Storytelling, cooking biryani: How displaced Shia Ismaili Muslim women rebuilt community

by | Jul 7, 2023 | Religion

(RNS) — In 1971, Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s grandmother was a widow and mother of five working in a restaurant in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) when civil war forced her to flee more than 1,000 miles west to what was then West Pakistan.When she and her children arrived in Karachi, the Shia Ismaili community there gave them food and clothing, subsidized the family’s rent and helped enroll Khoja-Moolji’s mother in an Ismaili-run boarding school.
“We often don’t read about women like my grandmother, a working-class Muslim who spent most of her life as a domestic aide and was always on the brink of falling deeper into poverty,” Khoja-Moolji, a professor of Muslim societies at Georgetown University, told Religion News Service in a recent phone interview.
“The histories of women like my grandmother and the women who helped her, they’re not really archived in national or religious history. It was this loss of women’s histories and their community-building efforts that motivated me to write this book.”
Shakar Juma, author Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s grandmother, who was repeatedly displaced between 1930 and 1971. Photo courtesy Khoja-Moolji
About six years ago, after interviewing her grandmother about her past, Khoja-Moolji talked to other Shia Nizari Khoja Ismaili Muslims — a minority within the Shia Muslim minority — who had fled East Pakistan, as well as others who left East Africa, all ending up in North America in the 1970s.
Khoja-Moolji noticed how these displaced women reconstructed jamat, or community, through everyday tasks such as cooking biryani, mopping the floor of jamatkhanas (Ismaili places of worship) or changing diapers. “In this book, we learn about how religion in a way provides a code of conduct for communities to suture their lives back together,” said Khoja-Moolji.
RNS spoke to Khoja-Moolji about her new book, “Rebuilding Community: Displaced Women and the Making of a Shia Ismaili Muslim Sociality,” forthcoming from Oxford University Press. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you separate your work as a scholar from your deeply personal ties to these women?
Shenila Khoja-Moolji. Courtesy photo
I am writing from a tradition in which the scholar is part of the writing experience, and where knowledge about one’s community enhances one’s interpretation. I have a section in which I call this a faithful witnessing, a phrase I borrow from feminist philosopher Maria Lugones. I’m trying to enter the experiences of my subjects as their companion on this journey, …

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