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  • 22 Jun,2017

--Amatullah Zakir

And love, what of love? Does the girl in the rida love? Is she allowed to love, desperately, wildly, caution-to-the-wind? Put her heart on the line, dream of more than brothers and sisters and loving parents? You wouldn't think it from the solemn things that are being said of Bohra girls these days, the heavy pronouncements of the harsh ways in which we girls are 'kept in line.'

But that doesn't square with the life I know. The one I lived, and all my Bohra friends, the one in which I love and have loved, have had my heart broken and then mended, picked up and tenderly restored, made to flutter and made to pound. Can you believe that the girl in the burkha can also have "wild nights - wild nights!" Will we all have to tell our love stories, all 18,000 of us, to be believed?

Well, our stories are ones just like those of many young women all over the world who grow up one day and suddenly find that they are awfully distracted by the young men who show up opportunely, everywhere. Older folks murmur and vanish and leave you to fend for yourself. Some days you do splendidly and shine radiant and witty, and other days you stumble and are awkward and hope that the earth opens up and swallows you because you are too embarrassed to see them all again.  

In the meantime, community life is rich and there are always opportunities to gather, classes and camps and events and weddings and dinner parties, and the boys, and then one boy, is there frequently. Masjids are beautiful and heavily perfumed, on special nights flowers fill the corners, crystal chandeliers sparkle and a night breeze cools the courtyards, the marble glows softly, there may be a fountain, and more likely than not, moonlight, in which introductions are made, you talk softly, but your head is giddy with your dreams for the future. Nights are made for lovers, yes, indeed.

The boy at the masjid is then the boy who takes you out to dinner and for movies, you inch closer together and think of how you could touch his hand. If this is the story of every urban couple in the world, do our pulses quicken differently? When I tell you that what follows is as tender and as urgent as any other couple first discovering love and life together, will you believe me? Then love matures and deepens, for a few years there may even be hate, until you find it again. Love's older soft glances are sometimes weary and battle-scarred, but still carry a memory of love's heady youth and exuberance and wrap it up in aching, precious depth, the one thing that eludes the young.

Can not our love stories be the same as yours?


  • 08 Jun,2017

--Amatullah Zakir

A friend of mine just told me about a knotty family problem she had been struggling with for years. At the heart of it of course was two people who didn't get along, hurt feelings, a quarrel, busy lives, resentment, and then eventually disenchantment, disappointment, and living with the status quo. Except, that somewhere, there was always - no matter how faint or how invisible it seemed - hope. Not hope in the people involved, or a solution - she absolutely couldn't see one. But in her hour of desperation, there was prayer, and in prayer, there was hope.

One only tells this kind of story when something turns, of course. What's to tell if nothing has changed? So yes, my friend had her rock bottom moments, her prayers of utter desperation and then - her miracle: the moment when all of a sudden, someone eventually came around, had a change of heart. And out of so much gloom there was suddenly: sparkles, light, happiness.

On the outside, nothing had changed. The people of the house went and came as usual. Milk was bought, children were fed, presentations were sent to clients, phone calls were attended to. But everything had changed, hadn't it. Old resentments vanquished, old bonds reestablished, the people of the house had peace. With prayer, with hope, with patient trying, with worrying, with crying in the night, with loving, with watching, she had changed it all.

It is maybe unfashionable to tell this kind of story about women any more. The new women, they are warriors and they conquer the world. Indeed, they do. My grandmother had many formidable accomplishments and qualifications. She went to college when few others of her generation did, and taught me many skills. They are all useful, but...but, is it wrong if I say it - they are not what make me miss her until my heart breaks. All I miss is how she loved me, and her unshakeable faith in anything I did. We all have a woman like that in our homes, without whose love, tender or tough, life is unimaginable.

