BookPDF Available

CLAN, COMMUNITY, NATION: Belonging among Rohingya living in makeshift camps

Authors:

Abstract

This consultation provides a very initial exploration into how Rohingya organize themselves within three important social systems, the values that underpin them, and some perspectives on how they have changed since displacement: gusshi (clan), shomaz (community) and koum (ethnic group or nation). Historical research suggests that the formation of tight-knit religious based communal units have a long history within the Arakan littoral2 and the Muslim communities that live there; with some research arguing that religious based communalism was a prominent way in which communities “survived” through difficult and turbulent periods that threatened the people living within Arakan littoral.3 British colonial rule heavily influenced historical migration patterns and the establishment of Muslim communities within Arakan. Out of these influences developed a system of tight-knit agrarian communities who organized themselves around gusshi (family-clans) of various izzot (social reputations). Gusshi collectively formed shomaz (“community” and “community representatives”) that were organized units that formed committees of male-representatives comprised of prominent family-clans within a particular local area. Shomaz oversaw a range of important social functions such as the maintenance of social infrastructures (mosques, water systems, schools); the redistribution of wealth to the poor (through religious practices associated with zakat and Qurbani Eid); and the mitigation of conflicts related to land, authorities and inter-clan family disputes. Across all of these social organizations, the displacement has caused significant disruption in their function and operation and significant effort has been dedicated within Rohingya communities to try and reformulate traditional practices with various and limited degrees of success. Predominantly, the inability to re-establish similar tight knit social organizations similar to what was experienced in Myanmar has largely been due to social fragmentation that occurred during the process of displacement, the inability to re-establish social and religious traditions, and the breakdown in systems of social reputation and control. Unsurprisingly, many Rohingya have attempted to recreate and reformulate social organizations and relationships to authorities along similar historical patterns to what was perceived, experienced, and developed in Rakhine. In particular, this includes various means of negotiating and influencing systems of power that were unrepresentative of the Rohingya population, especially in later periods when governance reforms were introduced within Myanmar and Rakhine. This consultation concludes with an initial exploration of people’s understanding of the term “Rohingya” as they apply it to themselves and each other. This study found that unsurprisingly, as like many broad identity terms, there are different definitions surrounding what Rohingya identity encompasses, who it includes, and on what basis. Some Rohingya framed their identities in various combinations of geographic boundaries (being from Rakhine), others in terms of religious affiliation (Muslim), and some in terms of shared common experiences (of displacement & discrimination). Discussions also included civil society groups formed within the camps and their engagement in spaces and narratives where they claimed or identified themselves as “leaders of the Rohingya. Largely, this consultation found many disconnects between different groups of Rohingya and their understanding of leaders and leadership. In these discussions, there revealed notable differences in articulations and experiences of shared histories and imaginations of what it meant to be Rohingya that were heavily influenced on the region, educational achievement, class, gender and religious piety of a person. Despite the fact that many participants struggled to clarify the boundaries and common nature of what it meant to be “Rohingya,” there was a strong sense of shared solidarity in its usage and its self-application.
ãarar
dilor hota
VOICES OF OUR HEARTS
DANIEL COYLE, ABDUL-KADAR (AK) RAHIM, MOHAMMED ABDULLAH JAINUL
CLAN,
COMMUNITY, NATION:
Belonging among Rohingya living in makeshift camps
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
CLAN,
COMMUNITY, NATION:
Belonging among Rohingya living in makeshift camps
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
DANIEL COYLE, ABDUL-KADAR (AK) RAHIM, MOHAMMED ABDULLAH JAINUL
Suggested Citation: Danny Coyle, Abdul Kadar (AK) Rahim, and Mohammed Abdullah
Jainul (2020). “Clan, Community, Nation: Belonging Among Rohingya Living in
Makeshift Camps.” Bangladesh: IOM.
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
Aarar Dilor Hota (Voices of our Hearts) is a series of Working Consultations produced
by IOM’s CwC team within Site Management & Site Development Unit. The objective of
these consultations is to provide and build a better understanding of the thoughts,
practices, traditions, culture, values, and perspectives of the Rohingya community as a
group of people with differences in how they think, feel, and behave. These works are
supported by relevant insights and research on the Rohingya population in Myanmar,
Bangladesh and other contexts. The perspectives presented herein do not represent
the views of IOM. To find out more, please contact IOM’s CwC Team.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
About this series
Glossary of terms
Introduction
Key Findings
Methodology
Gusshi (Clan) in Rakhine
Shomaz (Community) in Rakhine State
Shomaz & Gusshi after Displacement
Koum (Nation & Ethnicity)
Conclusion & Considerations for Programming
Works Cited
3
5
6
8
10
14
22
30
39
42
TABLE OF CONTENTS
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
03
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
Translation
Family clan that refers to both patrilineal and matrilineal side of family
"Wisdom holder" or someone with wisdom
Geographic unit, "neighbourhood," group of houses within an area
Formally educated person
House
Clan, extended family network
Man or women who has memorized the Quran
Pilgrimage to Mecca
Gusshis with the most social capital, wealth or “honor”
Islamic priest and religiously educated person who leads prayers and
ceremonies within the Mosque.
