This Organization is Uniting Muslim and Jewish Women to End Bigotry
Imagine this – a group of Canadian women, half of whom are Jewish and half of whom are Muslim come together to talk. It may sound like the start of a joke but it’s really not. These women come together in hopes of peacefully learning from one another - which, given a backdrop of racial and religious division playing out domestically and internationally, some might call a radical intention. By the end of the meeting, they stand around the table munching, chatting, and laughing like good friends. Each walks out of the room elated by the beauty of the moment, and knows she belongs to a Sisterhood.
I am one of those women who has been blessed to be part of such a radical, yet peace loving-movement. I helped start the Edmonton chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (SOSS), an organization focused on building relationships between Muslim and Jewish women and ending anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment. I believe SOSS’s success demonstrates an important idea: when people –– and especially women –– forge connections across difference, they find a power that is rooted in their shared humanity. And this International Women’s Day, I invite you to consider how the women of SOSS can teach us how to harness that power for peace.
As a Canadian Muslim with Pakistani roots, I am cognizant of the divide that exists between Jews and Muslims today, primarily due to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. There is immense anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on both sides, which is very sad despite their shared past of learning and dialogue. One would think that two minority groups dealing with similar struggles such as facing bigotry in North America would be natural allies, but this has unfortunately not been the case. Instead there exists an ever-growing rift between the two and the children of Sara and Hagar are further estranged from each other. The real challenge for bridging this divide, and by extension for hope in the Middle East, lies in how both Muslims and Jews regard and engage with the narrative of the other. But when both groups find themselves on opposite sides of an ideological chasm, any opportunity for discussion or engagement is lost, and so is the possibility of learning from each other. SOSS allows Muslim and Jewish women to engage with each other’s stories, fortified with hope that doing so will lead to a more peaceful tomorrow.
Any relationship requires trust and so do the friendships formed inside SOSS. From my experience with the Sisterhood and my other Jewish friends, I can personally attest that the best way to build a relationship’s foundation is with a yearning to understand as well as be understood. In other words, simply getting to know each other. At SOSS, we focus on similarities before delving into the world of politics. When relationships are strong enough to be sustained despite disagreements, then we can move past the niceties and similarities, and start exploring differences.
This step takes true courage. You must share your own narrative, while at the same time listening to understand and embrace the narrative of the other. Dialogue should not be a debating match of who is right or wrong. Dialogue, at the deepest level, transforms you: as your assumptions and generalizations are challenged and quickly broken down, you come to the realization that there is more than one truth.
In our discussions, we reach an empathic understanding of the other side’s narrative, and our own perspectives begin to be shaped by multiple truths seen through differing lenses and viewpoints. The collective religious identity begins to expand its borders to include the greater identity of humanity. Your own faith is often deepened as a result.
Finally, we learn to hold our own narrative as well as that of the other. We see that members of the other group are not a monolithic mass we may have believed them to be. In my own experience, I have seen that speaking with the other and getting to know that very other breaks down the stereotyping and dehumanization that happens so easily when we are not familiar with the other, or even fear them. So what should we –– as Muslims, Jews, women, or any multitude of identifiers we choose as human beings –– learn from SOSS?
We should learn that the process of fostering connection across difference is both individually enriching and communally powerful. It is a vital tool we must all use to break through the divisive news stories, policies, and rhetoric we face every day. And for women especially, sharing our stories and learning from someone you don’t necessarily agree with, lets us tap into the power of a shared conviction: that all of our voices, together, can enact peace in this world.