What’s In An Identity?

By Mariya Taher

In May 2016, Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin, head of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Shi’a Islam, came to California to officially inaugurate Dawoodi Bohra mosques throughout the state. Thousands of followers from across the United States came to witness the 53rd Dai al-Mutlaqbless these mosques. My family was included amongst these followers. The Dawoodi Bohras, whose spiritual headquarters are located in Mumbai, India, have a culture originating from Yemen, with a cultural mix of Middle Eastern and Indian traditions. The group also has its own language called Lisan al-Dawat, derived from Arabic and Gujarati. Currently, the religious group claims one million plus followers from around the world.


Born in the United States, I grew up in this tradition, and then I grew out of it.
My upbringing consisted of being raised in a richly diverse, multicultural environment. My parents were immigrants from India, meaning I was a first generation born U.S. citizen. They gave birth to me in a Midwestern town. All around me, were people with mixed European descent, with traditions that differed from the ones I was being taught at home. Traditions like not celebrating Christmas spoke to the stark contrast between my household and that of my Anglo-Saxon friend’s household. Then with the move to California, I encountered more racial/ethnic diversity – my high school was a mix of Asians, Latinos, Whites, Blacks, South Asians and more. In our household, the languages of English, Urdu, Gujarati, and Arabic could be heard. And underneath all of this, I belonged to the Dawoodi Bohra community. I went to madrassa (religious school) as a kid, I attended religious events many nights of the year and ate in thaals with other Dawoodi Bohra adults and children. In other words, my identity was a mismatch of experiences. For anyone who has had to navigate between multiple cultures, you may have faced similar struggles such as I did growing up. Fighting with yourself between new and old ideas, trying to figure out what you believed, and if it wasn’t in line with your family’sbeliefs, how could you not be a disappointment to the ones you loved?


For me, these struggles boil down to a person’s ability to find their own “identity”.
I have had a long and trying journey to finding my identity, which includes my beliefs are about life and religion. During my undergraduate studies I majored in Religious Studies and learned that many religions share similar traditions and mythologies; led me to question Islam and seriously following any one faith. I eventually came to the point where I decided to identify myself as an agnostic.


I was fortunate that my upbringing allowed me to travel the world and encounter unfamiliar cultures and communities thus enabling me to recognize that there are many ideas about the way a person should live. Within all these experiences, I couldn’t help but notice how often, the role of women was to be someone in the background, a second class citizen. How common it was to for the women to be the nurturer, the care-taker, the one who sacrifices so much of herself for that of her husband and/or children. I found these practices to be faulty, putting too much burden on the woman alone. In time, I came to understand that tradition can be wrong, that culture can and should change; this is how I gained my passion for women’s rights.
I became engaged in illuminating and ending all forms of gender violence (much of my work has been in the area of domestic violence). Gender violence occurs when feminine and masculine roles are enforced and can take the form of being physical, emotional, educational, economical, spiritual, or sexual in nature. This type of violence has led to inhuman instances of violence in our human history, such as ethnic cleaning by rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence are not the only forms of gender violence; there also exists more subtle forms that can be just as damaging and affect the emotional health of a person’s identity.


Gender violence can be as subtle as telling a girl she must marry because she has turned nineteen or twenty, and all women should marry young. When a person is pressured into a decision and given the message that this is the way things will be simply because of their gender, their ability to choose their own lifestyle is taken away from them. Their identity as an individual is taken away from them. This form of gender discrimination is not new, it has happened throughout history, spoken of in The Feminine Mystique (A 1963 book by Betty Friedan accredited to starting the second wave of feminism in the United States), and what I have found to be occurring at rapid speed within the Dawoodi Bohra community in the last few years.
In 2014, Syedna Muhammad Burhanuddin, the Dawoodi Borhas’ 52nd spiritual leader, died at the age of 102 in Mumbai, India. Soon after, a schism occurred as to who the next spiritual leader of the community should be.
Before [Syedna Muhammad Burhanuddin’s] fateful stroke, it was assumed by some that it would be his second-in-command, his younger half-brother by three decades, Khuzaima Qutbuddin, who would inherit his mantle…However, two weeks after his fateful attack, the then-head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, in the presence of a gathering of followers, found himself flanked by his second son on one side, and by his son-in-law on the other. While the da’i himself couldn’t speak, due to his condition, his son-in-law made a public declaration on the da’i’s behalf…In his address, he stated that the da’i had appointed his second son, Mufaddal Saifuddin as his mansoos (designate-successor) during a brief but fortuitous moment in his recovery. For the vast majority of Bohras, the name and designation of their next da’i was accepted as a fait accompli…But barely hours before the funeral of the late da’i earlier this month, Syedna Burhanuddin’sbrother, Khuzaima, filmed and posted a public announcement online, declaring that he had been made the heir-apparent 50 years prior through a non-public or secret declaration known as a khangi nass.
In the days after this announcement, my family, like every other Dawoodi Bohra family in the world, began talking about this schism. Allegiances were chosen. Families were split up. A soap opera of events occurred. The politics of it all did not bother me since I had always felt like an outsider to this community. It took many years, but alas I have come to peace with that feeling and my inability to identify with the community. Yet, what still bothers me, is the major philosophical changes towards women in this community, the reemerging emphasis on traditional gender roles. The recent schism within the Dawoodi Bohra community has only brought this truth more to the surface.
Of the two contenders for head of this spiritual community, Khuzaima Qutbuddin is considered, “a moderate liberal with a focus on humanistic aspects of Islam.” While MuffaddalSaifuddin is seen as a “right-wing radical with hardline views on gender and educational access for women.” (See more in Mumbai Mirror). Since then, Muffaddal Saifuddin, has been named the rightful leader of the community, and with his backing as spiritual leader, in the subsequent year, traditional gender roles have been preached by religious leaders.


