Dossier 14-15: The Campaign for Women’s Emancipation in an Ismaili Shia (Daudi Bohra) Sect of Indian Muslims: 1929-1945

Publication Author: 
Rehana Ghadially
September 1996
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At the beginning of the women’s emancipation struggle among the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent access to education and the campaign against Purdah were the main points. The late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries were characterized by considerable debate on these issues in the Muslim community, throughout India. The reform effort by men on behalf of women was sparked by the considerable progress made by other communities in India and was inspired by changes taking place in Muslim countries of the Middle East. Beginning from the early nineteenth century the status of women was an issue of concern to male upper caste and class Hindu reformers. Their early efforts were directed against certain customs such as sati, and sanctions against widow-re-marriage that were detrimental to the status of women. Later, they tried to educate women and bring them into public life. In South India the campaign was on to suppress the devdasi (temple prostitution) system. By the second decade of the twentieth century, reform efforts were not exclusively confined to men and several all-India level women’s organization run by women emerged to champion women’s rights. The kind of reforms they advocated were female education, the franchise and changes in the Hindu Personal Law affecting marriage, family and property rights. Following 1930-32 when women made a tremendous impression through their involvement in nationalist agitational politics, all petitions requesting legislative changes or other moves to improve the status of women were prefaced with reference to what women had done in the nationalist movement (Everett, 1978).

In the post World War I era, changes were occurring throughout the Muslim Middle East. The pressure of many forces such as rapidly extending network of communication, expansion of world knowledge through the press, Western material goods, new forms of amusement, Western impact of secularism and nationalism, etc, loosened the control of Islam as an iron clad system of rules and traditions giving way to a more individual interpretation of Islam. The most debated point in orthodox Islam was its social system, based on the seventh century, and since the central fact of this social system was the position assigned to women, the re-interpretation of religion sought to harmonize the emancipation of women with the spirit of Islam. Education, veiling, polygamy, divorce, age of marriage, etc, were topics of intense debate. The problem resolved itself along two lines. One exemplified by Turkey which chose to repudiate the inviolable authority of religion over the state and society and engaged in the pursuit of progress as a single goal. The rest of the Muslim world followed the second course set by Egypt which attempted to keep all social reforms within the spirit of the law. This new spirit of liberalism deeply affected the lives of women and a small minority began to question the relationship between the accepted teachings of Islam and the demands of the modern world (Woodsmall, 1936).

In India, although the Muslim orthodox influence was dominant, two movements in Northern India represented a liberalizing influence through a re-interpretation of the Koran - the Aligarh and the Ahmadiyah movements. The educational influence of the Aligarh movement radically changed the Muslim outlook. The Ahmadiyah movement, on the other hand, was concerned primarily with the social teachings of Islam in terms of modern progress. Both had an effect on the gradual emancipation of Muslim women. Sir Sayyad Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) - the pioneer of the Aligarh movement while in favour of Western education for men was only modestly reformist when it came to women. Although he argued that Purdah was not sanctioned by Islam nor was the denial of female education, it was his view that women’s education was to emphasize moral and spiritual values. He opposed higher education for women along Western lines and acted as a break on the more radical reformers in the Mohammadan Educational Conference established in 1886. A more spirited advocate of women’s rights in Islam was Sayyid Mumtaz Ali. He waited until the death of Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan in 1898 to publish his book Huquq al Niswan (women’s rights). The all-India Muslim Ladies Association an off-Shoot of the Mohammadan Educational Conference founded in 1914 and controlled primarily by North Indian Sunni Muslim, in its meetings between 1914 and 1920 passed resolutions centering around the promotion of women’s education, relaxing Purdah rules and abolishing polygamy. Despite these resolutions little was accomplished in actuality (Minault, 1981; Mumtaz & Shaheed 1987).

The little that was accomplished was in the area of education. By the early twentieth century schools for Muslim girls with some Western content opened in a number of cities (Mumtaz & Shaheed, 1987). The opposers of higher education for girls were influenced by Purdah considerations. The struggle to modify upper class Purdah practices is best depicted in the writing of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) described by her biographer as “the first and foremost” feminist of Muslim society in Bengal. “Avarodhbashini” one of her publications linked forty-seven incidents. As Purdah excesses into a denunciation of the oppression of women (Jahan, 1988). Coming out of Purdah had begun in the upper class and by the law of imitation was working down. Begum Hamid Ali in Baroda, Mrs Tyabji in Bombay, Lady Shafi and Lady Abdul Qadir in Lahore, were pioneers and because they represented wealth and prestige they invited imitation. (Woodsmall, 1936). In the South, Iqbalunnisa Hossain spoke and wrote against the Purdah system. By the 1930’s Purdah was a subject of intense discussion in almost all the Ladies Associations, anti-Purdah resolutions were passed but with no satisfactory results (Hussain, 1940).

Methodology and Objective

This paper focuses on the campaign for women’s reforms in the Daudi Bohras[1] - the largest Ismaili Shia sect in Western India, as carried out in their reformist journal titled Aagekadam (A Forward Step). Between 1936 and 1944 under the editorship of Adamali Jiwajee, this Gujarati monthy was published under the auspices of the Young Men’s Bohra Association from Karachi. Women from elite, progressive families with a modicum of education, some awareness of the world around them and a commitment to social reforms were invited to contribute to it. These women had received secular education in missionary schools, schools managed by Gandhians and the Parsi community. Some reforming sethias had chosen to live away from Bohra mohallas (locality) and had encouraged the family women to give up the Purdah (Ghadially, 1993).

provided a forum to present and discuss progressive ideas and was devoted to discussing community issues especially the ongoing conflict between the reformists and the clergy. For the first time a Bohra reformist journal besides focussing exclusively on the conflict carried not one but two special section on women. One was Stree Vibhag (Women’s Section) edited by a woman - Ms. Shireen Shirajee. It consisted of articles written by Bohra men and women, and Hindu and Muslim women of other communities. The other section Stree Jagat (Women’s World) carried news about women around the world and India on topics of health, political participation and issues debated in women’s gatherings especially gatherings of Muslim women. In addition, some news about women was carried in Jagat Darshan (World News). The target audience for the three sections was both women and men.