Honor, social reputation
Islamic congregational prayer on Friday
Ethnicity, nation
Representatives of the Rohingya community that were selected by the
Bangladeshi military to facilitate relief distribution
From Mahalla, meaning "congregation"
In-charge of leading the call to prayer
Respected, elder-men in Rohingya community
The practice of screening women from men or strangers
100 household representatives within the NaYaKa governance model
10 household representatives within the NaYaKa governance model
merit-earning (Rohingya & Rakhine term)
Community, community representative committee
Elected or selected chairman within the NaYaKa governance model
Socially obligatory charity that is given to the poor within Islam
Term
egana gusshi
elamdar
fara
fonna-ola
ghor
gusshi
hafez
hajj
handani gusshi
imam
izzot
jummah
koum
majhi
malda
muezzin
murobbi
purdah
rae-mu
sae-mu
sawab or kudo
shomaz
ukatta
zakat
GLOSSARY OF TERMS
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
05
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
1 Leider (2015), Munsoor (2013), Washaly (2019), Smith (2019) among many other grey literatures cite a lack of
anthropological, “Rohingya voices”, or studies concerning the Rohingya culture, identity or social groups.
This consultation began as an initial attempt to understand self-organization and collective
identity units among the Rohingya population displaced in Bangladesh; both in terms of how
they had historically organized themselves and how they are currently reconfiguring value
systems and social structures to address their new context within the displacement camps. It
has often been cited that little is known about the Rohingya as a cultural group.1 This series of
consultations arises out of an often stated need to better understand “the Rohingya” outside of
a political or humanitarian context – ideally from one in which their worldviews and perspectives
on issues are better represented. It is worth noting that a description of the political history of
the Rohingya often prefaces many discussions about them but there is a noted lack of in-depth
engagement in Rohingya’s understanding of their own identities, values, communities and
histories outside of the dominant political discourses that continue to shape their lives. It is
possible that in failing to understand Rohingya’s historical and contemporary cultural values and
social systems, the very thing that differentiate them from other groups living in both Myanmar
and Bangladesh, means that humanitarian assistance, political negotiations, and broader
discussions surrounding the Rohingya have failed to take into account how the Rohingya
identify themselves and how they socially organize. As a result, it is hard to claim that
humanitarian action is responsive to Rohingya people’s own senses of being and belonging.
There were no doubt many contextual and political reasons inhibiting engagement in these
questions to date, including access restrictions to Rakhine prior to their displacement. However,
the respondents involved in this consultation showed a sense of appreciation and openness
when asked about their values, social systems, and histories. This consultation in no way makes
claim to correcting a larger collective ignorance about the Rohingya, but hopefully contributes
small but meaningful gains in understanding more about the Rohingya, as a people, and how we
can better engage them in decisions about their lives and futures. In particular, this work sought
to better understand how Rohingya were beginning to identify, organize, and situate their lives
“within the camps,” which social memberships were most significant to them prior to and after
displacement, and whether these social organizations and identities had undergone significant
changes as they were displaced.
INTRODUCTION
06
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
2 The historical term referring to modern day region of Rakhine and the general coastal region that includes part of
modern-day Bangladesh.
3 Charney (1999) is discussed at length as possibly having indentified historical origins to contemporary trends and social
organizations.
KEY FINDINGS
This consultation provides a very initial exploration into how Rohingya organize themselves
within three important social systems, the values that underpin them, and some perspectives
on how they have changed since displacement: gusshi (clan), shomaz (community) and koum
(ethnic group or nation). Historical research suggests that the formation of tight-knit religious
based communal units have a long history within the Arakan littoral2 and the Muslim
communities that live there; with some research arguing that religious based communalism was
a prominent way in which communities “survived” through difficult and turbulent periods that
threatened the people living within Arakan littoral.3 British colonial rule heavily influenced
historical migration patterns and the establishment of Muslim communities within Arakan. Out
of these influences developed a system of tight-knit agrarian communities who organized
themselves around gusshi (family-clans) of various izzot (social reputations). Gusshi collectively
formed shomaz (“community” and “community representatives”) that were organized units
that formed committees of male-representatives comprised of prominent family-clans within a
particular local area. Shomaz oversaw a range of important social functions such as the
maintenance of social infrastructures (mosques, water systems, schools); the redistribution of
wealth to the poor (through religious practices associated with zakat and Qurbani Eid); and the
mitigation of conflicts related to land, authorities and inter-clan family disputes.
07
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
Across all of these social organizations, the displacement has caused significant disruption in
their function and operation and significant effort has been dedicated within Rohingya
communities to try and reformulate traditional practices with various and limited degrees of
success. Predominantly, the inability to re-establish similar tight knit social organizations similar
to what was experienced in Myanmar has largely been due to social fragmentation that
occurred during the process of displacement, the inability to re-establish social and religious
traditions, and the breakdown in systems of social reputation and control. Unsurprisingly, many
Rohingya have attempted to recreate and reformulate social organizations and relationships to
authorities along similar historical patterns to what was perceived, experienced, and developed
in Rakhine. In particular, this includes various means of negotiating and influencing systems of
power that were unrepresentative of the Rohingya population, especially in later periods when
governance reforms were introduced within Myanmar and Rakhine.
This consultation concludes with an initial exploration of people’s understanding of the term
“Rohingya” as they apply it to themselves and each other. This study found that unsurprisingly,
as like many broad identity terms, there are different definitions surrounding what Rohingya
identity encompasses, who it includes, and on what basis. Some Rohingya framed their
identities in various combinations of geographic boundaries (being from Rakhine), others in
terms of religious affiliation (Muslim), and some in terms of shared common experiences (of
displacement & discrimination). Discussions also included civil society groups formed within the
camps and their engagement in spaces and narratives where they claimed or identified
themselves as “leaders of the Rohingya. Largely, this consultation found many disconnects
between different groups of Rohingya and their understanding of leaders and leadership. In
these discussions, there revealed notable differences in articulations and experiences of shared
histories and imaginations of what it meant to be Rohingya that were heavily influenced on the
region, educational achievement, class, gender and religious piety of a person. Despite the fact
that many participants struggled to clarify the boundaries and common nature of what it meant
to be “Rohingya,” there was a strong sense of shared solidarity in its usage and its
self-application.
