The Words of the Earle Family
Birmingham, UK - For years there have been monthly Women's Peace Meetings in Birmingham, the second-largest city in England. These meetings bring together women from the diverse communities in this city, cultivating a network of women working for peace in a variety of ways. An organizer of these gatherings reports on a busy weekend of networking during celebrations of International Women's Day, March 8.
One of the practical outcomes of our Women’s Peace Meeting has been the forming of a group of women who wished to learn about each others’ religion and culture. In 2008, we visited one another’s homes, shared food together, and learned from each others’ personal stories and life experience.
This year, we have begun visiting our places of worship. On March 6, ten of us visited the Jain ashram of Mrs. Datta Shah in Handsworth. Jainism claims to be the oldest religion in the world, going back several million years, and teaching the virtues of forgiveness, universal friendship, harmony, compassion, charity, peace, fearlessness, and, perhaps the best-known quality, ahimsa or non-violence. Consequently, no acts of war and no economic exploitation are permitted.
We saw the room where devotions are offered and could enjoy the serene, tranquil atmosphere, feeling drawn into the prayers as they were offered up by our hosts. Devotions are performed in front of four statues of the most famous saints, or Tirthankars, three of whom are white and one black. These saints achieved enlightenment, or omniscience, meaning they attained salvation or liberation from the cycle of birth, death and re-birth (re-incarnation). Jainism explains that there is an eternal aspect to life and the universe, which goes through great cycles of ascending and descending and, interestingly, we are currently going through the downward, descending part of such a cycle.
Earlier on March 6, I was invited by Susanne Bisani to attend the launch of the ‘Birmingham New Communities Network’ (BNCN). Susanne arrived in the UK a number of years ago from Rwanda and, after initially experiencing a lot of personal difficulties, she helped to set up a mentoring scheme with the organization Teamwork and gradually got to know women from many minority groups and organizations. She has been attending the Women’s Peace Meeting for several years and has been able to do a lot of networking there. Susanne is currently connected to, and trying to help, well over 60 different organizations. Recently she obtained a grant from the funding organization Capacity-builders, particularly with the help of one lady, Robina, who also attends the Peace Meeting.
The Birmingham City Council and the Digbeth Trust are partners with B-Strong which is over-seeing the new project, and their representatives were present for the launch of BNCN. The latter’s main purpose is consultancy support for minority organizations, offering advice, guidance and some training. I’m sure that, with all the women and organizations I know, I can direct some of them to BNCN to get help and support in order to better serve their particular communities.
Founded by a man (!), Birmingham Councilor Alan Rudge, currently Cabinet Member for Equalities and Human Resources, this Women’s Policy Group brings together women leaders and activists to address key issued in our society. An important member of this group is Women Active in Today’s Society (WAITS). I was invited to have a display table at their event on March 7 in the Birmingham’s Centennial Center.
After keynote speeches by Cllr. Rudge and Member of Parliament Clare Short, there were focus groups on Violence against Women, Women into Public Life, Life Long Learning, and Health and Social Care. Gurjeet Bains, who has been supportive of the Universal Peace Federation and Women's Federation for World Peace in the last couple of years, spoke very passionately at the ‘Women into Public Life’ discussion.
I went straight from the Centennial Center to one of Birmingham’s well-known landmarks, an arts center known as the Drum, where Women2gether had organized a much less formal, but very heart-felt, visual, performance-based program, lasting from mid-afternoon until late into the night.
The focus was very much women in the world and their historical, and current, victimization -- victims of war and oppression, victims of trafficking, victims of slavery. We heard a vivid account of ’Her Story’, the history of black women’s struggles, and then the deeply moving personal testimony of Manal, a Palestinian lady from Coventry who lost 24 relatives in the recent conflict in Gaza, many of them children. After three days of anguish and mourning, she decided that she had to do something, and this has resulted in a campaign to raise both money and awareness for the plight of the ordinary Palestinian people.
She has spread this to many, many nations throughout the world. Finally, she journeyed to Gaza with candles from around the world which she wanted to light as a way of paying respects to all those who died. Sadly, she was not allowed to enter Gaza to pay respects to her relatives, but at least persuaded a young Israeli soldier to light the candles at the border. Manai is such a brave and wonderful woman, who is somehow managing to transform her personal pain and grief into a positive force for peace and reconciliation.
The evening program was filled with dance, music of various kinds, and poetry, representing many different cultures.
Last year and this year I was invited to have a stall and display for the International Women’s Day event at Joseph Chamberlain College, where there is a very high percentage of Muslim students, particularly from the local catchment area. The event was held in the college’s Sports Hall, and local women also attended in large numbers, altogether perhaps around 200 people. The display I had prepared attracted quite a bit of attention, especially among the young Muslim women students, and I could see that it helped some of them to look beyond the narrow confines of their everyday world, seeing photos from European meetings, interfaith pilgrimages to the Middle East, and our work in India.
As well as all the displays, there was the possibility of massage and pampering, henna design, food tasting, etc. This was followed by the opportunity for everyone to ‘let their hair down’ and dance together. It was quite incredible to see all the women, young and old, remove their hijabs and burkas and dance freely in such a lively, energetic way. Seeing them dancing in different styles all together -- from Asian, African, and Arab cultures -- there was a genuine feeling of liberation. It was really a wonderful sight.
Finally, I attended the International Women’s Day event organized by ‘Including Women’, held in a Christian church in Balsall Heath, an inner-city area of Birmingham recognized nationally by the government for its many years of work promoting community cohesion. This women’s organization has been one of several in the area which has made a positive contribution.
A key person in Including Women is Ally Sultana. She took part in last July’s ‘Bridge of Peace’ which was held in Birmingham. She managed to bring together around ten different women’s groups on this occasion, six of which are involved in dealing with victims of domestic violence. Listening to their stories made me realize how deeply ingrained this problem is in our society here in Birmingham and the urgent need to continue addressing the issue.
As well as hearing from the organizations, we were able to see a drama acted out which showed clearly how domestic violence and bullying in school can often be linked together. There was then a time for the 100 or so ladies present to do networking, followed by lunch. The overall experience gave me the idea to hold a Peace Meeting on this issue, both to raise awareness and also to let women know of all the work being done, and the organizations which are there to help with a problem which so often is hidden from the public eye.
I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to meet so many women who are making a difference in society, tackling some very serious issues but also being role models and an inspiration to others. This is both as women leaders, responsible for others in their organization and, equally, individuals working at the grassroots level helping other women on a one-to-one basis.
It has caused me to reflect a lot, and think even more how the Women’s Federation can be in touch with other women’s reality and daily life, and support, partner and encourage organizations which are already there, involved and committed to changing attitudes and structures so that more women can lead happy, successful, and fulfilling lives.