In addition to examining Aage-Kadam,[2] the paper also looks at the debate generated by the campaign. And published in the widely read, Parsi managed, Bombay based, Gujarati newspaper called Bombay Samachar. (The newspaper carried a special column titled Mukbire Islam (Islamic news) where letters written by the Muslim castes (Bohras, Memons, Khojas, Konkani, Muslims, etc...) of Western India were published. Later a special column was run specifically for the Bohras and was called Vohra Vartman (Bohra News).[3] While the paper had a distinctive progressive stand it nevertheless presented the views of both the orthodox and progressive stand section of the respective communities). For the purpose of this article, the newspapers of the 40’s and 50’s decades have been examined.

The extremely meagre work (Minault, 1981; Jahan, 1988) focusing exclusively on the Muslim campaign for women’s reforms in India centers around the North Indian Sunni sect and the Bengali women. Minault (1981) theorizes that movements are heterogeneous in nature and the Indian women’s movement must be broken down in order to be fully understood. By focusing on the prodding for reforms among the Daudis this article will add to the understanding of the Indian women’s movement and highlight the multiple feminist tradition in the same country. She further states that until recently scholarship on the Indian Muslims has been particularly prone to a monolithic approach, but the Muslim community in India is ethnically, linguistically, doctrinally and politically diverse. The paper will highlight the fact that within the same religious tradition the major issues confronting women were similar but there were also some differences. Lastly, the data here will supplement the existing meagre literature on the topic. The paper will address itself to the pioneers of the movement, the kind of reforms advocated, the justifications offered, the new women they hoped to construct and the debate generated by such efforts.

The Shia Sects and Daudi Bohras of Western India

By the end of the nineteenth century, it was apparent in Western India that much of the reform work of the last three decades had been forced into communal channels. The Parsis, the Hindu Gujaratis and Maharashtrian communities had established their respective societies and reformist papers which among other things championed the cause of women such as female education, widow remarriage, raising the age of marriage, etc; and settled disputes between the reformists and the caste leaders/orthodox section by appealing to an external authority viz; the British courts (Dobbin, 1972). As a result of this campaign, the world of women was extended to encompass two new segregated institutions, the girl’s school and the ladies association (Pearson, 1990). However, those Gujarati Hindu castes which had been converted to Islam still retained a highly centralized form of caste organization, generally complicated by the addition of an Islamic head.

Unlike the Parsis and even the Hindus, the Muslims possessed no order of priesthood which could be completely separated from the social organization of the community or from the authority pertaining to its headship. Nor could they separate their communal life into secular and religious compartments. But as some of these Muslim castes[4] migrated from Gujarat to Bombay in the early nineteenth century, they left many of their traditional loyalties behind. The reforming sethias (male elite) among the Ismaili Shia Khojas were the first to challenge the cast leadership and push a head with their efforts to enlighten the community. By the end of the century the younger generation of reformers attacked the community’s ignorance in which the Aga Khan, the caste leader undoubtedly acquiesced. They said the following of him.

”He should also himself sincerely encourage education, male and female, as well as true Mohammedan religion among the Khojas whose position, both secular and spirititual, as it stands even at present is a very dubious one in the eyes of civilized Mohammedan world” (Dobbin, 1972 ; p. 120).

The Agha Khan was quick to move and besides education, he relaxed Purdah rules and he writes in his memoirs “I have abolished it, nowadays you will never find an Ismaili woman wearing the veil” (quoted from Papanek, 1982; p.16).[5] Among the Ismaili Shia Bohra sects, the Sulaimanis and Mahdi Baghs discarded the practice of Purdah by the late nineteenth century (Singh, 1987). The Tyabji women of the Sulaimani sect emerged from Purdah in 1890s, a development of which the family was immensely proud. Badruddin Tyabji as the first Indian barrister in Bombay, mixed professionally almost entirely with Europeans. He first encouraged his wife to introduce zenana parties made up of ladies of various communities. Then she learned some English and began meeting European women. The distinction of first discarding the veil altogether went, however, to one of the judge’s nieces, Mrs. Ali Akbar Fyzee who went to England in 1894. Then in 1898 another niece, Mrs Hydari followed suit in Bombay itself at a party given by the Parsi, Jamshetji Tata. As a pioneer of modernization and westernization, Badruddin Tyabji presented a spirited attack on Purdah and early marriage in Bombay at the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental Conference in 1903 (Wright, 1976).

A lead in various emancipations had been by other Shia sects such as the Khojas, Sulemanis and Mahdi Baghs in western India, but the Daudis were considerably slower in challenging the authority of their religious head known as the dai or Syedna.[6] They seemed to have remained peaceful throughout the century and were completely, submissive to him. They gave him one fifth of their income and accepted his decision on both religious and civil questions (Dobbin, 1972). While the sister Khoja community was challenging the religious leadership the leading Bohra sethia - Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy strengthened the clergy by his various contributions and philanthropic activities and not contesting the clergy’s authority (Wright, 1975). As a result reform efforts were considerable slower in taking off. This despite the fact that the Daudi sect being a business community had established trading contacts with the British and were exposed to European influence at an early date.