08
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
4 To this effect, researchers used structured interviews according to pre-set questionnaires, open ended focus group
discussions and key informant interviews, mapping exercises where Rohingya were asked to physically map the
boundaries of their structures, and discussions with Site Management staff to better understand what social institutions
were encountered in their work.
METHODOLOGY
This paper reflects consultations and discussions that the IOM’s Communication with
Communities (CwC) team have held with Rohingya living across displacement camps in
Bangladesh. This paper also includes and reflects upon information gathered in the
management of IOM’s CwC programming, but also includes information from focused
consultations aimed at developing better, basic understandings of Rohingya community
dynamics. Information and perspectives reflected in this paper were not gathered through a
singular approach, questionnaire, or methodology, and rather reflect the authors’ unstructured
engagement and deployment of different interview techniques to determine what avenues of
questioning best elicited rich descriptions from informants.4
There are several limitations to be noted within this approach. First and foremost, this paper
makes no claim to fully represent the entirety of dynamics that impact social relationships of
the Rohingya people. Furthermore, certain dynamics were omitted to better focus this
exploration; most notably relationships between Rohingya and host communities and a more
detailed exploration of gender dynamics within the social structures in this paper. Social
groupings and systems of organization are inherently gendered and heavily predicated on
social norms and gender roles that govern indviduals’ behaviors. The omission of a more
nuanced gendered analysis was also due to other research being conducted by IOM which will
focus more specifically on gendered social norms of the Rohingya and their impact on women’s
leadership. There was also no attempt at randomized sampling to ensure geographic or gender
representativeness in this consultation. It must also be noted that few of the discussions or
interviews took place in Teknaf camps. The majority of discussions with informants were
focused around camps where IOM acts as the Site Management Agency in Kutapalong Balukhali
Expansion, namely Camps 9, 10, 18, 20, 20 extension, and 22. Discussions with men and
women-led civil society groups took place wherever was easiest irrespective of IOM’s
programming. However, certain observations about displacement patterns and how Rohingya
have organized themselves have undoubtedly omitted potential dynamics between host and
Rohingya communities that characterize many camps. One of the reasons for these decisions
was the developing nature of the consultation and its accompaniment of other programmatic
responsibilities of the authors which made the selection of IOM camps logistically easier in
09
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
5 Interview with Mosque committee
6 Rohingya is not a written language, despite various attempts to develop a standardized writing system. Due to this
constraint, this paper uses a transliteration system using English letters and phonetics for the Rohingya words.
terms of access to facilities for interviews and pre-existing connections within IOM camps. While
camp contexts are no doubt varied, the general lack of literature on Rohingya community
dynamics means that a closer examination of such dynamics anywhere already provided
valuable new insights. Repeated visits to same camps with pre-existing relationships with
various Rohingya also helped in terms of relationship building between the authors and
informants.
A second major limitation is that all researchers were male and affiliated with the IOM Site
Management Unit, which seem to be understood and perceived by many Rohingya as a
pseudo-government with a high degree of influence over their lives as an important aid
provider. This needs to be considered with respect to the fact that discussions and
engagements with informants took place in camps that fall under IOM Site Management.
Sometimes discussions involved Rohingya volunteers who worked for Site Management or
helped organized discussions for this consultation themselves. Even when participants were
randomly selected for interviews, authors continued to introduce themselves as a part of IOM’s
Site Management & CwC program. To this extent, it cannot be definitively said how this may
have impacted discussions, but it was clear within engagements that there were certain
subjects where informants may have been less willing to share information. The inverse,
however, is also potentially true. Rohingya’s history with authorities and governance systems
may have transferred onto existing relationships and dynamics with aid providers that the CwC
team found themselves within. Despite the potential problems with the authors’ affiliation,
many times participants stated their appreciation that IOM was asking “questions about them” –
one person even commented that “in the past we were unable to talk to our government; so
now we are happy that IOM comes to us to ask about these things.”5
Limitations considered, researchers believe that this consultation is an accurate but not
exhaustive reflection on the nuances encountered through both literature and engagements
with Rohingya living within the camps. As a result, the authors’ have attempted to preserve
emic understandings of Rohingya values and social terminology so as not to “translate away”
their particular, local meaning in discussions and to better signify that understandings of terms
like “community” are culturally specific. This consultation preserves as much relevant Rohingya
terminology as possible in order to better nuance the discussion of Rohingya’s values and
worldviews to also assist future stakeholders in using and understanding various terms used by
Rohingya.6 Researchers also sought to link the contemporary narratives they encountered with
other historical and social literature on the Rohingya. This paper is further complimented by
relevant humanitarian assessment information gathered within the response, including
information gathered in the course of CwC programming.
10
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
7 The concept of gushti exists in other Indic communities, however they do not use the word gushti. For example, in Hindi,
they say vansh and in Nepali, bangsha. Bengali also has a similarly derived word bongsho, used interchangeably with
gushti.
8 Rohingya borrows heavily from Arabic and Persian terminology in lieu of using indigenous terms because of Islamic
religious influences. Egana is derived from Persian yeganeh used to mean both “unity” and “kinsmen,” and highlights
again the importance of “unity of kinship” within Rohingya communities; this is discussed more later.
