First celebrated in 1911, 8 March marks International Women’s Day (IWD). IWD is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This year on IWD, the Dawoodi Bohras of the UK have taken time to speak to and learn from Dawoodi Bohras across the UK of different cities, ages, and backgrounds who have all served our communities across the UK, and stepped up as leaders. We have interviewed a sample of such women and invite you to read more about them and learn more about the fantastic work they have been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic to make a difference here at home in the UK and abroad. On this day, and every day, we applaud the hard-working, compassionate, and loyal women of the Dawoodi Bohra community.
The Dawoodi Bohra Woman
It is without fail that each and every Dawoodi Bohra woman deserves a special round of applause for surviving and thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic. From little girls who have been devoid of playdates, to teenagers learning remotely, to young professionals adjusting to working from home in joint-family homes, to mothers juggling homeschooling and full-time businesses and jobs, to women caring for both the young and old, to the elderly who have been away from family and friends in an effort to shield – each and every Bohra woman has made adjustments during this time. We all have had to re-adjust our lives to the new norms, whilst maintaining our values and some semblance of our usual lives. Amidst this all, many women have experienced loss of loved ones – making us all bear scars of the pandemic.
Despite all the darkness, women in the Dawoodi Bohra community have been able to keep the cohesiveness of the community in a year of uncertainties and unexpected tension of the pandemic. Each and every one of us have displayed some sort of act of kindness – whether it has been checking in on neighbours and friends, helping others with their groceries, or being available for a socially distanced walk – that has made a difference to the lives around us.
Umaima Saheba Shujai
Through a women’s global organisation called Daeratul Aqeeq, Umaima Saheba, initiated an online channel in London during the first Lockdown. Forming and spectacularly leading a strong team of women, organising a variety of online classes to keep ladies mentally and physically active, as well as daily hymnal recitation sessions to quench the soul, she created a much needed platform of inclusivity in a time of seclusion. Umaima Saheba organised online classes from cooking, to yoga, to embroidery, to sewing, to baking – ensuring that there was something for everyone to benefit from and learn from.
She is a source of inspiration whom ladies in the community, young and old, can confide in and seek advice from. She is continuously seeking methods in which the lives of others can be uplifted, from educating girls to help them before their confirmation to being a friendly confidant and taking the time to talk to individuals in the community to make sure they are keeping well.
Across the UK, Dawoodi Bohra religious school teachers have had to adapt their teaching styles and methods to adjust to the new reality of remote learning. Like all teachers across the UK, they have put on their thinking caps to replicate their classroom environments to ensure children were still receiving the highest quality religious education without the conventional classroom tools. One such teacher is Ajab Burhani. Ajab, not being a digital native, took in stride the new ‘normal’. Actively attending and absorbing the training received on virtual learning, she optimistically learned the ins and outs of programmes like Microsoft Teams and Zoom to ensure that in no way would her students’ education be compromised. She ensured her cheery and positive attitude shone through to her students by finding creative ways to engage with them through icebreakers and games in ways that made learning an exciting process for all her students.
University students across the country have been grappling with their new methods of learning, the changes in routine brought on by the pandemic, and ultimately a shift in their traditional learning styles to accommodate the ‘new reality’ COVID-19 has brought on. One such university student, Amatullah, who is studying dentistry, attends clinics in full PPE, and visits community dentists where she helps treat vulnerable and anxious children whose dental hygiene has inevitably suffered whilst not being able to see a dentist in over a year at such an important age. Alongside the local good she is doing for society, Amatullah and her uni friends organised a charity walk for the Refugee Crisis Foundation. Together they walked over 150 miles and raised £640 for refugees. The lack of access to clean water, soap and healthcare provisions puts refugees at increased vulnerability to COVID-19. Amatuallah and her friends knew it was more important than ever to raise awareness and money for these vulnerable populations.
For over thirty years, Amtula has worked in the NHS as a midwife. She was the Sister in charge of the labour ward and foetal assessment centre where she taught trainee midwives and worked in antenatal clinics. Now retired, Amtula remains active and also helps her children and grandchildren. During the pandemic, she has gone one step further by supporting and caring for her family, including her husband, children, grandchildren, and mother-in-law. Furthermore, she has been a vital part of the support and care for her grandson, Adnan, who has a rare genetic condition. This summer, Amtula and her family walked 888 kilometres over 8 weeks to raise over £2,000 for ‘Designability’, an organisation which uses technology to make bespoke products that enable those with life altering disabilities to live more independent lives. Amtula often took walks in the garden, and even encouraged her elderly mother-in-law to contribute steps to the cause. Their efforts have made a tangible difference to this organisation to help change lives of children who are less abled.
