By Lady Gilda LEVY, Chairman, Women’s Interfaith Network
My parents came from Vienna as refugees from Hitler in 1938 and I was born just after the war. I grew up under the shadow of the Holocaust; my early years were spent witnessing my mother desperately looking for her family, and eventually realising that she would never see her parents and most of her siblings again.
I remember my aunt, who had been hidden during the war years, coming to our house after the war had ended and all the sadness that surrounded her visit. Although I had a very happy childhood, this had a deep and lasting effect on me, an effect that has never left. I became convinced that blind prejudice and hatred are some of the greatest evils on this planet.
When I was young, I was certain that after the Holocaust, an event which was a tragedy for humanity, the world would become a more tolerant and humane place. Alas, I was proved wrong, and we are now witnessing, in the 21st Century, once again the rise of prejudice, bigotry and hatred.
Genocide and massacres are still taking place in various parts of the world and after each one we say “never again” – until the next time.
Women’s Interfaith Network was born out of my determination to try to do something positive to change people’s hearts and minds and thus society, and also because of a very special friend.
I have been friendly for many years with a wonderful Indian Muslim lady, Pinky Lilani OBE. Over lunch one day, soon after 9/11, we were talking about our special relationship although we come from very deferent religions and cultures. Perhaps, if we can get along so well, we could encourage other women to form similar friendships.
Together, we launched Women’s Interfaith Network, WIN, a charity that works to bring women together from all the various faith communities in the UK.
We strive to encourage respect and understanding, build bridges, and combat the stereotypes so prevalent in the media.
WIN is 10-years-old this year and throughout that time as chairman of the organisation, I have met some incredible women and learned so much about other faiths and cultures. Whenever I have doubts about the effectiveness of what we are doing, one of our members will tell me how exciting it is for her to have made friends with a woman to whom she previously would not even have spoken, and this restores my faith.
Women have so much in common at a very basic level and can easily empathise with each other, whether it is about their children, families, ageing parents or even food. We do connect and are always ready to exchange ideas.
At one of our meetings, soon after the attack at the shopping centre in Kenya, a Muslim member stood up and apologised, with tears in her eyes, for the dreadful events. The rest of us assured her that she had nothing to apologise for. This is the sort of warmth that has built up among the members of WIN, which now number more than 1,000.
To celebrate our 10th anniversary and also International Women’s Month, we have organised a women’s visual art exhibition entitled Spirit of Womanhood.
This will run from 20 March until 30 March and includes painting/drawing, sculpture, ceramics and photography. We had more than 1,500 submissions from all over the world and the ones picked by the judges are exciting and innovative and certainly not what one would expect, breaking down another stereotype.
The exhibition at the gallery@oxo on the South Bank has been endorsed by Tracey Emin, who has donated one of her pieces.
In conjunction with the exhibition, there is a day of films by women about women on 23 March at the Roxy cinema and bar. Along with the films, there will be two speakers and a panel discussion. One of the speakers is a young Israeli dancer and choreographer talking about her personal journey.
We welcome new members and are making 2014 the year we start WIN groups in around the country and not just greater London. Please come and join us to help make a better society and a better world.
• For more details about the exhibition and events, visit WIN’s website, where you will find addresses and timings along with information, photos and video about the organisation.