Remembering the Pioneer Ladies of Los Angeles Jamaat

Every year geese migrate in search of fresh locations with better resources, and they do so in a V-shaped formation. The leader of the flock faces the air current head on, but the corresponding geese have it easier because they are getting the leader’s thrust, thus conserving their energy for the long journey to their destination.

The leader of the flock of geese are like the pioneer ladies of our community. We who succeed them have benefitted by walking the path they paved for us.

The Los Angeles Burhani Women’s association organized an event to celebrate International Women’s History month by recognizing pioneers of the community. The invitation to the event acknowledged the role these women have played in creating the fabric of the community, saying, “Their foresight, strength, resilience, and camaraderie in the face of struggles and challenges in a foreign land has enabled [us to succeed].”

The evening started with Lamya Mogri as event moderator, who briefly explained how March 8th became a day to honor and remember women. The origins of designating a day to women’s contribution to our history was part of the suffrage movement. On March 8th, 1915, four years before women were given the right to vote, Women’s Day was celebrated in America.

Lamya reminded us that we are followers of  FatemaAS, the esteemed daughter of the Prophet MohammedSAW; she advocated for women’s rights to equality, importance, and dignity in society. As a result of her efforts, women were recognized as equals and given their due respect in the year 615 AD. This ideology came as a revolutionary movement 1200 years later in the Western world, but the legacy and efforts of FatemaAS contributed to egalitarianism in our communities long ago. This tradition of recognizing women’s contributions to our homes and our societies continues today with the work of Busaheba Johratus Sharaf, the wife of His Holiness, Dr. Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin; she has created multiple platforms for women to promote their own businesses and showcase their talents.

Lamya paid homage to Ruqaiya Chithiwala, and Mehfooza Saifee, who are true pioneers and matriarchs of our community. They were the very first women who settled in our local community, and they dedicated a lot of time and effort in instilling our history, language, and cultural values in their children.

The recognition of pioneers continued with Lamya Bensaheba Hatimi, the wife of Turab Bhaisaheb, the Aamil of Los Angeles. She treats all the women in our community as members of her family, and takes a keen interest in even the most mundane aspects of our lives. Our cohesiveness as a community is the result of her work and influence.  In her forty-year history with Los Angeles, she was honored to welcome His Holiness, the late Dr. Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, three times to America. A significant portion of her anecdotes revolved around how the Dawoodi Bohra community got registered, the inauguration of a markaz, a preliminary place of worship, followed by the realization that we have a congregation but no masjid. Because of her and Turab Bhaisaheb’s perseverance, our current Los Angeles masjid land was bought in three days. Inspired by this purchase, California then went on to have four more masjids. She recalled the entire history of how we became who we are today, and how far we have come from our original small community in Los Angeles County. Today, California is the only state that can boast of having five masjids made by the Dawoodi Bohras.

Maryam Najmi was the next presenter. She read the words of her aunt, Dr. Mulla Salma Nagarwala. She came to the USA in 1963, and settled in St. Louis. As a gynecologist, she was a pioneering woman in a male-dominated field. Her mother, Mehfuza Saifee, with the help of Shehzadi Maryam Behnsaheba, daughter of the late His Holiness Syedna Taher Saifuddin, introduced Salma to Dr. Ismail Nagarwala. Her marriage rites were the first to be performed by Dr. Syedna Mohamed Burhanuddin in the USA in 1978. She was instrumental in sponsoring all her brothers to the USA.

Next, Jumana Bandukwala shared the stories that her mother, Salma Dungerwala had recounted. They came to the USA in the early 1970s from Kampala, Uganda, because of the ethnic purging under the tyrannical rule of Idi Amin. On their arrival, they met with other community members by accident. Religious occasions and ceremonies were held at their house, since there was no markaz at the time. When Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin visited the area, all ceremonies and prayers were held in their home. In 1988, her husband, Shabbir, passed away when her children were still teenagers. Life was hard. In this country, bringing up children is exhausting, because there is no extended family support. Yet, today she is blessed with three beautiful grandchildren, and says her faith and the teachings and prayers of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin and  Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin helped her overcome all obstacles.

