Interfaith leaders: The Experience So Far

By: Saachi Sharma

I have a story to tell. But before I start, I would like to identify myself. I am a Secular Humanist, which quintessentially means I have no religious affiliations. I am also an interfaith leader, heading the gender centric Active Pluralism Project at the Kutumb Foundation, which is generously funded by the US Department of State and Interfaith Youth Core. I have faith in humanity and in its ability to form inclusive societies with strong components of social justice and civil rights. That is where I ‘fit in’ in the interfaith movement.

As we began chalking out our social action project at Kutumb, my fellow interfaith leader, Roshan – a devout Christian, and I decided on a list of core principles and concepts that will underline our project. Paramount amongst those was the need to ‘engage’. We felt the word ‘tolerance’, however well meaning, conceals negativity. It reeks of grudgingly acknowledging the ‘other’. For interfaith cooperation to become a social norm, it is imperative for faiths and non-faiths to engage with each other. We decided, that in addition to our community driven social action project, we would set the stage for dialogue. The need to ‘feminize’ poverty and equip young people with educational and life skills as well as the knowledge of their sexual and reproductive rights is both imperative and basic. Basic – yet denied to so many and for so long!

After considerable brainstorming, the Active Pluralism Project had a nuanced project plan, a narrowed down cause and an enthusiastic team. We were rearing to go! The gender centric Active Pluralism Project has the following projects running currently:

  • 1. Project Indradhanusha: The aim is to bring more girls and young women within the folds of the informal and formal education system as well as gender sensitize the children. We make use of innovative teaching techniques, involving the creation of group-wise worksheets, use of teaching aids created by the children themselves, theatre practices and games to make learning fun.
  • 2. Project Goal of Life: Soccer is a medium to enable underprivileged children living in urban slums all over the city to come and play together. While Goal of Life has seen a healthy attendance, the sex ratio is skewed. We conducted a survey in Nizzamuddin Basti to gauge parental perceptions on girls playing active sports and female education. The team went door to door and we got 11 girls back on the field – and we are still counting.
  • 3. Project Ghevra: Ghevra is a small village in Northwest Delhi, ahead of Nangloi. The focus is on maternal health care, sexual and reproductive rights and AIDS awareness. So getting back on track now. Roshan and I wanted highlight positive stories that were bed rocked on progressive ideas about women’s rights. Bigotry and intolerance, after all, has a ripple effect: right from the horrors of the partition to the state sponsored ethnic cleansing drives in erstwhile Sudan to the Holocaust in the Nazi era. It is easy to forget one off instances; it is difficult to forget font size 48 headlines telling us about religious tensions and instances of faith based hate.

We have grown as a team and our experiences have been life changing. I‘ll talk about two such ‘direction giving’ experiences I draw from:

Our mission brought us to the Judah Hyam Synagogue, the only Synagogue in Delhi. Our first rendezvous with Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar was fascinating, to put it mildly. He spoke at length about the revolutionary practices he has instituted. In his Synagogue, men and women pray together, and women have access to the dais from where they read the Torah – a practice rarely followed since post the age of 13, women are ‘not allowed’ to occupy the dais. He has a body of work pertaining to interfaith cooperation and women’s rights behind him, having written for the Speaking Tree on numerous occasions. In addition to being a proud father of a non-religious son, his daughter will become the first female Rabbi in India. He stands in firm support of LGBTQ rights and inter-faith marriages, having presided over 7 such unions in Delhi itself. We walked out of the synagogue knowing we were on the right track: if one religious leader could be so inspirational, many religious leaders on one platform could inspire many. The ripple effect could be positive.

If my conversation with Rabbi Malekar had changed the game for us, my second experience set in stone the rules for the new game. We gave 11+ plus boys from Nizzamuddin Basti an assorted bunch of newspapers and magazines and asked them to cut a picture of their possible friend. In most cases, the friend turned out to be a weapon wielding and/or biceps displaying man. We then told them to cut out a picture of their possible girlfriend. In most cases, the girl was glamorous, wore *less clothes* (we dislike the word skimpy) and was most often than not, a Shiela, a Munni or a Chikni Chameli. We then asked the boys to cut out a picture of their possible sister. Guess what? ALL possible sisters were decked in Indian clothes from head to toe. It so turned out that one boy’s possible girlfriend was another’s possible sister! We laughed over it. We also talked over it. At the end of our little activity and not-so-little discussion, the boys drew the following conclusions themselves:

- Your girlfriend is somebody’s sister and your sister is somebody’s girlfriend. - Girls and boys can also be good friends.
- Love is natural and consent is foremost.
- Everyone is entitled to their safe space.

What could we have said…..the conversation had just started. We knew boys will become men. We realized only then that informed boys will become responsible men.

 As we initiate our journey, we’ll be meeting a host of people – religious leaders, atheists, students, elderly, the devout and the spiritual. Our search to generate a talking point amongst faiths and non-faiths about women’s issues is on. Our efforts to reach out to the masses and work in the community are yielding encouraging results. Join us.

We are better together.

We‘ll be opening applications for volunteer positions shortly. Join our Facebook group “Interfaith Leaders at Kutumb Foundation” 

The author was previously the editor at The Saltlist.


2 Responses to Interfaith leaders: The Experience So Far

  1. SO proud of you :) Keep up the amazing work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>