It seems as if time had gone backwards, and home sciences for women are once again being propagandized. In a waaz, a sermon given by Muffaddal Bhaisaheb, he scolds Dawoodi Bohra parents for allowing their daughters to work outside of the home, especially at call centers, believing that by allowing daughter to interact with others in these environments, women might indulge in sinful behavior such as fornication. Instead, Dawoodi Bohra girls should stay home, cook Roti, and stich clothing. He makes no mention of men not working in call centers or outside of the home. As these calls for women to marry young, stay home, and make rotis are being cast, attempts to pacify these sexist ideas have occurred. One event includes hundreds of men taking part in making rotis for one day. Yet, on the other 364 days of the year, women are called to the this task, making the one day even that men participate in appear tokenized, like the hiring of one person of color to a Board of Directors, and saying the company has diversity.
Hints of gender violence are seen even in some beneficiary programs enacted by the Dawoodi Bohra community. In The Times of India article, “Community Kitchen gives Bohra women freedom from cooking,” the Dawoodi Bohras are commended on their initiative to start a community kitchen, in which meals are prepared and distributed to families throughout the community. The idea was created, “so that women could devote time for religious activities, focus on children’s education or even start small businesses.” I do not deny that this program has released the burden of having to cook all day for some individuals, and that has been beneficial for the community. What I do object to is the idea that women are supposed to cook simply because they were born female. Therefore this Community Kitchen has liberated them from their “god-given task and allowed them so-call “freedom” to pursue other tasks. Or, as this articles states, “…women from the Dawoodi Bohra community have been unshackled from the hearth thanks to the ‘community kitchen.’ And as NewsX has reports, “Good News: Bohra women get respite from cooking.”
During my childhood, I often heard that Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin encouraged the education of young girls, urging them to advance their studies and become doctors or teachers. I come from a large family, of whom each relative has been lucky enough to go on to higher education. My family consists of health professionals, business owners, artists, writers, teachers, and so much more. The diversity of occupations found amongst this group is astonishing, and the fact that my female relatives are engaged in all the above occupations, even more inspiring. I find it ironic then, that now there is a call for women to return to more traditional gender roles, to stray from education. Or, if a woman does pursue an occupation outside the home that they need to have raza or permission from Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin to do so, as evidenced by this commercial.


As a social worker, I know that not all individuals have the luxury to pursue higher education. There may even be cases where a daughter has to work at a call center because it is a high paying job, and the only one she can find. The reality is these situation do exist. To limit the choices a woman can have relating to occupation, is also taking her ability to choose, and thereby limiting her identity as an individual.
I know this struggle – this push to more traditional gender roles is not unique to the Dawoodi Bohra community, it is a struggle faced by all women, a theme that unfortunately reemerges over and over in history. The theme being the ability for a woman to choose her own identity independent of their biological sex – whether that be a housewife, a doctor, a teacher, a call center worker, a baker, a mother, or maybe a mixture of some of the above.

