Reading the Community

Women of different faiths connect through book club

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With its roots in reading the reality of the multicultural CHAI Rossendale book club is escapism, me time, friendship and sharing.

It has united women from a range of different cultures, backgrounds, professions and religions and is proving so popular it now has to turn away would-be members.

Surviving lockdown

Meeting once a month at the Whitaker Art Gallery and Museum in Rawtenstall, CHAI, which stands for Community Hub and Access Initiative, is one of the largest book clubs in Lancashire, with14 members – the maximum allowed by Lancashire County Council to guarantee its Library Service can provide enough copies of the chosen book.

With the only differences being skin colour and the fact some of the members wear headscarves, the books on the table bind the ladies. A shared love of literature weaves together a cross-section of cultures.

As they sit and chat about everything the meetings soon become 10 per cent books and90 per cent socialisation.

Starting in December 2018, as the brainchild of former secondary school teacher and librarian Yasmine Choudry, the club grew in its first year and survived the challenges of lockdown thanks to Zoom. As libraries were closed, the band of sisters shared their own books from home and provided more for relatives who lived away.

Choudry said: “I set this up because of one lady who, while in conversation, revealed that she had been removed from school at 13 and taken to Pakistan. She was not allowed to continue with her education. She had no O-levels, no formal qualifications and had an arranged marriage while still a teenager. She clearly felt that she had missed out in terms of her education and schooling, but she had a love for books and reading.”

“Reading is my self-care”

The club originally had six or seven Muslim women, but grew to 10 and then it developed into the diverse range of women who attend today.

Mother of four Kiran said: “I love reading, but I had not read a book for a while. Now every morning, before the school run, I sit in the car for 10 minutes and read. I feel like I have achieved a bit of reading time.”

One of the earliest members Julie said: “Reading is my self-care; it gives me time to not think about everything that is going on. Coming to the club has meant I have read quite a few books that I would not have chosen, and some are now among my most memorable books.

“We read The Book Thief, and five of us then went to Yasmine’s to watch the movie. I have never felt judged here. It doesn’t matter who you sit with – everyone chats together and it is a really nice friendly group.”

Some members didn’t complete their schooling while others have master’s degrees. Some are retired, everyone is a mother, and all are at different stages of life – from grandmother to new parent.

Teacher and mother-of-three Zainab said: “I wanted an aim so I keep a log and, since I joined in September 2021, I have read 21 books. I need an escape and I love meeting up with the ladies; the club makes me feel I have a purpose.

“I don’t have to read a book because someone says read it, but the last few have been a bit more interesting. I am a bit bull-headed and stubborn and sometimes I must give it 50-100 pages before I decide if I like it.”

By contrast Hina said: “I come here because I just want to go out and eat cake; and I love reading books.

“It is me time and I look forward to it because I meet these lovely ladies and I have a laugh.

“I started writing my own stories about my culture and life and I used to write poetry. This book club is not just about reading – it is about socialising.”

Many admitted to having a passion for prose, but said they lost their way after starting a family.

“This is time to myself without my children,” said Becky. “I used to love reading and I worked in a library for 10 years.

“Before children, I never stopped reading – since children not at all. The book club means now I have a new book to read each month.”

Choudry added: “Where else would you see such a cross-section of the local community all sitting and sharing together? I believe that, in our book club, we are leading the way. This is how communities should work and should be seen together.

“Our members do not see each other as from the Muslim, Hindu, Anglican or no faith; they see a fellow book lover who has a passion for reading.”

Photo: Becky says the book club gives her time to herself without her kids 

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