Maleka Kapasi moved to the USA in 1978, joining her husband, Enayat who had been living in the US for some years prior. Once she came here, they received the privilege to host the meal honoring Imam HusainAS on the Day of Ashura. They started with 18 thaals, the equivalent of about 144 people, and went up to 70 thaals, or 560 people, when two communities gathered together in La Puente. The family would prepare for the meal one month in advance, and on the Day of Ashura, it would be cooking on a slow flame until the evening, after which the thaals would be made. There was always extra food for people to bring home. Maleka single handedly made the bhajee roti, a traditional snack made from spinach and flatbread for breaking the fast on the Day of Ashura.

Razia Dohadwala was instrumental in starting the madrasa in Los Angles. She had two twin girls, Farida and Tasneem, to whom she wanted to teach our culture, tradition, and religion; for that reason, she opened up her home for madrasa classes. She also wholeheartedly volunteered her time to get the community organized into an entity. After her divorce, she married Shk. Tayabally and moved to India, but returned to LA after becoming a widow, because her ties to the community were so strong. She passed on her dedication to service to her daughter, Farida Yusufally, who followed her example and dedicated time and effort to the betterment of the community.

Sakina Haidermotta was the next speaker. She reiterated what previous speakers spoke about the hardships of not having a proper and cohesive community; the closest markaz was in La Puente, which made commuting to and from for occasions very difficult; yet, they persevered. Sakina and her mother, Mulla Ruqaiya Chithiwala, volunteered as teachers in creating a makeshift madrasa, so that the young children could learn about religious teachings. Sakina also proudly shared the Khairbah, golden amber stone, tasbeeh and mojri given as gifts by the late Dr. Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin.

Tasneem Saifee spoke of being a successful businesswoman. She had a flower shop for twenty-seven years and worked seven days a week, ensuring that her business thrived. Today, she enjoys the fruits of her labor. Throughout her working years, she continued doing service for the community, and continues to put her full efforts into it to this day.

Rashida Saifee said that her start, compared to those before her, was easy, because there was some semblance of an organized community. With the help of her family, and on the urging of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin for all members of the community to dispense with doing business using interest (usury), her family managed to buy a house interest-free, an impressive feat given the prohibitive nature of the LA housing market. She considers her most significant achievement in making a Los Angels Masjid a reality as per Turab bhaisaheb’s vision: a place of worship, for social gatherings, and for meet-ups that will benefit the community at large.

The final speaker for the evening was Abeda Hamid, who came to Los Angeles in the late 1990s. Unlike the other ladies, she was a transplant from the East Coast, and was already familiar with the American way of life. Still, moving across the country is difficult. Luckily, she knew Lamya Behnsaheba, and the transition into the LA community was smoother than it had been for the ladies before her. Her creativity and talent with the sewing machine contributed to making the curtains and carpets for our new Los Angeles masjid.

The evening was wrapped up by Lamya Mogri, who spoke of her own experience during Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin’s visit in 1986, and the changes that occurred in her life after that moment. She ended her presentation by saying that the list of pioneers of the LA jamaat is extensive, specifically naming Mulla Insiyah Jamali, Banoo Bensab Faizullahbhai, Lulua Bensab Vajihi, Rashida Beawarwala, Asma Jiwajee. Farida Badri, and Munira Yusufali. These ladies did not share their stories, but their extensive support and service has led to making the LA Dawoodi Bohra community as  successful as it is today.

The pioneer ladies of LA have led by example through their actions. Their journey has not been easy. There have been many cultural, economic, and language barriers that they have had to overcome; this is all on top of the loneliness they felt being displaced from what is familiar. Yet, like the leading bird of a v-shaped formation, they took the plunge, introducing us to a new life while retaining our roots, making our lives that much easier. Today, their legacy continues in their children and grandchildren’s work and effort, ensuring that the community is strong, organized, and united. They have smoothed the path for new members. We owe them our heartfelt gratitude for their service.

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