9 Khan (2015)
10 FGD with men with higher education
11 See Charney (1999) Chapter 8 for a discussion of historical migration patterns in these periods.
12 See Charney (1999) Chapter 8 for a discussion of historical migration patterns in these periods.
13 Equivalent to para in Bengali
GUSSHI (CLAN) IN RAKHINE
Like other traditional South Asian communities, the Rohingya are highly collectivist and place a
heavy emphasis on family and communal identities over the individuals living within them. The
most basic social unit among the Rohingya people is the ghor, which means “a house” or “a
household”. Ghor does not carry the same connotation, nor the same level of importance, as
the English term “family.” The term is used to refer both to a physical household and the people
living in it, even if they are from different “families.” In this, ghors are the smallest collective unit
but don’t bear much social significance, authority, or identity within the larger community.
Rather, the smallest unit of organization for Rohingya was found to be gusshi7 – the clan,
lineage, or extended family of a person. This word and social structure is found in other
neighboring Indo-Aryan languages like Chittagonian, Bengali, and Assamese.8 In all of these
languages, including Rohingya, gusshi means “clan” or “lineage.” In contrast to ghor, the term
gusshi captures both the abstract and concrete concepts of the English term “family”, but also
includes the extended family members, either living or deceased. Rohingya people seldom use
gusshi on its own in conversation, but rather say egana-gusshi to refer to an extended gusshi
that includes the matrilineal side of the families.9
Gusshi are patrilineal, meaning clans claim descent through the father’s lineage from an
important male ancestor.10 The ancestor who founded the clan can be a recent, traceable
ancestor or can be a historical or fictitious figure. Rohingya households are also patrilocal,
meaning women move into their husband’s house after marriage, which means wives will live
alongside her husband’s family. Some of the Rohingya described their gusshi as being small
enough that they knew all the members within their gusshi, whereas others were as large as
several hundred distant relatives. Wealthier groups within a gusshi may eventually form their
own gusshi by purchasing or settling a new area away from their original gusshi.11 This is
possibly how many Rohingya gusshi were formed through the historical processes of migration
across Rakhine in the 18th and 19th centuries.12
Several households from the same gusshi or even unrelated gusshi come together to form a
fara,13 a geographic “neighborhood” or cluster of homes. Depending on the size of the gusshi,
11
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
14 KII with Mosque Committee
15 FGD with mosque committee and Murobbis
16 However, South Asian Muslims did go through a historical phase where Muslims in the subcontinent were categorized
into “Ashraf” (foreign-descent or noble), “Ajlaf” (‘clean’ native converts), and “Arzal” (converts from formerly Hindu
untouchable communities). This categorization is largely defunct in modern Muslim South Asian societies, however
remnants of it can be seen in concepts like handani and still found in social structures of Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh
provinces (Falahi 2015, p 4).
17 Hindu social norms dictating gushti put a strict taboo on intra-clan marriage, treating it akin to incest taboo. On the
contrary, Muslim gushti encourages intra-clan marriages to strengthen familial ties and manage resources.
18 FGD with men with higher education levels
one gusshi may be limited to one fara or spread across several or even entire villages. Gusshi
are therefore both known and imagined social networks with paternal male cousins, uncles, and
great-uncles usually fulfilling similar social roles as a brothers, fathers, and grandfathers would
do in nuclear families. As reported in interviews, gusshi were important social support
structures for members within it during difficult times: “when someone is sick, your gusshi
members will take you to the doctor and even carry you there. Your gusshi doesn’t ask for
money to support you.14 Respondents also explained that gusshi were critical in arranging
funerals, marriages, land purchase, and other social functions. Funerals, in particular, were
important events wherein a deceased members’ gusshi would ensure their burial on family land
within the same physical grave to the side of the last gusshi member who passed away. A
Rohingya person’s gusshi therefore is vital in ensuring their last rights and their belief in the
afterlife.15
A fara’s identity is often linked to a particular trade or profession of the gusshi members. If the
gusshis in a fara are mostly involved in fishing, the fara will usually be known as “fisherman’s
fara.” If the fara was settled by a gusshi whose clan originator was a qazi (Islamic judge), the
fara may then be known as Qazi Fara. Another example that was encountered was the
“Democracy gusshi” which was more modern in origin and formed around contemporary
Rohingya civil servants who served as Ukkatta (chairmain) in the local government of Rakhine.
However, fara are not always clearly defined, and not all faras are associated with a trade or a
singular gusshi; some faras for example may have generic geographic names, like “west fara.”
These faras may have multiple gusshis living in the same locality and internal hierarchies
between gusshis. On the same note, members of a particular gusshi can live in separate faras
and eventually separate from each other to form new gusshis over generations depending on
how much contact they have.
The trade-basis of many faras suggest that the origination of gusshi system lies in ancient
Hindu caste-based societies of South Asia, where nuclear families unite to form larger
trade-based castes that are also sometimes derived from Hindu deities and ancestors. Indeed,
the gusshi structure helped maintain many caste norms and functions according to the
interactions and hierarchies of these gusshi. However, as a vast majority of the Rohingya are
Muslims, their social units of fara and gusshi were adapted to Islamic principles and social
norms. For example, the Muslim Rohingya gusshi does not formally maintain any caste
hierarchy, mostly like because Islam traditionally forbids casteism.16 Muslim Rohingya gusshi also
forego the many social restrictions still present in Hindu Rohingya gusshis, such as the
prohibition of intra-clan marriages. They also appear to have fewer restrictions on who they
marry – meaning that they often marry with other members of their gusshi.17
Among and between gusshis there exists a social hierarchy on the basis of a gusshi’s izzot
(honour).18 In Rohingya, izzot is perhaps better understood as “social standing” or “social
reputation.” To this effect, izzot can refer both to an individual or collectives’ social reputation
12
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively
because of the traumas associated with the displacement. No doubt, many individuals and
groups, especially those that were “excommunicated,” such as women, people not conforming
to Islamic social norms or marginalized groups, may have provided alternative or more critical
views of their function and operation.
