Ever since 68-year-old Mufaddal Saifuddin took over as the 53rd Dai or spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohras in January, his sermons have attracted curiosity from members of the million-strong sub-sect of Ismaili Shia Muslims, a large section of whom live in Mumbai. His statements on women’s roles in particular have caused much debate.

In his sermons, the syedna has mentioned that women ought not to work in call centres as that may lead them to “commit sins". He has also reportedly stated that women ought to learn how to cook and stitch, and desist from attending institutions of higher education. Some households disallow women from being seen in public without the rida, a two-piece hijab; others prevent women from being photographed.

The public role played by women has been historically undervalued in the community, writes Rehana Ghadially, a professor who retired from the department of humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai. In an article titled The Campaign For Women’s Emancipation In An Ismaili Shia (Daudi Bohra) Sect Of Indian Muslims: 1929-1945, she writes: “Unlike the fierce and prolonged debate aroused by the campaign to give up purdah, higher education for girls did not arouse similar passion."

“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," says the article, published in a 2002 book, Muslim Feminism And Feminist Movement: South Asia (Volume 1), edited by Abida Samiuddin and Rashida Khanam.

However, there are many in the community who do not subscribe to orthodox strictures on what women ought to do, education, work and domestic chores included. Zehra Cyclewala, a Dawoodi Bohra reformist who took on the earlier syedna’s 1985 dictum to give up working at the Saif Cooperative Society bank in Surat, refusing to give up her job as a manager, is one of them. Ex-communicated as a result, Cyclewala has fought a 29-year-long battle, often taking the help of courts and the police, against orthodox sections of her community. “These rules are meant to keep women oppressed. If the woman was educated, she would raise her voice and that’s what they don’t want," says Cyclewala of the syedna’s reported remarks about women’s education.

We profile four successful professionals and their working relationship with their community.

Nushrat Bharucha, 26

Actor

Nushrat Bharucha outside her home in Juhu, Mumbai

Bharucha, the critically acclaimed actor of films such as Love Sex Aur Dhokha and Pyaar Ka Punchnama, has good reason to be circumspect. Her choice of profession hasn’t gone down too well with the more orthodox members of her extended family.

Bharucha entered the profession at the age of 16. As a student of Jai Hind college a decade ago, she walked into a talent management firm hoping to volunteer as a scout. Instead, they hired her to act in a serial, Kitty Party, on Zee TV. The long work hours and shoddy treatment of newbies led Bharucha to quit the show in a year.

At the time, when her mother would accompany her to the studio, Bharucha would tell members of her extended family that acting was only a summer job. “In our community, we are encouraged to take up professions like medicine or engineering that offer consistency and job security. Acting is not a ‘real’ profession," she says, sitting near the window of her Juhu, Mumbai, home, where she lives with her parents and paternal grandmother. “Some of them still look at me with a question in their eyes, ‘What have you done in the past 10 years?’"

Yet, after college, Bharucha found herself drawn to the studio—this time for a film offer. “It was then that I realized what acting meant. Film was nothing like television; there was a craft to it, and I realized how much hard work was needed. It was not some mindless two-bit job that only requires you to look good."

Bharucha’s parents, Tasneem, a homemaker, and Tanvir, a businessman, were initially apprehensive but supported their only child’s decision. “I was slightly sceptical at first," says Tasneem, adding that she had encouraged her daughter to take up theatre in school. The main concern, she says, was whether Nushrat would find a good Bohra match. Bharucha believes she will find the right man, who shares her world view, within the community. “Are there any?" we ask her father, who replies, “Of course there are."

“We are very close as a family. There are uncles and aunts for whom I would stand in front of a truck," says Bharucha, echoing a sentiment common in the Dawoodi Bohra community, known for its close network of familial, social and economic ties. “One can’t live in solitude. To survive as a single family unit is not possible. So my parents would still go to the mosque and happily do everything that is asked of them. Whom we are connected to matters more to us," says Bharucha.

While her parents don’t pressure her to go to the mosque to pray or keep a fast during Ramzan (she can’t because of health concerns), Bharucha says she acquiesces to the more orthodox elements of her family when needed. “If I’m asked to wear a rida and attend a ceremony, I’d do it. I don’t get into a debate."

At the same time, however, Bharucha espouses the need for a more liberal attitude towards religion. “A religion can’t define a person. It tells you what you should and shouldn’t do, but the choice is always up to you. The sanctity of faith gets lost if one is forced to do things. Let me listen to sermons and decide for myself what moves me, what I feel like thanking God for and asking of Him."

In many ways, Bharucha’s attitude is a product of her parents’ choices. While Tasneem grew up in the predominantly Bohra neighbourhood of Bhendi Bazar, she moved to Juhu after marrying Tanvir, whose business of heat-resistant ceramic coating counts auto giants as clients. Moving away from the neighbourhood spelt small freedoms—to not wear a rida, for instance, each time she stepped out of home, to not visit the mosque out of compulsion, among others. Tanvir also didn’t depend on other Dawoodi Bohras for business, unlike the scores of hardware stores or clothes merchants’ shops that populate the locality. This, too, Bharucha’s parents count as a blessing.

“I’ve been brought up with both elements in family—orthodox and liberal. I would never tell my cousins who follow all that is preached that they’re wrong. I think being an actor helps me understand where they’re coming from."

Ummul Ranalvi, 54

Corporate training firm owner

Tasneema Ranalvi, 51

Publisher

The view from Ummul Ranalvi’s drawing room is captivating—from the ninth floor of a tony apartment complex in Bandra, Mumbai, one can see the Arabian Sea and, beyond it, the high-rises along the Worli Sea Face and Parel’s behemoth glass facades. “We are Bandra girls," laughs Tasneema Ranalvi, the younger sibling, who lives nearby. Masooma Ranalvi, a 47-year-old social activist based in New Delhi, who practised criminal law in Mumbai in the 1980s, is the youngest.

Tasneema runs Source Publishers, an offshoot of Super Book House (SBH), a firm for books on subjects like design, architecture and gemmology, among other things, started by their father, Shoaib Ranalvi, in the 1970s, when the family lived in the Dawoodi Bohra neighbourhood of Nagpada.

Ummul Ranalvi (left) at her home in Bandra, Mumbai, with younger sister Tasneema Ranalvi.
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