It was only in the early 40’s that the clergy relaxed Purdah rules and accepted higher education for girls. Writing on competitive modernization among the Daudis, Wright (1975) observes:

”the impact of the second world war was felt, young women had begun to come out of Purdah to take jobs, young men began to resist the traditional requirement that they grow a beard before marriage and wear the Bohra gold turban. Taher Saifuddin (the high priest) was showing himself reluctantly willing to move in the direction of social change but the reformists were probably correct in their claim that his concession came from their prodding them from any initiative comparable to that of Aga Khan III of the Khojas” (p. 161).

A Beginning

The progress made by other communities did not go unnoticed and by the turn of the twentieth century some Daudi sethias initiated a campaign for vernacular education for boys and girls, Anglo- vernacular education for boys and sought political autonomy and financial accountability from the clergy. By the turn of the 20th century in towns where Daudis were in substantial numbers madrassahs, where, Arabic, the prayer and Koran were taught were extended by reforming Sethias into vernacular schools for boys and girls. Efforts to get Anglo-vernacular education for boys off the ground and demands for financial accountability met with stiff opposition for the clergy and the orthodox section, resulting in lengthy and expensive court cases.[7] (Added to this was the constant pressure, which the sethias tried in vain to fend off viz; to seek permission from the clergy for starting community welfare ventures such as running a library or opening a dispensary. To keep the reforming sethias in check discipline was enforced by fines, social boycott threat of excommunication or excommunication. In a small tightly knit community, this was devastatingly effective. The religious leaders ultimate sanction - the right to excommunicate recalcitrant Daudis was challenged in the court in the 1930’s (Engineer, 1980). To pay for the costly litigation, the religious leader centralized his financial power over the community by compelling wealthy Daudi Trustees to deed over to him their religious endowments under the threat of excommunication and by the turn of the century in addition to the traditional spiritual power the clergy assumed a growing power over secular/temporal matters over the followers (Wright, 1975).

In these early reform efforts, with the exception of vernacular education for girls, women’s issues per se received no attention. Shirajee (1937) the editor of the ‘women’s Section’ of Aage-Kadam accused the early reformers for not having taken up the issue of women’s rights and independence. The aim, she stated, was to champion boys education, men’s rights and independence from priestly authority. She exhorted that unless male editors make an effort for the advancement of women, men’s progress will remain elusive. With regard to Khanbai Amiji - an early pioneer of modern education and editor of a reformist journal Bage-E-Mominshe complains:

”What has Kaka Khanbhai done for women? Kaka Kanbhai was a champion of women’s right and Bage-E-Monin was published for the rights and freedom of men. In this fight for freedom I wonder if he ever though about women. Could he not recognize that until women are slaves men will not be free” (Aage-Kadam Aug. 1937 p. 83).

The only exception was Tayabali Alavi - a leading sethia, philanthropist and educationist in Karachi who championed the cause of Anglo-vernacular education for girls in 1920, met with opposition from the orthodox section and had to abandon the idea. He met with success only in 1930[8] (Female Institutions of the Hasani Academy Society, 1947).

After thirty years into the century it was quite clear that the reformers efforts had produced little or no results. Their work and the issues raised by them were sustained by the next generation of reformers. In December 1929, at Karachi, seven young, radical, elite men got together to discuss the commercial downfall of the community, came to the conclusion that educational backwardness was the major cause of it. They formed “The Young Men’s Bohra Association” (YMBA). (Also known as “The Bohra Youth Association” and within a short time almost all the educated Bohras in Karachi were on its role). The main purpose of the YMBA was to promote education and other necessary reforms and thereby pull the community to a level at which other sister communities were. Women’s emancipation was perceived as an essential prerequisite for both the community’s progress and state building and emerged in the context of the sect’s drive for greater political autonomy from the clergy and national liberation (The Excommunication and After, undated 1935). The leading member among the younger generation of reformers - Hatim Alavi - the son of Tayabali Alavi was described as an intellectual and liberal in his politics and had travelled extensively to Europe, Turkey and Persia in 1924. He had been drawn into the Home Rule movement and was one of the leaders of the agitation in Karachi against the Rowlatt Act.

Both generation of reformers came form urban, elite background, had been influenced by Gandhi’s nationalist agitation but whereas the previous generation focused on Western education for boys and the political repression by the clergy, the younger group, in addition, concentrated on enlightening the sect members and sought to emphasize Anglo-vernacular education for girls and related issues for women’s emancipation. A more important difference was that unlike the early reformers, they had taken advantage of Western education available both inside and outside the community, recognized the need for involving the emerging female intelligentsia to speak, write and organize on women’s behalf and clearly saw the link between women’s progress and the success for wider reforms in the sect. Aage- Kadam begun in 1936 became the mouthpiece of the YMBA and continued to be published until the end of World War II.

