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A lone woman's battle against Bohra priestly tyranny

March 23, 2011 15:41 IST

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. 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 organised 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 1987, 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.

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 were 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 realised 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 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 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. 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?

Because I dared to defy the Syedna's orders, I 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. 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 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.

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.

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 10,000 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.

Some time in the 1990s, a local Bohra leader, Yusuf Bhai Badri, who was then secretary of the Bohra Jamaat of Surat and a close confidant 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.

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.

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. 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.

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 Rs 50 lakh 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, Fuliben Tahirali Cyclewala, 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.

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 patronising 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.

Yoginder Sikand