Bilkis, Zainab, Fatema Travadi
Throughout the pandemic, Dawoodi Bohra community kitchens and the hundreds of volunteers across the globe were working hard to ensure that no one went to sleep hungry. Through initiatives like sending non-perishable items to community members, to (when government guidelines allowed) serving prepared meals to community members – Dawoodi Bohras have been working hard to prevent food insecurity. Bilkis, a professional culinary expert, and her daughter Fatema, a professional working in risk and regulation, and her daughter-in-law, Zainab, a mother of three, used the community kitchen to provide meals to not only members in Milton Keynes, Northampton, Bedford, Luton, Dunstable, Stevenage, Peterborough, Cambridge, Buckingham, and Norwich, but also to their neighbours and other people in their area – some of whom had never heard of Dawoodi Bohras before or the community kitchens. Despite the limited availability of essential items, the trio managed to use their resources efficiently and wisely in order to provide healthy and delicious food to the wider community.
Fareedah is a self-made entrepreneur who specialises in creating bespoke curtains, blinds and soft furnishings – whilst also balancing being a mother of three young girls. Although the manufacturing of her furnishings toiled on seamlessly in her home workshop, she was faced with the challenge of not being able to do face to face networking within her field. However, she overcame that challenge by participating in a Buckinghamshire-wide initiative, where herself and many others stitched ‘wash bags’ for care homes and nearby hospitals. These bags helped NHS staff and other frontline workers be able to safely and effectively wash their clothes and scrubs, whilst minimising any transfer of harmful bacteria or infection. Together, this Buckinghamshire group donated over 1,000 bags to frontline workers.
Like many others, Fareedah was also very much moved by the Yemen humanitarian crisis. She used her sewing skills to sell homemade masks whilst donating her profits to UNICEF and the Yemen Emergency Appeal, donating over £100 to these organisations. Not only was she able to give to these important charities, but she also raised awareness about the crisis in Yemen, and inspired others to also donate and learn about ways to help.
As a mother and a wife, Fatema’s priority has always been to want what is best for her family. However, when the pandemic struck she knew that, as a Health and Wellbeing Consultant, she was uniquely positioned to be able to make a difference and share her knowledge to uplift people during these difficult times. Throughout the pandemic, she ran a series of workshops for women in the Dawoodi Bohra community covering several topics, such as, healthy eating during Ramadan, nutrition, movement, sleep, mental health, and mindfulness/relaxation. She extended her reach, and provided workshops for Dawoodi Bohras in Ireland, too. She also ran a health and wellbeing session for children through Saturday school, the Dawoodi Bohras’ religious education for children. Outside of these workshops, Fatema ensured that she was available to provide consultations to community members in the areas of lifestyle guidance and to better their health and wellbeing during the pandemic. With the lockdown and many elderly and vulnerable people isolated in their own homes, Fatema’s workshops provided practical tips and skills to help them maintain their health – physically and mentally during these trying times. Through sharing her own passion on this subject, she has shown an incredible proactive spirit and enthusiasm in being a resource for women across the community.
The pandemic led to many mothers juggling between working and homeschooling and dealing with everything in between. Haseena, has a unique situation as a care assistant at a primary school for children with special needs, including those on the spectrum and as a mother of three, two of whom have severe global development delay. She also does voluntary work as a PTA member at Kingsley High School and is a member of the Harrow Parent Forum. Usually, her daughters attend a Day Centre where they have various activities to keep her daughters and others engaged and simulated throughout the day. With the pandemic, this Day Centre was closed and Haseena took each day as it came – managing her household and taking care of her daughters by trying new activities with them, attending Zoom sessions hosted by the Day Centre, and re-creating an educational environment for her daughters. Throughout this all, Haseena truly embraced the benefits of technology and remained positive and optimistic that this experience made her stronger and that despite the uncertainty of it all, she learned so much.
Like many other entrepreneurs, Humera started her own business during the first lockdown. As a passionate baker, she opened ‘Humsiee Cakes’ alongside her full time job working as a project manager in a law firm. Humera found herself learning more techniques and experimenting with different flavours.
Despite the troubles the pandemic had brought, Humera was aware that globally the world was suffering – for causes unrelated to COVID-19. Therefore, Humera actively decided to ensure her business had a charitable aspect. During the occasion of Eid-ul-Adha, she donated 20% to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where a child dies every ten minutes. This fundraiser raised over £250.