It may not be the fashionable story to tell, it doesn't get reported in the newspapers, it's not as glamorous as money, as ringing the bell in the stock market. But these stories, the ones that play out in a woman's arms, her lap, her gaze, her thoughts, her careful planning...here also, is life. And here also is power, an undeniable power. Here we are now, those women, those very same women, 12,000 of us now and more joining every day, hands together, hearts together, heads together. We have run our households for years and watched and loved and petted and scolded and earned, alertly, intelligently, diligently, formidably, knowingly, let no one say otherwise. We, the beating hearts and watching brains of our households, administering scoldings, giving out advice, an eye and ear on the individual growth and struggles of every person in the house, we who hold our families' hearts and lives together, we see life as it unfolds, better than anyone else and though we take the credit for the work we do, we have figured out how this really works. We whisper these stories to each other, because at the end of the day these are not the words modern women are allowed to say. We are a religious community and we believe in prayer. Day after day, night after night, its awesome power changes our lives.

With the heartbreaking events around the world, Islamophobic rhetoric has become a part of all our lives, something we must deal with daily, shrieks about brutal Islam. But we will assert what we know to be true. Our faith saves us. The evidence is all of us, standing right here. Faith is hope. Faith is love. Faith is life. In this most religious of countries, we are here to defend our right to live by it.

  • 30 May,2017

-- Amatullah Zakir

So, we are getting started with Ramazan. In trains, in buses, in auto-rickshaws, heading out to every village and town across India where there are any Bohras at all, are seminary students, religious leaders - someone to lead prayers. While they are there, they will visit homes and businesses, chat with the people, preach, pray, resolve disputes, arrange loans, give out grants...on occasion even bury the dead.

This is a community with a social safety net that reaches out to every far-flung member. These may be some of the least at-risk girls nationally. All Bohra children have access to free or subsidized food so no one goes to sleep hungry - if only the whole country could say that. All Bohra families have access to interest-free loans. I won't list all the ways Bohras take care of their community members because -

India, you know this community. You have shopped at Bohra shops. You have eaten Bohra food. These boys and girls have been your classmates, your friends, your neighbors, your vendors, your clients, your wedding guests. You know Bohra girls in school and college, and you know Bohra women as colleagues and clients. You went for their weddings and their business milestones, watched them have babies and attended their anniversary parties. You do not need cultural anthropologists telling you who the Bohras are and what they believe. Of course, you know Bohras.

And the reason I want you to remember that is because now we must ask ourselves what is true? These Bohra women we know, and have seen for years - is it true that they are all secretly deprived of pleasure, kept in their place by tyrannical men? Simple observation denies that fact - we know Bohra couples. The women are as happy or exhausted as the rest of us. They may practice their faith deeply, or just barely. No one comes around to check how many times a day they prayed namaaz, or deny them entry to the masjid based on that fact. It is unclear how they can be "forced" to do anything. You know this cause you've hung out in their homes.

So what's going on? Let's just say Bohra women are as bewildered as everyone else. Are we circumcised? Of course. Same as all the boys. This is gender parity, not gender discrimination.  Boys are often circumcised when they are newborns. You can't circumcise the girls then because the tissue is not yet ready for separation.  As soon as it is, girls are circumcised too. And no, that doesn't change our anatomy in any significant way and over all these years, no gynecologist or sexologist has ever noted that Bohra patients differ from any others.

Which brings us to the 'activists'. It's noteworthy that most of them forgot all about their own (life-altering??) circumcisions too, until they were taught about "FGM", and then they 'realized' how they had been traumatized. It's a lesson I think in what happens when you lose your faith, your ties to the culture you thought of as your own and how painful that can be and how it continues to haunt you until you resolve that for yourself.

But don't let that close your eyes to what you see all around you. The Bohra women that are thriving in your towns and cities, running their businesses, teaching, studying, working, cooking, playing, praying, busy, stressed, tired, happy, fulfilled. Protected, loved, unharmed, often religious, crowding into the masjid when Syedna comes to their towns, you've seen that too. Signing up on this site by the thousands to say we are not burdened by our religion, we are freed by it. Educated, thinking women, happy to live in a free country. Are you really telling us you want to take that away?

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