Women’s organizations play an important role in the struggle for women’s rights and at the time that Aage-Kadam the organ of the YMBA was started, it also started “A Daudi Bohra Women’s Association” in Karachi. It had as many as sixteen aims among which were encouragement of Anglo-vernacular education for girls, learning of domestic and childcare skills, holding seminars, encouraging thrift, inviting women to contribute funds for the wider reform cause and arrange for the inclusion of articles in the women’s section of Aage-Kadam. It had initiated income generating projects for poor and widowed women. On request it issued guidelines to start similar associations in other parts of the country. However, in the one and a half years of its existence it had achieved little by way of reform.[9]

The Campaign and the Debate

With the exception of a privileged few, the life of a Bohra woman was likened to that of a “slave” “owned by a man” “too ignorant to exercise her rights granted in Islam” and her condition described as “pitiable” “suffocated” and “paralysed”. Learning Arabic to recite the prayer and Koran passed off as education. She had to depend on a student of a different community to read and write a letter to her husband. The low position of women, the various traditions existing in the community were variously attributed to men but more importantly to the clergy’s version of Islam. An article translated by Ms. Nargis read:

”There is the Islam of the prophet and that of the clergy. The difference between the two is that between chalk and cheese. Clerics Islam if full of customs and old traditions. Clerics Islam tells people to sport a beard and keep women in the homes. The clergy’s Islam is strong in society and this explains the low position of Muslim women in society today” (Aage-Kadam Apr-May, 1937, p. 53).

At another place Ms. Shirajee, the editor of the “Women’s Section of Aage-Kadam “ states:

”Due to men’s stupidity women are crushed. Men think of women as a tool of entertainment. They have deprived women of their rights and trampled on them. Because of men’s domination, she sticks to customs, tradition and shariat and allows herself to be crushed” (Aage-Kadam Oct., 1937 p. 25-26). What kind of issues were addressed to pull women out of this backwardness? What arguments did they put forward to justify their demands? What kind of women did the young band of reformers - men and women - sought to create? Did the campaign challenge women’s traditional role and male authority? How did it define emancipation - well-versed in domesticity or individual autonomy? Did the campaign generate debate in the sect members and what was the nature of this debate?

The campaign for reforms centered around education and abolishment of the custom of purdah. Purdah here refers to both giving up the veil and expanding the public space for women. These demands were justified on religious and rational grounds. In pre- Islamic Arabic the status of women was low but Islam gave women, a high status, granted equal rights to men and women and accorded women rights which were not granted in other religions. These rights were gradually eroded over time. The most important rational justification was that the winds of progress and modernisation were everywhere and it was important for the community to emulate the progress made by women of other communities in India so as to raise the status of the sect in the eyes of sister communities. Another argument centered around changes made in the role and status of women in Muslim countries. The underlying theme was the community’s progress and women’s emancipation became the symbol of that progress.

Across the board the arguments put forward to encourage new activities among women were traditional. The prophet’s Islam made it incumbent on every Muslim - man or woman - to seek knowledge. Not to give woman education would be anti-Islamic. The purpose of education was to perfect her traditional role as wife, mother and homemaker and thereby improve the tone and quality of domestic life. Mothers were perceived as important socializers of children and an educated mother would instil the importance of education in children. Mother’s education meant the education of entire mankind. Education was also perceived as instilling certain qualities in her such as bravery an independence - qualities which she would then encourage in her children. An educated woman would also be thrifty and would not spend money on costly clothes, ornaments and dinners. Besides, an educated woman would ensure domestic peace and harmony. An uneducated woman indulged in petty quarrels which set a bad example for the children. These quarrels also kept men away from homes and in the cinemas, bazaars and clubs. An educated women would understand her domestic and wifely rights and this would ensure love and happiness in the home. Mr Akbar writes:

”An educated and lovable woman is a precious ornament for a man and gives more relaxation and happiness to a man than precious stones at the bottom of the sea. As you approach closer to a reformed home you will get the smell of mogra flowers” (Aage-Kadam, Aug. 1938, p. 33).

If one were to go by the articles and letters of the 40’s and 50’s decade in the Bombay Samachar it is quite evident, as will be elaborated later, that unlike the fierce and prolonged debate aroused by the campaign to give up purdah, higher education for girls did not arouse similar passion. This was because by the early 40’s higher education for girls was not only officially accepted but actively encouraged by the clergy class. The Sydena on the occasion of his golden jubilee celebration announced the starting of funds to build a high school for girls in Bombay and in the meanwhile parted with his own property to run the school temporarily in a building at Bhendi Bazaar. There was considerable praise for the Syedna and of all the issues confronting the community, his acceptance of female education was perceived as constituting the biggest shift in his thinking. The reformists alleged that it was their campaign and the successful running of a high school for girls by the reforming sethias in Karachi that had pushed the clergy to finally act. While this is true, at the same time, it cannot be denied that sweeping changes were occurring on the Indian sub-continent and the clergy’s inaction on the matter of female education would have made him look positively archaic. For example among the Parsi and Hindu castes female education was no longer a matter of debate and as early as the 20’s Parsi and Hindu girls were attending college and going on to the University. Besides, chapter meetings of two All India Women’s Congress were held in Bombay at this time and while female education was still on their agenda, it was concerned less with acceptance and more with its expansion. The all India level women’s organizations had moved to issues considerably closer to women’s hearts viz, equal rights with men in matters of divorce, inheritance etc.; (Everett, 1978). Also at this time the issue of higher education for girls was being discussed and encouraged by other Muslim sects in Bombay. The news on the progress made by the women of these castes was carried in the Bombay Samachar of this period. It must also be mentioned that despite the clergy’s fatwas against English education, throughout the early part of the twentieth century, Bohra girls of elite and reformist families had attended schools managed by missionaries and other communities and later well to do Bohra families were sending their daughters to these schools. To counteract this trend a community managed high school for Bohra girls was necessary (Ghadially, 1993).

The 50’s decade saw the starting of high school for girls in small towns. But indifference was still the order of the day. A high school in the town of Shidpur ran into financial difficulties and no sethia was willing to come forward and prop it up. When the high school in Bombay started operating there were allegations of mismanagement and indifference. It is also pertinent to note here that while there was euphoria and enthusiasm in the sect, higher education for girls was considerably diluted by reminding the sect of the purpose of female education.