19 General field observations and FGD with mosque committees
20 Pronounced or referred to as “forda” within Rohingya
21 Handan is derived from the Persian word khandan, also meaning clan. Though the word handan and gushti are at
times used interchangeably, there is a tendency to use the word handan for families with a higher social standing. This
tendency may allude to the historical usage of the term for those Muslim families that were perceived to have more
izzot. Thus, handan became an adjective, handani, and is used to mean reputable for either an individual or group.
22 Munsoor (2013), p 234 and Charney (1999)
23 Charney (1999), p 239
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
13
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively
because of the traumas associated with the displacement. No doubt, many individuals and
groups, especially those that were “excommunicated,” such as women, people not conforming
to Islamic social norms or marginalized groups, may have provided alternative or more critical
views of their function and operation.
24 Rohingya use the term fonna-ola to refer to educated persons. Sometimes it is suggested the term elamdar also
means “educated person” but this is actually better translated as “wise person,” which can be held by someone who does
not necessarily have a formal religious or secular education.
25 FGD with men with higher education levels
26 Holloway and Fan (2019) translate izzot as “dignity” but this translation seems to have been partially informed by their
research approach to Rohingya’s understanding of dignity instead of an exploration of izzot as a broader social value. In
other research on izzot, “honor” or “social reputation” is a more commonly used translation than dignity. Regardless, the
findings are similar in that there are both personal and collective elements to the term and a basis in social, economic,
and religious values.
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
14
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively
because of the traumas associated with the displacement. No doubt, many individuals and
groups, especially those that were “excommunicated,” such as women, people not conforming
to Islamic social norms or marginalized groups, may have provided alternative or more critical
views of their function and operation.
were the original builders of the mosques around which shomaz were constructed. Interview
participants often mentioned the presence of “schools, ponds, Mosques and Madrassas,” as well
as key important social stakeholders, such as Imams, Muezzin, traders, and representatives as
central to their definitions of shomaz. The physical structures designating wealth and status
along with the presence of wealthy and pious members within shomaz highlight how “honor” or
social-reputation systems become central to belonging within Rohingya communities.
The organization and composition of shomaz was dependent on the particular demographics of
an area. As discussed, a fara may consist of several sub-clans of a gusshi or multiple, unrelated
gusshi within its borders. Depending on the size of the fara and relationships between gusshi, a
fara may be further subdivided into different maldas or “congregations.”39 Each malda
contained a mosque that was presided over by the mosque committee required for its
maintenance and the management of traditions and ceremonies that characterize Muslim
communal life. If a fara was small enough, then it was not subdivided, and there were then no
distinctions between fara and a malda. There was often a single mosque in these small faras
that had a mosque committee, which by extension, acted as the shomaz committee. People
from these faras still use the word shomaz and malda interchangeably; for others, there are
notable conflations between the terms “mosque committee” and shomaz based on the size and
dynamics of the communities that they represented. In most cases, faras were large and
contained many people and were thus subdivided into maldas; therefore, larger faras had
multiple mosque committees. While these mosque committees operated with a certain level of
autonomy, many faras had a larger socially representative structure also called a shomaz. Some
faras may have one united shomaz or it may have had multiple shomaz within its borders. The
latter often happened if gusshis and their maldas separated from a larger shomaz (or were
excommunicated) and formed a new shomaz within the same fara. Whichever the case, each
malda often sent one or two representatives from its mosque committees to their respective
shomaz committees in a larger fara.40
27 Charney (1999), p 219
28 Charney (1999), p 221
29 Charney (1999), p 247
30 See Leider (2008) for an extended discussion.
31 Charney discusses how this shift arose from increasing power within the rural gentry and a general destabilization of
the region. For further discussion of this history see Charney (1999), Chapter 8 “When things all apart.
SHOMAZ (COMMUNITY) IN
RAKHINE STATE
The majority of conversations and discussions with Rohingya across the camps began with and
focused on the concept of “community,” or Shomaz, a shared term across South Asia. For
Rohingya in particular, the term can have several distinct applications and meanings:
a) Shomaz as an immediate community historically based on highly localized settlements,
such as fara.
b) Shomaz as a committee or council of individuals with izzot from within the community
that oversee various social functions; hereafter referred to specifically as shomaz
committees.
c) Shomaz as a more general term referring to a broader imagined community better
translated in English as “society” than community. This definition occasionally blurs with the
first definition above.
For Rohingya historically in Rakhine, shomaz were made up of groupings of gusshis rather than
individual members or households. Often socially isolated from each other, it is important to
understand Rohingya “communities” as existing within a longer historical perspective of Muslim
and Buddhist communities living alongside each other within Rakhine.