Later in 2020, Humera held two charitable weekends where all the proceeds from her bakes were donated to charity. Over the two weekends, Humera raised almost £400 and was able to donate to relief efforts for the bomb blasts in Beirut and to aid the Yemen crisis.
On a more local level, in December Humera donated two cakes and cupcakes to a local food bank, at which she helped to distribute food that day. She felt it rewarding to be a part of a local team to help provide and distribute food to those less fortunate and make an impact in her local community.
Husena Jiwanji, Nafisa Husain & Batul Rasul
From a young age, Dawoodi Bohras are taught to care for and treat their elders with utmost respect. Husena, a retired registered nurse, Nafisa, a senior health care assistant, and Batul, a homeopath, live their lives exemplifying this ethos. Throughout the pandemic, despite their age and own family responsibilities, they took it upon themselves to focus and provide assistance to those elderly who are alone, are without any next of kin, and have no other family support. For many years, and especially during the pandemic, Husena, Nafisa and Batul, made social visits to the elderly to help fulfil their basic food shopping requests. They would also accompany them to doctors and hospital visits and provide support for them during their social care requests. Using their healthcare professional backgrounds, they acted as liaisons for the elderly with other health care and social service workers to ensure they got the best help and support, as they equally deserve and need. With mental health illness on the rise during the pandemic, Husena, Nafisa and Batul helped many of their peers overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation whilst helping them build confidence to advocate for themselves.
Dr Jumana Ebrahim
Dr Jumana is a consultant radiologist in the NHS, but falls in the category of ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’. Therefore, from the start of the pandemic, she found herself shielding and confined to her home to protect her health. As an NHS physician, Dr Jumana knew and understood first hand the severity of the pandemic, and knew that despite her own situation, she could not let her colleagues down. Since last March, she has rearranged her home to accommodate her kids’ homeschooling, her husband’s work-from-home, and her own mini-hospital office, therefore enabling her to work for the NHS full-time, from home. As she has been unable to perform patient-facing lists and procedures, she has taken on a greater share of the reporting workloads as well as increasing her undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and training roles to alleviate pressure from her colleagues on the ground. She feels fortunate that by being a radiologist she could continue to play her part, despite shielding at home for the past year.
Mariyah Rangwala, Sarah Mamujee, Husaina Kapadia, Naqiyah Kapadia, Zahraben Zakir
Being a teenager is a time for self-discovery, learning new subjects, focusing on goals for university and beyond – however the pandemic has paused many of those activities by removing the ability for teenagers to socialise and learn from their peers. Across the UK, teenagers have been grappling with the uncertainty of examinations and the impact on their university prospects. However, Mariyah, Sarah, Husaina, Naqiyah and Zahra decided to add a new perspective to all this uncertainty. Whilst studying for their GCSEs, they decided to collectively help women in their Milton Keynes Dawoodi Bohra community memorise the Quran. They dedicated their free time to helping women – some their mother’s age or even older – to achieve their personal spiritual goals. They used this as an opportunity to improve their time management, communication skills, professionalism and organisation. Instead of dwelling on the negativity around them, these girls transformed that extra energy into doing something beneficial for the community around them.
As a small business owner, Munira’s time is easily taken up in working on business development plans, communicating with customers, keeping track of inventory, and many other crucial tasks. However, during this lockdown period, Munira effortlessly took up a very important role in the community by using her millennial-tech savvy skills to provide the structural backbone for the events that were now taking place online. Whether it was setting up links for people to attend virtual workshops, to personally collating feedback from online events to helping elderly ladies with understanding and using softwares like GoToMeeting and Zoom, Munira selflessly put tireless time and effort into ensuring events and workshops flowed seamlessly online. Her patience and resilience was a lifeline for many ladies who were feeling isolated and alone during the pandemic.
Munira has always had a passion for education and helping others achieve their goals. Being one of the few women in the UK Dawoodi Bohra community who has also memorised the entire Quran Majeed, Munira took it upon herself, whilst also running her own online business, to initiate a programme to encourage ladies to memorise the Quran. By creating a buddy system, women have had the opportunity to build new relationships – which was crucial for those who felt isolated – build confidence, improve their memorisation technique, and ultimately memorise the Quran – which is no easy feat. Through this programme, Munira has empowered women to achieve goals they never thought were possible.
