By Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com
Zehra Cyclewala is a leading figure in the reformist movement against the tyranny of Syedna Burhanuddin, the head-priest (dai-e mutlaq) of the Daudi Bohra Ismaili Shia sect. Here, in a conversation with Yoginder Sikand, she relates the story of her decades-long personal struggle against priestly tyranny.
The Syedna turns 100 this month, and massive celebrations are being organized by his followers across the world to project him as a popular and pious leader. Zehra’s life tells a different story, however.
My name is Zehra Cyclewala. I am 55 years old, and have lived in Surat for most of my life. I was born in an orthodox, lower middle-class Dawoodi Bohra family. My parents had five children, and I was the youngest child. In the mid-1980s, soon after I completed my education—I did my graduation in Commerce—I joined the Saif Cooperative Society in Surat, a bank established in the 1960s by a group of Bohra traders. It was inaugurated by the Bohra head priest Syedna Burhanuddin himself, and enjoyed his blessings. I started work there as a clerk, and, gradually, rose to become its manager.
From the very beginning, the Saif Cooperative Society gave and took interest. The Syedna naturally knew of this, and he had no problem with it, although some Muslims believe that even bank interest is forbidden or haraam in Islam. However, two years after I joined the bank, the Syedna issued a fatwa claiming that bank interest was forbidden, and demanded that the Bohras working in our bank leave their jobs at once. All the staff of the bank was Bohras at that time. Because the Bohras believe the word of the Syedna to be almost like divinely-inspired law, they hurriedly complied with his order and quit their jobs. I was the only one to refuse. After all, I thought, when, from the time the bank was established till the Syedna had issued this fatwa, the bank had been giving and taking interest, and the Syedna knew about this all along, how come he had suddenly decided or realized that such interest was haraam? The Syedna himself had inaugurated the bank, and when he did so he had no problem with it dealing in interest. There was something fishy in this fatwa, I felt.
Despite enormous pressure to leave the job, I refused. I lived with my mother, Fuliben Taherali, in Surat, and was the sole source of her support, because my father had died when I was 20. I simply could not do without this job. So, despite the Syedna’s order, I stuck on. The District Cooperative Society Board appointed a non-Bohra administrator—a man called Mr. Daru—to run the bank, and I worked under him. My defiance of the Syedna’s orders was not liked by the Bohras of Surat, and soon complaints about me reached the Syedna’s religious establishment—the Kothar.
The eldest son of the Syedna, Qaid Jauhar, came to Surat and met with me, and insisted that I must resign. ‘Why should I?’ I asked. I told him that a branch of the Bank of Baroda functioned in a building built on a plot of land owned by some Bohras in Surat, and that this bank dealt in interest. The bank paid rent to the Bohra owners, who, in turn, parted with some of it to the Syedna’s establishment, through the Syedna’s local amil or representative. ‘Why don’t you stop taking rent from the Bank of Baroda?’ I asked. Qaid Jauhar was shocked by what he regarded as my impudence. He told me that I asked too many questions, and said that this was improper.
As I said, by this time there was enormous pressure on me to quit my job. The Bohras believe that the Syedna is a divinely-appointed man. To displease him, they believe, is a sure way to land in hell. To refuse his order, they think, is to disobey and revolt against God. This is what the Syedna has made them believe. Hence, they thought that my refusal to quit my job was no ordinary revolt—but that it was nothing than a defiance of the divine will. And so, in a short while, a campaign was launched in Surat to excommunicate me. My house is in the middle of the Saifi Mohalla, a Bohra locality, hardly five minutes walk from the Jamia Saifia, the Bohras’ biggest madrasa. All my neighbours were fellow Bohras. Soon after I was excommunicated, they all stopped speaking to me. Even my relatives were forbidden to have any interaction—even on the phone—with me.
Yet, even in the face of this ostracism, my mother insisted that I must not give up. ‘Don’t you quit your job,’ she said. ‘You have to stand on your own feet. Your community is not going to help you when you need it.’ I did what she said. After all, I was no longer young, and it was not easy for me to get another job. If I quit my job, who would feed us?