Charney’s work on the history of Muslim and Buddhist community interactions is particularly
useful in understanding how religious based communalism developed within Rohingya
communities. In particular, he points to the fact that from the late sixteenth to early
seventeenth centuries there is “little evidence of inter-religious confrontation between Buddhist
and Muslims” in Arakan.27 However, by the 19th century new sentiments within the Buddhist lay
community began to arise: “to be Muslim no longer simply meant to worship another god or
partake in a different system of religious belief; it additionally meant to be part of another social
group which should be excluded rather than included in the local community.”28 The
development of religious and hyper-local communal groups arose in a period Charney
describes as “chaotic, as the kingdom, quite literally fell apart.”29 During this time, the Arakan
kingdom succumbed to the conquest of the Burmese King Bodawphaya in 1784.30 Muslim and
Buddhist residents during this time were threatened by internal political destabilization and
conflict between rural gentry and central courts where villages were repeatedly fought over by
local strongmen, natural chaos from droughts, earthquakes and other natural disasters, the
introduction of Christian missionaries who attempted to convert local patrons, and raids from
slavers.31 These challenges necessitated communities turn towards their faith as a coping
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
mechanisms in order for both Buddhist and Muslim communities to survive; however, “a turn to
religion for safety [also] meant increased religious devotion.”32 The possible origination for
religious communalism therefore may have arisen out of a tumultuous period where hyperlocal
affiliation to religiously organized communities provided safety and security for Arakanese
Muslims.33
These schisms continued to develop over time. Charney argues that in the 18th century while
“religious identities existed, weaker for some and stronger for others, there is not a good deal of
evidence to suggest that most groups in Arakanese society linked community membership to
religious identity.”34 It wasn’t until the 19th century that religious communalism fully developed
in Northern Arakan, arising from mutually interlinked dynamics of population growth, over
cultivation within the Arakan region, migration, and land competition between Muslim and
Buddhist communities. Within this dynamic the British Empire favored Muslim cultivators
because they were believed to be superior to Buddhist cultivators who were “overly fond of
finding comfort in opium and indolence.”35 Land competition drove a turn towards local
communities and religious leaders in order to cope with the challenges of surviving on limited
cultivatable land. Religion and religious leaders began to provide the primary means of
collective action and social organization. Religious and social projects became a part of
supporting both the immediate communities’ needs and the development of a wider imagined
Muslim community. Much of this was encouraged and facilitated through changes in British
colonial administration policy which sought to increase revenue through new taxation schemes.
Religion, centered around community mosques and monasteries, therefore became the
primary socio-political institution for Muslim and Buddhist communities, and effectively drew
clear lines between the two.36
There is a significant and serious gap in the historical record and scholarship regarding the
early 20th century developments of Arakanese Muslims in terms of social and organizational
identities. The Rohingya shomaz was largely described by respondents as being a Muslim
community organized around a mosque or group of mosques and comprised from various local
gusshis that largely resembled the broad historical characteristics of Muslims living in historical
Rakhine.37 Even if other households or religious communities lived nearby, it seems they were
not imagined as belonging to the same shomaz. This is perhaps because shomaz membership
seems to have largely been determined through active participation within the Mosques as the
central organizing social and religious institution.38 Gusshi, particularly handani gusshi, most
likely led the formation and creation of shomaz in Arakan as a part of both historical migration
across the region and through izzot and merit-accumulation systems that encouraged the
construction of Mosques and social infrastructures. Shomaz leaders and handani gusshi
members therefore could be the descendants of the original settlers of a fara, meaning they
15
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively
because of the traumas associated with the displacement. No doubt, many individuals and
groups, especially those that were “excommunicated,” such as women, people not conforming
to Islamic social norms or marginalized groups, may have provided alternative or more critical
views of their function and operation.
were the original builders of the mosques around which shomaz were constructed. Interview
participants often mentioned the presence of “schools, ponds, Mosques and Madrassas,” as well
as key important social stakeholders, such as Imams, Muezzin, traders, and representatives as
central to their definitions of shomaz. The physical structures designating wealth and status
along with the presence of wealthy and pious members within shomaz highlight how “honor” or
social-reputation systems become central to belonging within Rohingya communities.
The organization and composition of shomaz was dependent on the particular demographics of
an area. As discussed, a fara may consist of several sub-clans of a gusshi or multiple, unrelated
gusshi within its borders. Depending on the size of the fara and relationships between gusshi, a
fara may be further subdivided into different maldas or “congregations.”39 Each malda
contained a mosque that was presided over by the mosque committee required for its
maintenance and the management of traditions and ceremonies that characterize Muslim
communal life. If a fara was small enough, then it was not subdivided, and there were then no
distinctions between fara and a malda. There was often a single mosque in these small faras
that had a mosque committee, which by extension, acted as the shomaz committee. People
from these faras still use the word shomaz and malda interchangeably; for others, there are
notable conflations between the terms “mosque committee” and shomaz based on the size and
dynamics of the communities that they represented. In most cases, faras were large and
contained many people and were thus subdivided into maldas; therefore, larger faras had
multiple mosque committees. While these mosque committees operated with a certain level of
autonomy, many faras had a larger socially representative structure also called a shomaz. Some
faras may have one united shomaz or it may have had multiple shomaz within its borders. The
latter often happened if gusshis and their maldas separated from a larger shomaz (or were
excommunicated) and formed a new shomaz within the same fara. Whichever the case, each
malda often sent one or two representatives from its mosque committees to their respective
shomaz committees in a larger fara.40
32 Charney (1999), p 248
33 The term Arakanese Muslims is used instead of Rohingya to refer to Muslim communities living historically within
Arakan because the word “Rohingya” has unclear and disputed origins within the historical record and was not in popular
use during this time. See Leider (2013) for further discussion of this.