The purpose was to prepare her to execute her traditional roles in a better way and not to encourage the pursuit of a career or autonomy. A quote from one of the letters will suffice:

”But what should be the nature of this education? This is also problematic. The fact it that they should be given such an education that they become adarsh wives, adarsh mothers and adarsh domestics. They must always be kept away from loose education. Otherwise they will become fashionable women who want to become filmstars. They should stay within the limits drawn by God”. (Bombay Samachar 28th Dec. 1940).

The practice of purdah was seen as the most important barrier blocking the progress to women’s education and preventing their participation in public life. In 1936, Ms. Shireen Mandviwalla, an educated purdah-observing woman and a member of the local Muslim ladies association in Karachi delivered a public address which ran thus:

”...and many of us yearn for the day when life behind the purdah will be an event of the past” (Aage-Kadam, Idd issue, 1937, p. 81).

Six months later when her father sought permission for her nikkah (marriage) there was delay and the clergy explained in a letter to her father that the delay was due to the daughter’s many activities against the holy shariat. The marriage would be solemnized provided she recant her views on purdah. She challenged the clergy to show if purdah was sanctioned in the Koran and when this was not forthcoming she refused to apologize and was subsequently excommunicated. Among the reformists, the debate on purdah was fuelled by the excommunication and the argument ran that purdah was not sanctioned in the Koran but was introduced at a later date. If it was sanctioned, the prescription was less solidly grounded than it appeared and was usually the subject of intense controversy. Lookmanji highlights the controversy in the following way:

”Those who favour purdah are themselves divided as to when this custom started and how much of a woman’s body was it expected to cover. After scrutinizing the same texts commands and laws, there is difference of opinion as to whether purdah is sanctioned by religion or not. We must not take a religious view but judge a custom in terms of the progress it brings to mankind”. (Aage-Kadam, Apr-May, 1937, p. 25).

The gist of the rational argument was that the spirit of changing times demanded that freedom be given to women and also sought to highlight the ill effects of the custom. Purdah censured religion, curtailed righteousness, damaged health, blocked knowledge and affection. The perceived fears of unveiled women viz; “women would disobey and be free of all restrictions”, “start earning money”, “do immoral things” and “go astray” - were attacked as baseless and examples were drawn from Hindu women. The same author writes:

”Brahmin women in Maharashtra have relaxed purdah rules. Are they free of all restrictions? Have they become prostitutes”? (Aage-Kadam, April-May, 1937, p.26).

The work of the reformers was not limited to writing and debating. Whenever the opportunity for action arose they were quick to seize it. The campaign for swadeshi goods, engineered by Gandhi had mobilized women across the country and Hatim Alavi, the Governor of Karachi wanted Bohra women to participate in this historical moment. For the first time in the history of Karachi, special arrangements were made for a few hours every Friday to keep the All India Industrial Exhibition open exclusively for the advantage of purdah-observing women. On the surface of it, the action seemed to contradict the campaign for the abolishment of the veil. The main purpose, however, was to get women to come out of their homes, mingle with women of other communities in public places and be exposed to new developments in the country in this case an appreciation for indigenous textiles. The women were assured that the only men present would be the shopkeepers and the volunteers. Some orthodox men questioned this and announced in the mosques that no purdah-observing woman should go to the exhibition. Ignoring the order and spurred by a national spirit a large number of women attended the exhibition and the orthodox men agitated outside the hall. A few among them were blind-faith women and they even carried money ready to pay a fine for breaking the purdah rule.

According to the reformers the agitation only served to highlight the arbitrariness of the observance of the custom in the community. Monpuri focuses on the arbitrariness of the clergy and the orthodox section in the following way:

”Some asked whether there will be men inside and then how will purdahbe observed? I ask them when hawkers come to their houses then how do Purdahnasheen (Purdah-observing) women negotiate with the cloth merchant? To sit in the back of the car and peep outside the window. That is ask what kind of purdah? In mosques during wahez (sermon) and majlis (Shiite dirge) women look down from balconies without purdah. What kind of purdah is that? Women look at the processing on the road and what kind of purdah is that? Lastly, the women go to see the Syedna and what kind of purdah is that”? (Aage-Kadam May, 1939. p. 10).

The reformers alleged that the clergy was not consistent in its enforcement of purdah practices and religious proscriptions were mere pretexts to prevent her from engaging in activities that would enlighten her, kindle the spirit of freedom in her and bring progress. In the case of Ms. Mandviwalla’s speech it was stated that the mere act of delivering a speech by a Bohra girl in public would be too much for the priestly class to tolerate. Such a woman would be less amenable to priestly authority and control.

Even as Ms. Mandviwalla was delivering her speech, women from several elite and or reformist families had already given up the purdah especially in Bombay and Karachi. By the late 30’s and early 40’s women from traditional homes were giving up the veil[10] and the trend gradually became visible in smaller towns as well. While the reformists carried on their debate in the issues of their journal the orthodox section expressed their views and objections in the issues of Bombay Samachar. As many as twenty-seven letters[11] written by Bohras and published between 1940 and 1956 highlight the debate generated by Ms. Mandviwalla’s speech. The letters were written by men and were highly critical of the trend of women giving up the veil and increasingly being seen in public places. This trend was attributed by the orthodox to a variety of influences such as the impact of cinemas, the indifference of the clergy and the reformists campaign. Ironically the brunt of the criticism was directed not towards the reformists but towards the clergy. The orthodox like the reformists charged that the clergy was not consistent in its approach on the practice of purdah. While the reformist advocated its abolishment the orthodox advocated its re-establishment as in earlier times.