The Syedna has a powerful weapon that he readily deploys to shut up anyone who dares protest against his oppression. Anyone who speaks out against his crass corruption (on the basis of which he and his vast family have become enormously rich by levying all sorts of taxes on the Bohras) or dares to criticize his dictatorship is at once excommunicated. This is called baraat. A Bohra who is thrown out of the community’s fold by the Syedna can have no social relations at all with any other Bohra, not even with his or her own family. Numerous spouses have been forcibly divorced, against their will, because one of them dared to differ with or raise his or her voice against the oppression and corruption of the Syedna and his henchmen.
And so, I, too, was declared to have become a mudai or apostate, and was subjected to baraat. Even my closest relatives, barring, of course, my mother, whom I lived with, stopped talking to me. When my mother and I walked on the streets, Bohras used to spit at us. Many would utter abuses and curse us. I refused to take this lying down. After all, I was always assertive, even as a child, and could not tolerate nonsense. And so, I filed a case against almost 20 Bohras who used to torment me and my mother in this vulgar way. This was in 1989. I won the case, and my tormentors came to me asking for forgiveness.
Meanwhile, the Syedna’s men continued to try to force me out of my job. They entreated Mr. Daru, the newly-appointed administrator of the bank, to throw me out, but he refused because I was good at my work. When I discovered that several rich Bohras of Surat, including some who had been office-bearers in the bank, had taken loans and had defaulted on payments, I took them to court, and the court forced them to return the money that they owed. This greatly incensed these men, and, using the enormous political influence that the Syedna wields, they pressurized the government of Gujarat, which was then controlled by the Congress, to remove the administrator of the bank and appoint someone else in his place, who they hoped would do their bidding. They managed to do so, and Mr. Daru was replaced. Mr. Daru’s only ‘fault’ was that he had refused to agree to their demand to expel me from my job.
Now that the Syedna’s men had succeeded in forcing Mr. Daru out of the bank and that the new administrator was a pro-Syedna man, I felt that my own job was under threat. So, I sent letters to top officials, including the Chief Minister of Gujarat, informing them about what was going on. Thereupon, I was suddenly demoted to the post of accountant, on the instigation of the Syedna’s men. I approached the court in protest, which issued a stay order, declaring that I should not be removed from the post of manager. The new administrator of the bank pursued the case in the higher courts, but even the high court confirmed the stay order, which was in my favour.
However, because the majority of shareholders of our bank were Bohras, and because they believed every word of the Syedna to be divine law, they voted to suspend me despite the court’s stay order. This was tantamount to contempt of court. And so, for three years, from 1989 to 1991, I could not go to office. It was at this time that I began meeting with other women—Hindus, Sunni Muslims and Christians—who had also suffered in their own ways and who were trying to speak out against their oppression. We formed a support group and tried to help each other cope with our difficult situation. It was these women who inspired me to refuse to let the board of directors of the bank off. After all, by voting to suspend me they had violated the court’s orders. And so, I lodged a contempt of court case against them, which dragged on for two years. In the end, the court ruled in my favour. The directors of the bank begged the court for mercy, and I was reinstated as manager, while 15 Bohra men were suspended from the bank’s board of directors. Till then, the bank had been in the hands of the Syedna’s cronies. To stabilize the bank and to make it more broad-based, I appointed several Hindus, Sunni Muslims and reformist Bohras as members of the society, and so it became much more cosmopolitan.
All this while, I refused to relent, although the Syedna’s men kept sending me messages, saying, ‘Repent and you will be forgiven.’ But what I did I need to repent for? It was not me, but they, who had done wrong. They should have repented, not me. I refused to tender any apology although I had to face, and still continue face, brutal social ostracism. After all, my struggle was not for myself alone, but for the many Bohras who live under the cruel tyranny of the religious establishment. It was a struggle for truth and justice.
In 1991, my mother fell sick but no relatives could come to see her, for fear of being ex-communicated. She, too, had been excommunicated by the Syedna because she lived with me and refused to accede to his orders that no Bohra should have anything to do with me. She knew that having been excommunicated she would not be buried in a Bohra graveyard. Still, even on her deathbed, she stood like a rock behind me, insisting that I must never surrender to injustice. Shortly after, she passed away. No Bohra came for her funeral—not even her other children, my siblings. The Bohras of Surat refused to bury her in the community’s burial ground. I insisted that she would be buried there and nowhere else, because I was a Bohra and I had my rights, and my mother had been a Bohra, too. The Sunni Muslims of Surat offered to let her body be buried in their cemetery. I thanked them but I declined their offer, saying that if I accepted their offer, it would be conceding defeat in the struggle against the Syedna’s religiously-sanctioned tyranny.