While reading the Feminist Mystique, I came across a quote illustrating how after WWII, American women were returning to the housewife role, which was a sharp contradiction to the roles their mothers had sought after during the first wave of feminism (when U.S. women received the right to vote). In the 1950’s, the role of housewife and mother were the only expectations of women. These ideas were promoted in the media, in colleges (women went there to find husbands), and amongst women themselves. No one was speaking of the overall dissatisfaction that many of these women were feelings with their lives. Thousands of women were seeking other ways to feel fulfilled in life, and as The Feminist Mystique identities, these women were lacking an identity as an individual – someone who was more than a propagating machine and a door ornament for their husband. Some blamed too much education for this lack of fulfillment in women’s lives:

It has been said time and time again that education has kept American women from “adjusting” to their role as housewives. But if education, which serves human growth, which distills what the human mind has discovered and created in the past, and gives man the ability to create his own future-if education has made more and more American women feel trapped, frustrated, guilty as housewives, surely this should be seen as a clear signal that women have outgrown the housewife role (p.308).
Doesn’t The Feminist Mystique speak of some truth here than in regards to the Dawoodi Bohra community? Shouldn’t it be seen then that women in the Dawoodi Bohra community might have outgrown the housewife role? That modern conveniences has freed the need for traditional gender roles? That women and men can and should be viewed as equal in their abilities to share domestic task and in their abilities to make their own choices and find their own identities?
What is occurring in the Dawoodi Bohra community, thus concerns me because the individuality that women possess is being eroded. Instead of being a person capable of their own thoughts, actions, and feelings, women are being encouraged to pursuing just one role – that of being a wife and a mother. As the call for home sciences is being rung, knowledge is being stolen from women. The knowledge we gain from our unique experiences is what builds our identities – to be able express our ideas, life experiences, and learn knowledge in whatever occupation we choose, should be our choice. This knowledge should never be constricted to only half the population – to just those who identify as male in the community.
While growing up, I heard from my father that there were times when friends in the community advised him against sending his daughters away to college. My father worried wewould become too independent, too westernized, that we would turn our back on everything he taught us as children. My father choose to ignore these concerns, in favor of trusting his children to make the right decision. I am by no means perfect, but I believe my father is proud of the strong, independent woman I have grown into. He is proud that I have made it my life’s mission to be a social worker, to help domestic violence survivors, to work at nonprofits and advocate for legislation that helps these survivors. He is proud I am a writer, a reader, and a thinker. He know I need to make my own decisions and therefore my own conclusions. There are definitely times when I frustrate him that he does not agree with everything I say or believe and when he doesn’t know how to respond or react to things I say or actions I take. Yet, no matter what happens, I know he is still proud of my identity. And that he loves me.
To end, let me admit that I was afraid to write this article. I was afraid of the potential negative reaction I might encounter speaking about my feelings. Or worse yet, having no response at all – being thought of invisible, not having my voice heard. But if we all stay afraid of speaking up, how will things change? Speaking up is not for the faint hearted. There will always be those who disagree with you. Those who try to discredit you. There will also be those who wish they could have spoken up as well. For those people, I am sharing my thoughts through this essay and my voicing my concerns regarding the happenings in the DawoodiBohra community. You don’t have to agree with me. You don’t even have to like what I said. The only thing I hope for by sharing this knowledge is the opportunity to be heard.
Author Bio:
Mariya Taher has worked in the gender violence field for nearly nine years in the areas of research, policy, program development, and direct service. She received her Master in Social Work from San Francisco State University in 2010 where she pursued a qualitative study titled, “Understanding Female Genital Cutting in the United States.” Since then, she has worked on the issue of domestic violence at W.O.M.A.N., Inc., Asian Women’s Shelter, and Saheli, Support and Friendship for South Asian Women and Families in Massachusetts. She was a 2014 Women’s Policy Institute for The Women’s Foundation of California and her team successfully passed legislation to provide low-income survivors of domestic violence with basic needs grants. She has also been an adjunct lecturer at San Francisco State University where she taught “Gender, Sexism, and Social Welfare Institutions” in the Social Work Department. Currently, she is working with the Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association on passing state legislation to criminalize FGC and build public awareness campaigns around FGC within the state. In 2015, she cofounded Sahiyo, a transnational organization with the mission to empower Dawoodi Bohra and other Asian communities to end female genital cutting and create positive social change through dialogue, education and collaboration based on community involvement. Her work has been recognized at the United Nations and ABC news did a special feature on her, entitled: Underground: American Woman Underwent Female Genital Mutilation Comes Forward. Her story was nominated for a 2016 Webby Award for Individual Short or Episode.

Mariya also recently graduated with her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University, where she received the 2014 Graduate School of Arts & Social Sciences Dean’s Merit Scholarship and the 2016 Lesley University Graduate Student Leadership Award. She writes both fiction and nonfiction, and has contributed articles on domestic violence and female genital cutting to Huffington Post, The Fair Observer, Brown Girl Magazine, Solstice Literary Magazine, Global Voices, The Express Tribune, The San Francisco Examiner, and the Imagining Equality Project – a Global Fund for Women and International Museum of Women joint project. She received her Master in Social Work from San Francisco State University and a B.A. from the University of California Santa Barbara.


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