At the time the letters were written the public space for Bohra women had considerably expanded and the veil among women was on its way out. Women were seen without purdah at picnics, at wedding reception, at railway and tram stations, near entertainment houses and markets but the bulk of the letters highlight the increasing tolerance of women without purdah in the presence of the clerical men themselves. One letter alleges (Bombay Samachar Dec. 25, 1944) that in the early 30’s the volunteers, who maintain order and discipline during social and religious functions where the clergy is present, entered buildings in various Bohra mohallas (localities) and invited the women to come to the main mosque at Ehendi Bazaar in Bombay to listen to the high priest’s wahez (sermon). In order to generate enthusiasm special buses were arranged for the purpose. The letter further alleges that it was during this time that the volunteers also encouraged women to come out on the streets to see the high priest as he went around in the Bohra mohallas in a procession. These processions were often at night and women were encouraged to stay up late in the streets. Crowds of women came out on these occasions and soon they were coming out without purdah.[12] While the volunteers may have encouraged women, it was also becoming increasingly clear that the clergy class itself was ignoring the presence of unveiled women in their midst and other strange men who were present. It had become commonplace to have majlis (Shiite dirge) without proper purdah arrangements, to pay their respect women visited the clergy class at their main residence at Saifee Baug and Badri Mahal and were seen among men without the benefit of purdah, misaq (oath of allegiance) of pubertal girls was taken by the clergy and after misaq these girls stood in line for their blessings without the benefit of purdah. The contradiction in the clergy’s attitude was pointed out viz; on the one hand excommunications Ms. Mandviwalla for not apologising for her speech against purdah and on the other ignoring instance of purdah violation by orthodox women.

The orthodox based their opposition predominantly on religion principles and reminded the clergy that in the past it had upheld Islamic practices and had frequently quoted the Hadiths on the matter. To make their point, the orthodox reminded, the clergy class often narrated incidences related to Fatima - the daughter of the Prophet and her strict observance of purdah and how her exemplary behaviour has pleased the prophet. While the reformist highlighted the evils of purdah, the ultra conservatives highlighted the negative consequences that followed from giving up the purdah and more often then religious principles, these were actuated by a feeling of protective possession of women, the moral insecurity of the unveiled woman and the need to maintain the status quo as this preserved their authority. Proponents of purdah insisted that only the most stringent controls would preserve the sect from social and moral chaos. A few quotes from the letters will serve to highlight the point. “The fun of going on picnics is spreading even among the lower class and one cannot visualize where it will stop”. “They take a lot of knocks in trams, buses and outside entertainment houses”. “And many go to cinema houses and roam around and even the family men cannot stop them”. “I saw Bohra girls being teased on the railway platform. The girls were being coy and the boys followed them”. “As long as the men are at home the doors are closed but the minute he leaves the doors are thrown open”. “Religious thoughts have stopped entering and women should give some thought as to how they will appear at the door of paradise”. “A time will come when clothed women will look naked. We have reached that stage. A woman who has no shame, her faith cannot be strong”.

There was considerable pressure on the high priest to take action and in 1944 in the month of Ramzan the Syedna lectured the people on the importance of the purdah at the main Saifee mosque in Bhendi Bazaar and his amils(deputy) did the same in every mosque after prayers. A similar exercise was conducted by the Syedna with young girls who came for misaq. The clergy’s agents and volunteers distributed a pamphlet extorting women to wear purdah when coming to the mosque or their prayers will be invalidated, a meeting chaired by an agent of the clergy was held to debate on the matter. In some towns secret associations were formed to curb the practice though some lamented that these quickly disappeared. As these produced no effect on the women the orthodox section demanded sterner measures from the clergy class to curb the practice. These included charging a fee to the women, not permitting purdah less women to come to his residence, showing his disapproval by turning his face away from them, making proper purdah arrangements for majlis (dirge), bus arrangements for girls attending the clergy managed high school, building a colony exclusively for Daudi Bohras where greater social control was possible and traditional practices could be enforced. There were twenty-nine Anjuman committees in Bombay and it was suggested that the member give thought to fighting this trend. However, the impact of modernizing influences all around was too strong, that even in a small town like Patan where the Syedna was due for a visit, it was alleged that unless women are permitted to see him without purdah his popularity would take a knock. The clergy skilfully ignored the issue but never officially sanctioned the giving up of purdah and by the mid 40’s the practice of purdah was a thing of the past.

Mandviwalla’s speech and reformist efforts not withstanding there were other influences at work which facilitated women to leave the confines of their homes and give up the veil. The national agitational politics of Gandhi of the early 30’s had brought large numbers of women into the streets. In this struggle Muslim women including Bohra women had participated. The end of World War I had already seen the beginnings of the debate on purdah, both among Hindu and Muslim women and the Muslim effort was sustained throughout the 30’s and the 40’s. A number of Muslim women pioneers such as Iqbalunnisa in the South and the young band of reformers in Bengal inspired by the work of Kamal Ataturk in Turkey and the work of Rokeya against purdah were speaking out (Jahan, 1988). The movement away from purdah had begun in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Syria, and the Asian part of the Soviet Republic. Some countries chose the path of gradual social evolution whereas other passed decrees against the wearing of the veil. The whole atmosphere was so permeated with modern ideas that the passing of seclusion was inevitable. As highlighted by some letters in the Bombay Samachar in the rest of the Muslim World on the West coast of India there were changes occurring as well. One Shia writer for example did not take too well to the speeches given against purdah by Shia women during the annual moharram celebrations at Noorbaug. While it was acceptable for women to celebrate moharram the speeches were not justified. There were complaints by Alvi Bohra men that their women had become fashionable and were seen in the markets without the benefit of purdah. While the Shia community had taken lead in Western India to abolish this practice, the Sunni sects soon followed suit. A few letters in the early 50’s show the debate among the Sunni Memon community and letters express general disapproval of women moving around with their husbands with the burkha in their hands.)