Nafisa Mohammedi, Husaina Daginawala, Mariyah Hamid, Zahra Hasanie, Hussaina Saiger, Alefiyah Dungarwala, and Sakina Sodawaterwala
For pre-teen and teenagers, who live each day to the next waiting to hang out or have a sleepover, lockdown and the physical separation from their friends and peers have been extremely burdensome for them. Nafisa, Husaina, Mariyah, Zahra, Hussaina, Alefiyah, and Sakina took matters into their own hands by seeking inspiration from some University students in their community and organising weekly Zoom calls where they would take turn teaching each other how to make a special dish. This enabled them to catch up, socialise (albeit virtually), and have a laugh. Being sensitive to not wasting any food and not being frivolous with any ingredients as groceries were not always in abundance, the girls taught each other recipes with just a few ingredients, like making a pizza base with yoghurt, flour and oil. From fiery dynamite chicken to sweet lava mug cakes, the girls constructed their social interactions with food and conversation on Zoom; stepping out of their comfort zones to try new things and bringing each other up and encouraging one another.
During the pandemic, secondary school teachers and students alike have faced much uncertainty in regards to final exams, results, and ultimately domino effects on university placements. As a secondary school teacher, Nisreen fervently worked to support her students by providing virtual support to encourage and motivate her students.
She extended her reach by also working to raise the spirits of women in her local Nottingham Dawoodi Bohra community. From activities and events like ‘Nottingham Ladies Quiz Night’ to online sessions where women have been able to learn DIY facials, applying henna, and yoga – to keep them feeling well, both physically and mentally.
Nisreen has embraced the age of social media, by using her Instagram account as a way to encourage others to read books that broaden perspectives and increase their understanding of the world by forming read along groups where together Nisreen and her companions read books and discuss themes such as feminism, identity, and colonialism within books sets in Nigeria, Vietnam, and 16th century England.
Online classes throughout the pandemic have been successful across the board. However, one element crucial to its success has been the commitment and dedication of its teachers and instructors. For many years, Naseem has been a yoga instructor, teaching classes on a weekly basis. Once lockdown started, she saw no need to halt her momentum, and continued to host Zoom yoga classes. Through yoga, a practice of the mind and body, her students have benefitted by improving their flexibility, improving their immune system, and reducing their anxiety and stress levels. The weekly class has also provided a space for those who are socially isolated to feel connected with their peers. Naseem’s commitment and positive energy has been a beacon of light during these dark times for many women in her local London community.
Al Jamea tus Saifiyah is the Dawoodi Bohra renowned Arabic academy with campuses in Nairobi (Kenya), Karachi (Pakistan), Surat (India), and Marol (India) and students from the world over. The beauty of attending Aljamea is through the community and peer-focused education. As essentially a boarding school, students are accustomed to living and studying with their classmates – building lifelong bonds.
This year, students of Aljamea faced the immense challenge of having their education starkly adjusted to the virtual world – when normally even mobile phones are not allowed on school days. Ruqaiyah, like many of her peers, completed her last year of Aljamea from home – being thrust into a new learning style revolving around technology. Despite having to attend her classes in Nairobi’s time zone, she found herself cherishing the time she was able to spend at home with her family whilst also pursuing her IGCSEs and taking her final exams alongside her Aljamea education.
In the spirit of the theme #ChoosetoChallenge, Sakina and her peers created a group to help tackle inequality in their school system. They worked closely with their local youth centre and the governors of their school to work towards changing the curriculum to make it more inclusive of Asian viewpoints. Their efforts were recognised widely, including an appearance on the BBC!
Despite the challenges with meeting up, Sakina and her peers used Zoom to communicate and progress momentum on their project. Because of their proactivity, they were able to make a change in their school – which is now looking at changing the curriculum to make it more inclusive, and introducing restorative justice programmes and interventions.
Sakina Upri, Fatema Murtaza, Alifya Mustafa, and Tasnim Abizer
During lockdown, Sakina, Fatema, Alifya and Tasnim formed a team as ‘Body Shop Consultants’. The business model works to allow the Consultants to buy products from The Body Shop at a discounted rate and then sell the products on to customers. This process has allowed these ladies to develop their business acumen, learn to network for new customers, and modify their business methods to be impactful without face-to-face sales. These ladies also wanted to provide a mechanism for their valued customers to be a part of something larger than themselves. Therefore, they used their business as a platform to raise money to purchase masks to donate to Ealing Hospital. In total, they were able to donate a total of 225 masks, 130 of which being hydrating sheet masks. It was important to them that their local NHS frontline workers also felt the generosity of the community by being able to benefit from some free pampering products to take their mind away from all the pain and suffering they saw around them on a daily basis.