News about my mother’s body being thrown out of the Bohra mosque soon spread throughout the town, and so, in the dark hours of the morning, and under police protection, a crowd of some 10 thousand Sunnis and Hindus collected at the Bohra graveyard and ensured that my mother’s body was laid to rest there. Not a single Bohra came for the funeral.
Sometime in the 1990s, a local Bohra leader, Yusuf Bhai Badri, who was then Secretary of the Bohra Jamaat of Surat and a close confidante of the Syedna, had taken a loan from our bank, but because he had not repaid the loan, interest on it had mounted and he owed the bank almost double the principal. He refused to pay back on time, and I was compelled to take him to court. The court issued a warrant ordering the seizure of the property of his guarantor, a Bohra industrialist called Haiderbhai Hazur. I went to Haiderbhai’s house with the court order, along with some policemen. When I got there and he saw me, he said, ‘How dare you come here? You are an apostate!’ I told him that he had to repay the money, otherwise the court would take action against him. Scared of what might happen to him, he asked for three days to pay up.
Just as I left his house, some Bohras began screaming like mad men, alleging that I had abused the Syedna. They began hollering out to the Bohras around to come out and beat me up. Soon a huge crowd collected and surrounded me, including many Bohra women. Somehow, I managed to escape. I ran to the nearby Mahidarpura police station, but the crowd of Bohra men and women, more than 5000-strong, rushed there as well, following me. They started raising slogans, crying out, ‘Give us Zehra Cyclewala! We will kill her!’ The Bohra amil of Surat, Syedul Khair, son-in-law of the Syedna, was leading the crowd. ‘Come out and we shall hammer you!’ he shouted.
Inspector Khan of the police station said to me, ‘Ask them for mercy and they will let you go, or else they might kill you. Why create a fuss about refusing to say just two words in apology?’ But I refused, saying, ‘I would rather die but I shall never ask them for mercy. After all, what wrong have I done?’ The policemen did nothing to control the crowd or stop them baying for my blood. Instead of beating them with lathis or tear-gassing them or even registering a case against them, they lent them their support. Such is the enormous power of the Bohra establishment.
Although I was perfectly innocent and the crowd was at fault, a false case was registered against me, claiming that I had abused them! I tried to lodge a formal complaint in the police station, I was not allowed to and, instead, I was put into the police lock-up, where I had to spend the entire night. The next afternoon, I was taken to the court. A huge crowd of Bohra women gathered there. They demanded that I be sent to jail. But the magistrate refused, saying that it was a bailable case and so I was released on bail.
Because it was no longer safe for me to stay in the Bohra locality, where I had my home, I shifted to a Hindu locality for a couple of days. The Bohras had spread all sorts of false news about me, claiming that I had caused a disturbance by abusing the Syedna, so I went to the offices of leading newspapers in Surat to tell them the truth. I said, ‘You have been fed on wrong propaganda and, without doing any investigation, you have published false things about me. Now you have to publish my version of the events or else I will go on hunger-strike and will lodge a complaint with the Press Council.’ The journalists heard me out and the next day they published my story.
As I said, instead of supporting me, the police had taken the side of the Bohras, and so as soon as I was let off by the court I, along with several of my women friends of the Surat District Mahila Sangh, a women’s group of which I was one of the founders, went to meet the Police Commissioner and told him how badly the policemen had treated me. I don’t know what I would have done without the help of these women colleagues—who were mostly Hindus and Sunni Muslims. With the help of the Police Commissioner, a case was lodged against a group of Bohras who had attacked my house when I was in the prison lock-up, and eight of them were arrested. But I was not satisfied with this measure and lodged a writ petition in the High Court against the policemen and the Bohras who had assaulted me. I complained about how the police had refused to lodge a case of rioting against the Bohras, and, instead, had kept me locked up in jail. Some policemen came to me and asked me for mercy but I refused. If I relented, I thought, how would these people, who are paid to help the victims of those who violate the law, learn that they cannot refuse to abide by their duty?