Another purpose of emancipating Daudi Bohra women was to strengthen their traditional role to serve not only the family and kindle the spirit of nationalism but also serve the community a more direct way. (The ideology of wider economic and political reforms within the community proved a potent force in directing activities of the female intelligentsia to beneficent ends). The reformers realized the relationship between political and social reforms. From 1917 onwards the work of reform in the community had been done by the Peerbhoy and some other families but despite almost three decades of intensive effort very little had been accomplished due to lack of education among women. Women’s education and their coming out of seclusion was perceived as a necessary precondition for them to take their proper place beside the family’s men in the community’s wider reform battle against the clergy. Women were being educated, taught new skills or encouraged to come out of seclusion not for their own betterment but to fit them to use their benevolent power for community’s end. Kapasi argues:

”Men may attend conference, congresses and pass reform resolutions but until such time that the women move forward and the curtain hanging on their bodies and on their minds is broken until such time all efforts will be in vain” (Aage-Kadam, 1938. p.23).

At another place Talajawalla states:

”They do not walk along with the reformist men, they create obstacles and break the courage of a man. So along with the reformist propaganda there must be emphasis on education among women” (Aage-Kadam Apr-May, 1994 p. 52).

Women however, were not encouraged to take leadership positions and serve on decision-making bodies rather a supportive role was envisaged for them. They were encouraged to support resolutions passed at the conference, contribute financially to the cause, keep informed of the happenings and disseminate information by word of mouth and by writing in community publications.

For the Bohras, like the rest of the Muslim world, education and abolishing the veil remained critical for progress. But whereas polygamy, unilateral divorce, age of marriage etc; were hotly debated in the rest of the Muslim world and on the Indian sub-continent such was not the case among the Daudi Bohras. The All India Muslim Ladies Association for example passed a resolution against polygamy at one of its meetings. Polygamy while theoretically sanctioned was a rare occurrence in the Daudi sect as historically it had been curtailed by the clergy, sanctioned only in case of a childless marriage and the male right to unilateral divorce is not recognized by the Shia Fatimid law which the Bohras follow. As far as the age of marriage was concerned, it was the general practice among the Bohras to marry girls after puberty, the common age being between fourteen and sixteen years.

Voices of Dissent in the Young Men’s Bohra Association (YMBA)

While the campaign for women’s reforms were carried out in a sustained manner, there were differences of opinion and level of involvement among members of the YMBA. It did not go unnoticed that an emancipated woman would be less amenable to not just priestly but male control in general and hence emancipation of women was encouraged only to the extent that it brought benefit to the family the community and the nation. Those who opposed women’s emancipation feared that an independent woman would be a “nuisance” and “go on the wrong path” and this would result in “loosing support for the reformist cause”. Shirajee laments over the division in the following way:

”For the men’s independence from the clergy there is unity but on the question of women’s independence there is disunity. Those who oppose women’s emancipation have complicated reasons. I narrate a personal example of this. I was at a zoo and a young reformist man showed sympathy for a caged animal. When I suggested that women are similarly caged at homes, he retorted that there was no need to confuse matters and that each subject matter should be dealt with separately. He then changed the subject” (Aage-Kadam Oct. 1937, p. 25-26).

Unlike the women reformers, not only was there a lack of solidarity with regard to women’s emancipation, but it was also alleged that the men who had taken the initiative were too busy trying to get ahead that they failed to encourage and support the new woman and by criticizing and labelling her as weak hampered her progress. Besides, the women alleged that the men were willing to grant only those rights which did not hinder their own comfort and progress. Two women accused the men for making contradictory and ambiguous demands by encouraging them to be “co-partners” on one hand and “dutiful wives” on the other.

Support and Role Models

The struggle for emancipation and self-determination was sought to be speeded up and inspired by the progress made by Muslim women in Middle Eastern countries, highlighting the achievements of European women and the role of Hindu women in public leadership.

Other Muslim countries were of interest only as pathfinders for social reform. The though of progressive Muslims on the Indian subcontinent was concentrated on nationalism and not on the unification of the world of Islam (Woodsmall, 1983). For the Daudi Bohra reformers Turkey presented on ideal model to emulate both from the point of view of political autonomy and the women’s question. The Turkish approach deliberately tried to destabilize the authoritative socio-religious system of Islam. In doing so they did not attempt to discredit it as a personal belief. The editor of the “Women’s Section” while writing a eulogy to Khanbhai Amiji, one of the earliest champions of secular education had this to say:

”Could he not see that Turkey’s progress is built one women’s advancement and the pace at which women have been given back their rights”? (Aage-Kadam Aug. 1937, p. 83).

Short news items were carried on protective laws passed by the Turkish government for its working women, the first Turkish women pilots, etc. Report and articles were carried on compulsory education for girls in Lebanon, giving up of purdah among the Muslims of Soviet Russia, etc...

The kind of future envisaged once women were educated and had come out of seclusion was exemplified by some Indian - Hindu and Muslim and European women. These role modes emphasized both traditional roles and public participation in a variety of occupations including political and military. The political participation of Hindu women such as Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Hansa Mehta, Leelawati and Muslim women such as Begum Shah Nawaz and Rashida Lateef were highlighted. While acknowledging the public and political participation of Hindu women, the editor alludes to the Deshmukh Bill[13] granting Hindu women property rights already given to Muslim women in the seventh century. European progress itself was attributed to the conquest of Spain by the Moors but Daudi women compared to European women were found woefully wanting as highlighted in the following quote:

”Young Spanish women full of beauty, married with children alongside the men they wear uniform, carry a gun and fight for their country. Where are these women and where are our women! Believe me these are not Bohra women!” (Aage- Kadam April, 1938, p.25).