34 Charney (1999), p 269
35 Charney (1999), p 283
36 Charney (1999), p 302-306
37 FGDs with imams and men
38 This largely can be linked to Charney’s observation of historical communalism in Rakhine: “Villagers thus relied upon
the ‘community’ which arose from village Buddhism (and in the case of Muslims, rural Islam) with the rural monastery
and the rural sangha as its center (as in the case of the mosque and the mullahs in rural Islam in Arakan).” (Charney
1999, p 306)
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
mechanisms in order for both Buddhist and Muslim communities to survive; however, “a turn to
religion for safety [also] meant increased religious devotion.”32 The possible origination for
religious communalism therefore may have arisen out of a tumultuous period where hyperlocal
affiliation to religiously organized communities provided safety and security for Arakanese
Muslims.33
These schisms continued to develop over time. Charney argues that in the 18th century while
“religious identities existed, weaker for some and stronger for others, there is not a good deal of
evidence to suggest that most groups in Arakanese society linked community membership to
religious identity.”34 It wasn’t until the 19th century that religious communalism fully developed
in Northern Arakan, arising from mutually interlinked dynamics of population growth, over
cultivation within the Arakan region, migration, and land competition between Muslim and
Buddhist communities. Within this dynamic the British Empire favored Muslim cultivators
because they were believed to be superior to Buddhist cultivators who were “overly fond of
finding comfort in opium and indolence.”35 Land competition drove a turn towards local
communities and religious leaders in order to cope with the challenges of surviving on limited
cultivatable land. Religion and religious leaders began to provide the primary means of
collective action and social organization. Religious and social projects became a part of
supporting both the immediate communities’ needs and the development of a wider imagined
Muslim community. Much of this was encouraged and facilitated through changes in British
colonial administration policy which sought to increase revenue through new taxation schemes.
Religion, centered around community mosques and monasteries, therefore became the
primary socio-political institution for Muslim and Buddhist communities, and effectively drew
clear lines between the two.36
There is a significant and serious gap in the historical record and scholarship regarding the
early 20th century developments of Arakanese Muslims in terms of social and organizational
identities. The Rohingya shomaz was largely described by respondents as being a Muslim
community organized around a mosque or group of mosques and comprised from various local
gusshis that largely resembled the broad historical characteristics of Muslims living in historical
Rakhine.37 Even if other households or religious communities lived nearby, it seems they were
not imagined as belonging to the same shomaz. This is perhaps because shomaz membership
seems to have largely been determined through active participation within the Mosques as the
central organizing social and religious institution.38 Gusshi, particularly handani gusshi, most
likely led the formation and creation of shomaz in Arakan as a part of both historical migration
across the region and through izzot and merit-accumulation systems that encouraged the
construction of Mosques and social infrastructures. Shomaz leaders and handani gusshi
members therefore could be the descendants of the original settlers of a fara, meaning they
16
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively
because of the traumas associated with the displacement. No doubt, many individuals and
groups, especially those that were “excommunicated,” such as women, people not conforming
to Islamic social norms or marginalized groups, may have provided alternative or more critical
views of their function and operation.
39 The term is reportedly derived from the Arabic mahallah, for neighbourhood but this point was only known by
Rohingya with stronger Arabic language education.
40 FGDs with mosque committees, previous shomaz members, and educated men.
were the original builders of the mosques around which shomaz were constructed. Interview
participants often mentioned the presence of “schools, ponds, Mosques and Madrassas,” as well
as key important social stakeholders, such as Imams, Muezzin, traders, and representatives as
central to their definitions of shomaz. The physical structures designating wealth and status
along with the presence of wealthy and pious members within shomaz highlight how “honor” or
social-reputation systems become central to belonging within Rohingya communities.
The organization and composition of shomaz was dependent on the particular demographics of
an area. As discussed, a fara may consist of several sub-clans of a gusshi or multiple, unrelated
gusshi within its borders. Depending on the size of the fara and relationships between gusshi, a
fara may be further subdivided into different maldas or “congregations.”39 Each malda
contained a mosque that was presided over by the mosque committee required for its
maintenance and the management of traditions and ceremonies that characterize Muslim
communal life. If a fara was small enough, then it was not subdivided, and there were then no
distinctions between fara and a malda. There was often a single mosque in these small faras
that had a mosque committee, which by extension, acted as the shomaz committee. People
from these faras still use the word shomaz and malda interchangeably; for others, there are
notable conflations between the terms “mosque committee” and shomaz based on the size and
dynamics of the communities that they represented. In most cases, faras were large and
contained many people and were thus subdivided into maldas; therefore, larger faras had
multiple mosque committees. While these mosque committees operated with a certain level of
autonomy, many faras had a larger socially representative structure also called a shomaz. Some
faras may have one united shomaz or it may have had multiple shomaz within its borders. The
latter often happened if gusshis and their maldas separated from a larger shomaz (or were
excommunicated) and formed a new shomaz within the same fara. Whichever the case, each
malda often sent one or two representatives from its mosque committees to their respective
shomaz committees in a larger fara.40
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
mechanisms in order for both Buddhist and Muslim communities to survive; however, “a turn to
religion for safety [also] meant increased religious devotion.”32 The possible origination for
religious communalism therefore may have arisen out of a tumultuous period where hyperlocal
affiliation to religiously organized communities provided safety and security for Arakanese
Muslims.33
These schisms continued to develop over time. Charney argues that in the 18th century while
“religious identities existed, weaker for some and stronger for others, there is not a good deal of
evidence to suggest that most groups in Arakanese society linked community membership to
religious identity.”34 It wasn’t until the 19th century that religious communalism fully developed
in Northern Arakan, arising from mutually interlinked dynamics of population growth, over
cultivation within the Arakan region, migration, and land competition between Muslim and
Buddhist communities. Within this dynamic the British Empire favored Muslim cultivators
because they were believed to be superior to Buddhist cultivators who were “overly fond of
finding comfort in opium and indolence.”35 Land competition drove a turn towards local
communities and religious leaders in order to cope with the challenges of surviving on limited
cultivatable land. Religion and religious leaders began to provide the primary means of
collective action and social organization. Religious and social projects became a part of
supporting both the immediate communities’ needs and the development of a wider imagined
Muslim community. Much of this was encouraged and facilitated through changes in British
colonial administration policy which sought to increase revenue through new taxation schemes.