Soon, my case was heard in the High Court, which ruled in my favour and came down heavily on the Bohra rioters and the police. By now things had become so tense that I knew that some enraged Bohra could easily kill me, and so the court ordered that I be given police protection 24 hours a day. And so, two armed police men were given to me, who accompanied me wherever I went. This carried on till 2006.
In 1998, the Rotary Club of Surat decided to hold a function to honour me for my struggle against the tyrannical Bohra establishment. They announced the event in the newspapers. As soon as the Bohras of Surat heard about it, they arrived in a huge horde outside the Rotary Club and began shouting slogans against me and the Club’s decision to honour me. The men who run that Club got scared on seeing them, and so, just a day before the event was to be held, they told me that they had called it off. When my colleagues in the Surat District Mahila Sangh heard of this, they were enraged. They went to the Club and told the men there, ‘You have dishonored and insulted Zehra, although you had announced you would honour her!’ The next day the news was splashed in the papers. But we did not stop at that. Through a lawyer, we sent a notice to the Rotary Club saying, ‘If you don’t apologise within three days, we will lodge a defamation case against you.’ The Club folks got nervous, and they asked me to forgive them. ‘We will never do this sort of thing again with any woman,’ they promised. I told them, ‘We accept your apology, but you must issue an advertisement in the press to this effect, and you must also add that the orthodox Bohras forced you to cancel the programme.’
The advertisement came out in three newspapers—it must have cost the Club a lot of money!—but we women were glad. After all, we did all this not so that I could salvage my name but so that organizations like the Rotary Club would learn not to cave in to the pressure of reactionaries and that they would stand up for justice, which they claim they are committed to.
Because I had taken on the Syedna’s henchmen, the police and influential organizations like the Rotary Club for siding with the tyrannical Bohra establishment, many newspapers had reported about me. This further incensed the Syedna’s blind supporters. One of them, a certain Mustafa Dodia, tried to trap me. Later, it was discovered, he had been paid by the Syedna’s men to do this. One day, he lodged a false complaint against me in a police station, claiming that I had tried to kill him. He got together a group of Bohras and they went on hunger-strike outside the police station, demanding my arrest and the removal of the police protection that the court had granted me. I was not one to take this lying down, of course. I reacted by lodging a complaint in the police station against Dodia, alleging that he had demanded the removal of police protection so that he could kill me. His demand, I added, was tantamount contempt of the orders of the court, for the court had ordered that I should receive police protection. Finally, Dodia was forced to withdraw his false complaint. The crime branch investigated his complaints against me and found them to be completely concocted.
Initially, I was the only Bohra in Surat to speak out against the tyranny of the Syedna and his men. I had no idea that there were other Bohras, in other cities, even in other countries, who were fed up of the extortion and the corrupt dictatorship of the Syedna and his family in the name of Islam, and who were agitating against all of this. Slowly, I came in touch with these reformists. News of my struggle reached them and they contacted me. They were inspired by my lone battle, and felt that I had something to tell other Bohras, to teach them that standing up for truth, for values, for principles was true surrender to God, and that the supine surrender to a corrupt priesthood, which the Syedna insists on in the name of Islam, was its complete contradiction. In 2001, a group of reformist Bohras invited me to Canada to speak on my life, and to help galvanise the Bohra reformist movement in the West, where a number of Bohras live. In 2005, I was invited to an international convention of reformist Bohras in Birmingham, England, where my biography, titled One Against All, written by the noted Bohra reformist Yunus Bhai Baluwala, was released. In the same year, I insisted that the reformist Bohras of India organize a convention in Surat, which is where the major Bohra madrasa is located. Some people were scared to do this in the very den of the Syedna, as it were, fearing that they would be attacked by the Syedna’s cronies, but we went ahead and it was quite a success!
I began my struggle and my public life in the Saif Cooperative Society in Surat, and I still work there, now as its manager. Our business has expanded considerably over the years. And, I must say, despite the torrent of hatred that has been directed against me all these years, many Bohras who refuse to countenance any criticism of the Syedna now come to me with requests for loans. Although I am still officially ex-communicated from the Bohra fold, many Bohras come to my office to see me. They cannot invite me to their homes on family functions, of course, because of the Syedna’s orders. My brothers and sisters, too, cannot meet me. If they dare too, they stand the risk of being ex-communicated.
