The Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community, which has already been hurt by a bitter succession battle that its leaders are fighting in the Bombay high court, now faces dissent from within.

Some members of the community claim that for the past few months, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the official spiritual leader of the Bohras, has been making regressive statements about women in his sermons.

They claim that the leader has discouraged women from higher education and working in call centres on multiple occasions, encouraging them to work at jobs that involve stitching and cooking.

The Dawoodi Bohras are a one-million strong sect of Shia Muslims, originally from Gujarat. Around 500,000 live in India, while the rest are spread out across the world. Ever since Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the 52nd ‘dai’ or spiritual leader of the community, died in January at the age of 103, there has been a dispute over the succession to the post of the 53rd ‘dai’.

Son vs Brother
While Saifuddin, the second son of Burhanuddin, is said to have been publicly named as the next leader by his father in 2011, his claim has been disputed by the late Syedna’s half-brother, Khuzaima Qutbuddin, who had been Burhanuddin’s second-in-command since 1965.

The majority of the community has formally pledged its allegiance to the son, Saifuddin. But in the past few months, with Qutbuddin taking the dispute to the Bombay high court, support for him has been silently gathering steam.

Besides challenging Saifuddin’s claim to the post of the ‘dai’, Qutbuddin and his supporters have also been critical of the hefty taxes community members are expected to pay and of Saifuddin’s views on women.

Increasingly, however, members of the mainstream community have also been questioning their leader’s statements about women.


Statements about Women
“I am a supporter of Syedna Saifuddin and I attend as many of his sermons as I can, but I do not agree with some of his views on women and their education,” said a Mumbai-based Bohra woman in her 60s. “He has said, on multiple occasions, that girls should not be sent to universities or work outside, and that they should be taught how to stitch and make rotis. But I believe education is for all. Why should women only work at home?”

According to another Bohra businessman who did not wish to be named, Saifuddin has stated in a sermon that women attract male attention if they do not wear their ridas (the Bohra hijab) properly, and that going to college or working in call centres could lead to “committing sins”. He said the Syedna has advised women to study home science instead.

The spokesperson for the Saifuddin-led community declined to comment on the issue, but stated that the leader’s words are often quoted out of context.

Fear of Ostracism
Most of the criticism of the current Syedna’s views are whispered amongst like-minded community members, but few are willing to talk about it openly because of the fear of being ostracised. The Bohras are a small, close-knit community that uses a biometric identification number – called the e-jamaat card – to organise its members. Social boycott can have serious implications for dissenters.

In fact, several Bohras who have either openly or covertly switched allegiance to Qutbuddin have found their e-jamaat cards blocked in past weeks.

“My entire family’s cards have been blocked. Being boycotted means that we cannot enter any mosque or graveyard,” said a 23-year-old Bohra college student from Mumbai who is now a supporter of Qutbuddin. “Some of our friends and relatives have also stopped talking to us.”

On July 4, when three of Qutbuddin’s sons went to visit the grave of the late Syedna Burhanuddin at a prominent mausoleum in Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazar area, they were allegedly assaulted by guards from the community. “The assault continued even after the sons called the police,” said Moiz Bharmal, a member of Qutbuddin’s immediate circle of supporters. “We had filed a complaint with the police, but have decided not to pursue the case.”

Meanwhile, the legal battle over succession is being heard by Justice Gautam Patel in the high court and a hearing has been scheduled for September 9.