaking down prejudice where hatred lurks,” says Laura.
“People have a lot to say about me even before [Nisa-Nashim] because they see me as too friendly with the Jewish community, or too feminist or just because I call things out in the community when they’re wrong,” says Julie.
Both Julie and Laura have had a few members of their community criticising the creation of Nisa-Nashim or telling others not get involved with them.
Julie says she doesn’t engage with the hate online and has deliberately not created a Twitter account so as not to “waste my energy”.
During one event in Manchester, some Muslims tried to get the venue to cancel by reporting that it was linked to Israel and that “Zionists” would be attending. Fortunately, Julie contacted the venue organisers and they knew her well so the event still took place.
“[The organisers] realised I wouldn’t be engaging in something that wasn’t helpful to Muslims. Members of each community find it hard to argue with me and Laura because when you’ve worked so hard for so long in the community, it brings an element of credibility,” says Julie.
Laura adds there may be an element of misogyny in the resistance they’ve faced, with some men just not taking Nisa-Nashim seriously.
Both are aware of how big the shadow of the state of Israel and its Palestinian occupation casts over any interaction between Muslims and Jews.
Laura says that until now, they’ve “named it and parked it”, recognising the issue has a big effect and puts a strain on relationships between the two communities but unwilling to discuss it immediately.
The topic obviously remains present even when not discussed, so Julie and Laura are planning to approach the subject over the coming year, with the help of people who have experience in handling the topic.
“We don’t want to be defined by what’s happening over there. We could end up being just consumed by it and I don’t want that to happen, I want to focus on our own country,” says Laura.
“I want to see Muslim women become genuinely confident enough to tackle antisemitism without feeling they’re somehow selling their community out or ignoring the Palestinians.”
Julie and Laura were careful to create a very decentralised network to ensure Nisa-Nashim didn’t become a London-based two women show instead of a national network.
“It’s a common problem when setting something up, you have to make sure it’s not all about you. We had to allow groups to grow organically while at the same time try and coax them along to the fact that they’re part of a very important conversation happening right now,” says Julie.
Starting groups across the UK wasn’t always easy however, when Muslim or Jewish women knew absolutely no-one from the other community with which to start a group.
In those cases, Julie and Laura stepped in and connected women together to see if they hit it off. Having them like each other and building up a real friendship has been a key part of the Nisa-Nashim model.
Julie says they didn’t want to fall in a very common interfaith trap of only having symbolic or tokenistic relationships, with photos simply being the most concrete result of an interfaith event. She says that even though images of a rabbi and an imam shaking hands in front of Westminster have their place, she wanted to build “real solid relationships” not simply photo ops.
Although the co-leaders of each group are often middle-class women who are educated and understand the role they need to play, there are only a few activists. Laura says there is a big variety in who shows up and many are not very religious or have not been involved in interfaith work – “some are stay-at-home mums who lost themselves in child care and are now coming out of it”.
Another difficulty Julie and Laura faced was setting up the organisation as a charity. They needed to develop a structure and create a board with all the required legal policies and accounts in place.
The biggest challenge they faced, however, was funding. Unlike many other organisations, applying for certain funds is complicated by the fact that Muslim and Jewish communities see funding very differently.
For many Muslims, a charity accepting funds from the government makes it part of Prevent, the UK’s anti-extremism programme. Prevent is seen very negatively by many Muslims in the UK, due to past mistakes made in detecting radicalisation and its reputation for ‘spying’ on the community.
“We need to shift this understanding, as government funding has always been the backbone of charitable work and it doesn’t mean we are tied to any agenda,” says Laura. “On the one hand the funding is legitimate but at the same time we recognise aspects of the way the government has dealt with the terrorism agenda has been very unhelpful and it’s Muslims that face the worst backlash.”
Laura says finding enough funding is vital to ensure the grassroots have a central voice and so the initiative can scale up.
“There’s no point in raising money, putting together a board and a charity for women around the country to have dinner together unless they are part of a whole push for change,” says Laura.
Nisa-Nashim has received some funding from a new Home Office initiative, Building Stronger Britain Together, from Near Neighbours and some philanthropists.
“There’s nothing like it going around in Europe, let alone the UK. Nothing in the scale we’re on and we’re only two-years-old,” says Laura.
Whether it’s the general public being surprised to see Muslims and Jews working together to better the community or a police head being startled to see women from the Jewish and Muslim communities spearheading the efforts, Nisa-Nashim is pushing forward on new ground.
Julie says she’s surprised by how fast the network is growing – but not that surprised – “women just do it differently”.