I keep attending reformist Bohra conferences wherever they are held. I am also invited by secular women’s groups to speak, and in this way I have had the chance to travel to various parts of India. Hindu and Sunni Muslim groups also invite me to their meetings, and I am grateful to them for their support. Wherever I go, I talk of the central role of women in promoting reform and resisting tyranny in the name of religion, which is an affront to true spirituality. I also keep stressing the need for communal harmony. From my own personal experiences, not from reading fat books, I know how deeply inter-related patriarchy, communalism, violence and priestly tyranny are.
I owe a lot to my mother, who stood firmly by me when I was ex-communicated. For that, she was thrown out of the community herself, but she refused to budge. She kept insisting, ‘Zehra! Never cave in to tyranny. Keep your head high. This is what God wants.’ Some Bohras from Surat, blind followers of the Syedna, offered me 50 lakh rupees if I issued an ‘apology’ to the Syedna, and even said that this would enable me to rejoin the Bohra fold. I remembered what my mother always told me and said to them, ‘I will never do that, no matter how much money you offer as a bribe. I know that by offering me money you want me to shut my mouth, to stop speaking out against the tyranny of the priests, to stop the Bohra reform movement.’ Had I accepted their offer, my reputation as someone who has always stood for certain principles would have been in tatters and people would then say, ‘Zehra has sold herself for money.’ But since I have never cowed down to their threats and blandishments, I can, as my mother always told me to, hold my head high, and so, after I leave this world, people can say, ‘There was a Bohra girl called Zehra who shook the Bohra community and dared to challenge the tyrants within it.’
In memory of my brave mother, and as a small token of appreciation for all that she stood for, recently I set up a charitable trust in her name. The trust has five trustees—a Hindu, a Sunni and three reformist Bohras. The trust offers modest financial assistance to the needy. We dream of doing many things in the future, one of them being to establish a common graveyard for people of all religions and communities so that people who are tormented and oppressed by their religious leaders, like my mother was, can find a final resting place there.
Sometimes, people ask me, ‘If the Syedna and his henchmen are such tyrants, why do you reformist Bohras not convert to another religion or to another Muslim sect? Why do you insist on remaining Daudi Bohras?’ I reply to them, saying, ‘This is precisely what the Syedna wants, because if we reformists quit the Bohra fold, he will be able to rule just as he pleases, without any opposition whatsoever!’ That is why I insist we must remain within the Bohra fold and continue to struggle for our rights, for true internal democracy. I think Islam, if correctly understood, tells us that this is precisely what we should do.
I have lived a long life of struggle. I have had to face terrible odds. All through, it was not desire for personal revenge or power that goaded me to take on the Bohra establishment, but an irrepressible commitment to justice. That is something basic, or ought to be, to all human beings. I simply cannot compromise on this. Some people may say that I was too obstinate or even vindictive, that I should have compromised instead of taking people to court, staging demonstrations, and lodging police complaints. But I tell them, ‘If we keep quiet and cave in, tyrants will continue to play with our lives. Surely, speaking up against tyranny is a fundamental duty and right, is it not? Surely this is what Islam, properly understood, should inspire us to do.’
And this is what the Bohra reformist movement is doing. The reformists are appealing to the world to see the trickery behind the ‘pious’ exterior of the Syedna and his cronies, who are misusing and misinterpreting religion to extort money from the Bohras and enforce a stultifying form of slavery on them, on their bodies and minds, all in the hallowed name of Islam. This is how the Syedna and his family have become among the richest in all of India. Anyone who dares to speak out against this tyranny is automatically thrown out of the community.
I appeal to the Government, political parties, intellectuals and social activists, and to people in general to see through this charade of the Syedna and his cronies, who have been twisting Islam in order to promote their own interests. I ask them to stop supporting and patronizing these men. The Syedna turns 100 this year, and hectic activities are underway to celebrate his centenary. A lot of public functions will be held to project him as a truly ‘pious’ man and a ‘popular’ religious leader. I appeal to people to listen to my voice, to the voice of a Bohra woman who has seen through and struggled against the tyranny of the Bohra establishment for decades, not to fall prey to this nefarious propaganda.
A regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.