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Spending a morning with the Sisters4Sisters women’s group in Frenchwood

Posted on - 5th November, 2017 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Avenham, Charities, Events, News, Opinion, Politics, Preston City Centre
Sofia from the group is far right in full niqab
Sofia from the group is far right in full niqab

Interfaith Week is held in November every year, usually running from Remembrance Sunday to the following Sunday, and aims to focus on inter-faith understanding and co-operation.

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Building good relationships between people of different faiths is part of a continuous strategy for many organisations across the UK, but having a specific week for celebrating interfaith understanding helps focus on opening-up interfaith activity to a wider audience and raises awareness of the important work being done.

So, with Interfaith Week 2017 fast approaching, I took some time to spend a morning with the ladies from Sisters4Sisters, to find out what they had in store for the week-long celebration and to discover a little bit more about their work in the community.

Sisters4Sisters is a Muslim women’s group based in James Street in Frenchwood which aims to provide education, exercise and social support for women of the Islamic faith.

Running for around 13 years now, Sisters4Sisters originally started out as a revert group but these days, because there are so many born Muslim members in Preston, they now focus on being solely a women’s group.

As someone who was raised a Catholic but who now doesn’t follow any particular religion, I was slightly apprehensive about meeting with the ladies from Sisters4Sisters.

I, like many, am a consumer of mass media, and can’t help but be subjected to the brazen, unwarranted and unprecedented bias the media present when discussing the Muslim population and the Islamic religion as a whole.

The blatant attacks on Islam from many of the tabloid papers, and from online publications, is hard to ignore, and like so many of my peers, I am well aware of the stigma that comes with being a Muslim in the UK today.

Following the Manchester bombings there is now, more than ever, a significant need to understand the Islamic religion in order to prevent society forming clouded judgement against the faith.

I am also aware that many Muslims have to deal with a lot of abuse on a daily basis, whether it is in the form of hate crimes, comments about wearing the veil, or about links to terrorism.

Just two weeks ago, a Channel 4 documentary, ‘My Week as a Muslim’ highlighted the ignorance a lot of us in Britain have when it comes to Islam, and Muslim women in particular.
With that in mind, I wondered just how well I would be accepted into the group.

Turns out, I needn’t have worried as Sisters4Sisters was one of the most welcoming support groups I’ve had the pleasure of attending.

And what interested me most was the discovery that it’s not just Muslim women who can attend the group, women from all faiths are welcome there: it’s an opportunity to get together, chat, improve communications, and network.

Read more: Former Preston pub to be converted into Muslim education centre

I met with Sofia Begum-Ali, the Chairperson of Sisters4Sisters, at a coffee morning they hold every Wednesday from 10am till 12pm.

With her warm smile, Sofia made me feel really comfortable in the large open room of the Centre in Janes Street, where the coffee mornings are held.

She offered me a cup of tea and a biscuit, and after meeting some of the other ladies in attendance we got down to talking.

Sofia said: “We set Sisters4Sisters up in 2004 to give support to revert women coming into the folds of Islam.

“We soon found though that there was actually more need for a women’s group rather than just a revert group.”

Sofia, who has been a Muslim revert for 28 years, heads up Sisters4Sisters but also sits on the Interfaith Committee of Preston Faith Forum, a group that gives voice to women of all different faiths in Preston, from Judaism to Sikhism, Christianity to Hinduism.

Having been involved with the Interfaith Committee for the last five years, Sofia told me that they usually hold conferences and events during Interfaith Week which explore the commonalities between all religions as opposed to highlighting the differences in the faiths.

This year they are hosting a Feast of Faiths on Sunday 12th November (the first day of Interfaith Week), which will celebrate faith and cultural diversity with food.

Sofia said that the event is going to be like a Jacobs Join with a twist; each person coming to the Feast is urged to bring a dish, whether it is something culturally traditional or something they enjoy cooking; and they will then talk about things that are significant in their own faiths.

As we were talking, we were joined by Ann-Marie Cobb, a Christian who attends All Saints Church in the centre of Preston.

It was great to see the camaraderie between the Muslim ladies and Ann-Marie, and it was obvious there was a bond between them.

I asked her how she found out about Sisters4Sisters and what drew her to the group.

“Having been an active member of the Church for a long time, it dawned on me one day that I didn’t know any Muslims in Preston, so I went along to Interfaith Week about five years ago to get to know some of the Muslim community.”

With this knowledge, it was clear for me to see that Interfaith Week (and the work done throughout the year with the initiative) isn’t just about showing face and making a conceited or false effort to understand different faiths or religions; in Ann-Marie and Sofia’s case, it is based on more than that, it’s based on raising awareness about other religions; and their meeting obviously resulted in a great friendship.

As well as the Feast of Faiths, on Sunday, members of Preston Faith Forum will attend the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph near the Flag Market.

Read more: Details of Preston’s Remembrance service revealed

Monday 13 November will see a morning Faith Trail being held and then in the evening from 7pm at St Wilfrid’s Parish Centre, there will be a talk about human trafficking and modern-day slavery with Anthony Brown of the Medaille Trust.

On Tuesday 14 November there will be an evening workshop on Faith and Mental Health and Wellbeing led by Paul Smalley from Lancashire Mind.

And on Friday 17 November evening there’s a session on ‘Questioning Islam’ being held in UCLan’s Livesey House; as well as many more events throughout the week and over the weekend.

And with lots of enthusiasm to get involved in other initiatives led by other religions in and around Preston, the work done to raise awareness between different faiths doesn’t seem to be slowing down for Sofia and Sisters4Sisters.

Their work in the community continues to thrive too, and the group are heavily involved in charity fundraisers, which has seen them raising money in the past for charities such as the Baby Beat Appeal and Syria Relief efforts.

Read more: Preston Muslim group raises a staggering amount for Royal Preston Hospital

Their involvement in Preston Pulse is also something the group enjoys doing, and with Sofia leading Islamic awareness classes, it’s great to see that the influence reaches the wider community and not just the Islamic community.

Leaving the James Street venue a lot more well informed and feeling a lot less ignorant, I was content to know that Preston and its many faiths were continuing to work together to build lasting and understanding relationships.

And not only that, I came away from Sisters4Sisters with a smile on my face; I’d made some good connections that morning, and despite not following any particular religion myself, I knew I’d be attending some of the events in Interfaith Week, especially the Feast of Faiths; after all, what better way to bond and forge friendships than over food and a little bit of cultural exchange.

Interfaith Week 2017 runs from Sunday 12th November to Sunday 19th November. Most sessions and workshops are free to attend and are open to the general public; more details and contact numbers can be found on the Preston Faith Forum website.

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