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Given a sporting chance

Diane Spencer reports on how a Birmingham college is making room for Muslim women on its courses

MATTHEW Boulton College, Birmingham, is reaching out to an isolated group within its multi-cultural community - Muslim women.

The college's new sporting academy, launched this summer by Paul Merson, the Aston Villa star, is starting a course designed for women who have been unable to participate in sport for religious or cultural reasons.

About 15 members of the Saheli Women's Group, based in the Balsall Heath area of the city, have signed up for the part-time programme which will teach them coaching skills, fitness, first aid, health and safety. They will be taught by women in a male-free environment. It could be a stepping stone to a qualification, a career or a way of helping their community get its own women's centre.

The enterprise came about because most of the group had taken a basic computer course at the college around the time that Jim Cox, one of their tutors, was helping to set up the academy.

Naseem Akhtar, the development worker for the group, said the staff were "really really good" at understanding the special needs of the women who had started the group two years before.

Saheli is the Urdu equivalent of a "woman's best friend". The group developed from the Balsall Heath Forum, a community group which was instrumental in clearing the area of prostitutes, kerb-crawlers, pimps and drug-dealers several years ago.

It became clear that there was a need for women-only meetings in this predominantly Muslim community, she said. The Saheli group proved so successful that members got funding from the Digbeth Trust for a feasibility study to set up a women's centre.

Lynne Howells, the consultant who carried out the study, said: "There was enormous support - more grassroots support than I've seen in the past 20 to 30 years."

Within a month, there were 156 positive replies to 200 questionnaires and nearly 80 women atended two meetings.

The younger women encouraged their aunts and mothers to join the group so there was a good combination of ages. "I find them fantastically impressive," she said.

But the women need suitable premises with a separate entrance to make the project acceptable to the male members of their families.

The boilerroom of the Moseley Road Baths - a local Victorian building - is one possibility. Ms Akhtar intends to bid for a healthy living centre award from the National Lottery's New Opportunities Fund to convert it and wastes no opportunity to raise funds elsewhere.

Ms Howells added that the group needed to show they were organised and skilled, as well as enthusiastic, in order to get money. That's where the new college course comes in.

At the end of the computer course, Ms Akhtar talked to Jim Cox about the idea for the centre and he suggested that some of the group could learn to be fitness instructors.

Mr Cox, now the quality and marketing manager, said for far too long colleges had been unresponsive to local needs. "We are flexible and adaptable. All our courses can progress to higher education.

"These women can go on to do a science degree if they wish to, or gain formal professional qualifications. We hope we can help to break down barriers by working with people from different traditions and cultures."

He said the academy, which is designed to attract people who would not normally get involved in formal education, had already signed up 100 students. "Courses give students a foot on the career ladder by giving them lifelong skills while enhancing their sporting prowess - they are mainly practical, entertaining and fun."

Although the initiative for the centre has come from the Asian community, Ms Akhtar emphasised that it is for all women. "We would never exclude any woman who wanted to use it. We are all friends and neighbours. After all, not all English women feel comfortable in bikinis."

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