Tahera Huzaifa Taherali
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Tahera has always been ‘the enthusiast’. She meets people with an effortless smile on her face, always keen to take interest in people’ lives, gathering ladies together, and sharing her wisdom and knowledge to uplift everyone around her. During the pandemic, Tahera’s enthusiasm and compassion has never wavered. At the end of each online daily recitation session, often you hear her asking how other ladies are doing, that everyone’s health is well, and that if anyone needs any assistance with anything she is more than happy to help. Tahera has continued during the pandemic to also teach online in madrasah. She provides support to students who need extra help keeping up with their peers, and with her knowledge after completing 11 years in Aljamea tus Saifiyah, she answers every question with ease and patience.
Many people found lockdown as a time to cultivate new and forgotten skills. Tasneem, alongside her flourishing business selling ethically-sourced Yemeni honey, felt encouraged to help ladies in the Dawoodi Bohra community cultivate and polish their skills in Lisaan ud-Da’wat – the Bohra language. Although the language of the community, many community members have learned it informally over their lives, leading to variations in grammar and vocabulary. Tasneem saw an opportunity to use her knowledge of the language to teach virtual classes to help ladies hone their Lisaan ud-Da’wat skills. She had around 35 ladies in her class, which resulted in a classroom of reciprocity – where everyone had an opportunity to learn from each other and their experiences. Her class’s greatest accomplishment was the collective effort to compose poetry during Ramadan. Every single member of the class contributed heartfelt and inspiring verses whilst adhering to the strict rules of poetry (tempo, syllables, and stanza structure). Tasneem’s class enabled her students to come out of their comfort zone and have the courage to try poetry – something individually they would have not attempted to do so before.
As a respiratory nurse working for the NHS, challenge is nothing new to Tasneem. However, over the past year she has been working in a high dependency COVID ward, making the difficult but life-saving choice to isolate herself from her entire family, except her husband. She works up to 15 hour shifts in a hospital two hours away from her home in Manchester. She has seen people as young as 21 to as old as 90 pass away during these difficult times, with no loved ones in the room except her. Tasneem has exemplified compassion and endurance in her work, never wavering in her mantra that life is for living, and no matter what comes your way, you have to keep going.
As a full-time dental nurse, and a mother of two – Umama managed to find time to truly give back to her hometown of Karachi, Pakistan. For many, lockdown was a time of perpetual spring cleaning which Umama ingeniously capitalised on. In an effort to help those in need, Umama organised the delivery of more than 600 kilograms worth of second hand clothing to be given to widows and orphans in Karachi. Using contacts in the UK and Pakistan, Umama organised shipping via sea cargo and distribution to those who were struggling to make ends meet. Over two shipments during the pandemic, Umama received donations from over forty people who contributed items such as hoodies, trousers, baby clothes, traditional Pakistani clothes, religious attire, books, stationary, rucksacks, toys and many more which were all given to those in need during these trying times.
Long before the start of the pandemic, Zainab has been an active member of the Burhani Women’s Association (BWA) – an organisation run by Dawoodi Bohra women for women. Over the past year, Zainab and other members of Birmingham’s local BWA chapter have led initiatives to support her fellow community members, local frontline workers in Birmingham and the environment.
During a time when many community members, especially single mothers, widows, and the elderly felt isolated, Zainab and other BWA members, led activities to promote positive mental health, well-being and camaraderie, and organised the distribution of food to community members; making them feel cared for and showing them compassion.
Together, they also organised community participation in the national “Feed the NHS” campaign in Birmingham by sending food to night shift workers at Moseley Hall Jupiter Centre, a community hospital offering general medical and subacute care for stroke and brain injury patients.
Zainab and other BWA members’ compassion extended to the environment, by encouraging Birmingham Dawoodi Bohras to participate in activities such as recycling and upcycling plastic projects and sowing herb seeds in the winter, with a hopeful view to seeing shoots grow this spring.
Although now a retired accredited community and family mediator after 25 years in the sector, Zarina saw no reason to halt her voluntary mediation work because of the pandemic. COVID-19 has unfortunately put a halt to a lot of conflict resolution work on a face-to-face basis for health and safety reasons, but her team has made the best use of available technology to continue their work. A unique challenge was learning how to create a safe and confidential environment (online) to have client meetings. Through various online softwares, she has had to adapt to a new way of working, in order to gain the trust of disputants remotely. Through this experience, this role has taught her the joys of positive communication, how to enable understanding between conflicting individuals, how to foster peace and harmony in the family home, workplace, and schools – despite the challenges and uncertainty of the pandemic.
We applaud all Dawoodi Bohra women and celebrate them on IWD – as collectively we represent the achievements of our foremothers and forebearers, and continue to pass those achievements on to the generations below us.