At another place assuring them:

”Miss Nora K. Smith, a school teacher, won a prize of a thousand pounds for a story titled “A Stranger and a Sojourner”. Do Bohra women still believe that women are less intelligent?” (Aage-Kadam Idd Ank, 1938, p. 100).

Success of the Campaign and Concluding Remarks

After almost a decade of struggle the campaign began to pay dividends. The increase in enrolment of girls at the reformist managed Anglo-vernacular school in Karachi, the disregard for the purdah ordinance at the industrial exhibition, the attendance of women at the first All India Daudi Bohra Conference in January 1944 and speeches delivered by two women at the Conference were seen as signs of progress and awakening among the women. The overwhelming impact of modernizing influences and the spirit of national independence had brought women out of seclusion and in this context the clergy blessed the construction of a high school for girls and on the question of purdah while verbally maintaining that it was obligatory, the clergy on the other hand chose to ignore its violation. With this, first wave feminism among the Bohras ended. Unlike the Sunni Muslims, modernization came earlier to the Shias, being a highly organized sect, a gesture from the high priest was sufficient to set the wheels of progress in motion.

The campaign by stressing the ideas of male/female complimentarily rather than equality left unchallenged women’s dependence on men in social, legal and economic matters. It never sought to redefine women’s sphere but only sought to extend it. Whether these two critical reforms led to challenging patriarchal power within the family needs to be studied. In the attempt to widen women’s space, women were not just recipients of social change but alongside the men they were makers of history too. Overall equal emphasis was laid on both religious and rational reasons for justifying these changes. Due to the force of the wider reform movement in the community, it seems in retrospect almost inevitable that while the question of women’s rights was raised, it was subsumed under the larger struggle for emancipation of the entire community from the power of the clergy. The reformers were convinced that lack of education and veiling hindered the progress of “real” reforms in the community and limited women’s participation in the ongoing nationalist struggle. It was assumed that with the accomplishment of both these demands, women would become aware of the rights granted to them in Islam and the floodgates to further emancipation would become wide open. The campaign especially the one aimed at giving up the veil generate a backlash among the orthodox and again religious and moral arguments were put forward for its perpetuation however the all round spirit of independence, impact of modernizing influence, the progress made by women of other communities and the clergy’s need for public acceptance all made such a reversal impossible.


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[1] For a detailed note on the Daudi Bohras see Engineer, A; (1980) The Bohras N. Delhi: Vikas.

[2] The various sects among the Shias viz; the Khojas, Bohras, Sulaimanis, Mahdi Baghs, Alyas (Alvi), arose over differences in the question of succession regarding the legitimate representative of the sect.

[3] In all, thirty issues of Aage-Kadam have been examined. These include February to August, October, December 1937; January to September 1938; January to May 1939; August and September, 1941; October to December, 1943 and March and April 1944.

[4] These include the Khojas, the Bohras and the Memons.

[5] H. Papanek in her writing on purdah has raised the question whether or not veiling was ever practised among the Ismaili Khojas.

[6] For a review of the wider reform movement in the Daudi sect see Engineer, A.(1980) The Bohras N. Delhi: Vikas.

[7] The two well known ones include the Burhanpur Dargah case of 1913 which centered on the amount of English medium education to be permitted in the school at Burhanpur and the other was the Chandabhai Gulla (alms Box) case of 1917.

[8] For a comprehensive review of the beginnings of modern education among Daudi Bohra girls see Ghadially, R. “Ismaili Bohra Women and Modern Education: A Beginning” Indian Journal of Gender Studies (forthcoming).

[9] Except for one article on the Karachi Bohra Women’s Association nothing was further mentioned about its activities in the thirty issues of Aage-Kadam examined.

[10] At the turn of the century, Daudi women wore a burkha - a tent like garment, black in colour, worn from head to ankle with nets on the eyes. Evidently the burkha was not given up in total but was gradually relaxed into what came to be called a khais - of black or some dark color such as brown or blue and worn from the neck to ankles. The face and hands were visible. By the early or mid 40’s this was also discarded by the women.

[11] Letters in the Bombay Samachar 1940: a) 6/7/; b)13/7/; c) 27/7/; d) 22/6/; 1943: a) 22/11/; 1944: a) 25/9/; b) 21/10/; c) 28/10/; d) 11/11/; e) 18/12/; f) 25/12/; g) 7/10/; 1945: a) 13/8/; b) 1/1/; c) 8/9/; d) 22/9/; e) 8/10/; f) 14/11/; 1946: a) 3/8/; 1947: a) 12/5/; b) 11/10/; 1949: a) 14/3/; 1952: a) 29/12/; 1955: a) 4/7/; b) 28/11/; 1956: a) 17/9/.

[12] It is my conjecture that this public adulation of the clergy was encouraged because of pending cases in the court that challenged the high priest’s power over the sect members. The two well known cases of the period were a legal challenge to the religious leader’s ultimate sanction: the right to excommunicate recalcitrant Daudi and the other challenged the high priest’s exemption from the Mohammedan Wakf Act for the regulation of religious and charitable trusts.

[13] The Deshmukh Bill later known as the Hindu Code Bill was eventually passed by the Indian parliament in 1956.