Religion, centered around community mosques and monasteries, therefore became the
primary socio-political institution for Muslim and Buddhist communities, and effectively drew
clear lines between the two.36
There is a significant and serious gap in the historical record and scholarship regarding the
early 20th century developments of Arakanese Muslims in terms of social and organizational
identities. The Rohingya shomaz was largely described by respondents as being a Muslim
community organized around a mosque or group of mosques and comprised from various local
gusshis that largely resembled the broad historical characteristics of Muslims living in historical
Rakhine.37 Even if other households or religious communities lived nearby, it seems they were
not imagined as belonging to the same shomaz. This is perhaps because shomaz membership
seems to have largely been determined through active participation within the Mosques as the
central organizing social and religious institution.38 Gusshi, particularly handani gusshi, most
likely led the formation and creation of shomaz in Arakan as a part of both historical migration
across the region and through izzot and merit-accumulation systems that encouraged the
construction of Mosques and social infrastructures. Shomaz leaders and handani gusshi
members therefore could be the descendants of the original settlers of a fara, meaning they
GWAING
OZU
OZURWA
RWA RWA RWA = FARA
<<SUB DISTRICT
RWA
RWA
RWA
RWA
GWAING
Multiple malda within one
combined fara + shomaj
One combined malda,
fara, shomaj
Multiple malda and shomaj
within one fara
17
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively
because of the traumas associated with the displacement. No doubt, many individuals and
groups, especially those that were “excommunicated,” such as women, people not conforming
to Islamic social norms or marginalized groups, may have provided alternative or more critical
views of their function and operation.
41 Munsoor (2013), p 293
42 Munsoor (2013), p 301
43 Munsoor (2013), p 296
Shomaz committees were largely comprised of elderly men (murobbi) with higher levels of
social capital and izzot within the community that represented different sizes of community
groups across various gusshi, fara, and malda. Women were largely excluded from these spaces
because they were seen to generally lack sufficient “qualifications” to serve in leadership roles
within the community; though some women notably did obtain both religious or non-religious
education. This is important to note because while terms may be interchangeable in certain
cases, they connotate different representational structures and levels from within the
community. While imams can be understood as religious leaders of the mosque, they were
often hired from outside of the community from larger madrassas within the region, and thus
had a unique position within the shomaz, being religiously significant but also socially distant
because they came from “outside” the community. Shomaz committees were often comprised
of members of different prominent handani gusshis who were responsible within the shomaz.
To this extent, many of the shomaz committees were comprised of wealthier members of the
wider community who had more izzot because of their ability to provide zakat and support
Mosque maintenance. However, Munsoor notes in his findings that this was not always the case
and found one case in Rakhine where people identified a “poor” committee member who was
chosen to be on the shomaz committee because of his “respected” status. This essentially
reaffirms the point that social status and izzot are not solely equivalent to class and wealth.41
However, women are largely excluded from shomaz committees even though Munsoor did find
one woman on a shomaz on the basis that she had educated herself and could act as an
important link between the committee and other women in the village.42 There were no reports
of women serving on shomaz committees within this consultation.
Shomaz committees play an incredibly important role as the social leaders and representatives
of their communities. In this they perform a diverse set of functions that are both religious and
non-religious in nature:
In the case of Gone Nar, the 'Shomaz' groups have their own mosque, trusteeships and
are responsible for its operation and up-keep. They perform an important function of
arbitrating in civil disputes, within their respective Shomaz groups. One of their central
functions revolves around the 'sacrifice' of animals and the distribution of the meat to
the poor and family during the Eid or Islamic festival times. The Shomaz is governed by
an Islamic ideology and is pro-poor as demonstrated by some of the functions that it
carries out. As one of the poor member of the community points out ‘If poor people pass
away the Shomaz takes care of the funeral expenses. The Shomaz has been supporting
the Madarrasa and the teaching of religion to the poor. The main benefits to the poor is
that we can hire Mullahs (religious leaders) from the funds we have collected from the
community and pay the Mullah…’ The Shomaz is seen to enforce a 'moral code'. It takes
action on those who are not following the Islamic code or not consulting its members on
important issues.43
Ripoll further explains that the role of the shomaz “is to enact community members’ obligation
to each other” in order to “reinforce the ‘social bonds’ of the community,” actualizing the
imagined Ummah (community of all practitioners of Islam) within an immediate locale. In this
definition, their role is to help construct the imagined society through an immediate community
of shared religious beliefs and practices, maintaining social harmony and serving as a safety net
for poorer members of the community.
were the original builders of the mosques around which shomaz were constructed. Interview
participants often mentioned the presence of “schools, ponds, Mosques and Madrassas,” as well
as key important social stakeholders, such as Imams, Muezzin, traders, and representatives as
central to their definitions of shomaz. The physical structures designating wealth and status
along with the presence of wealthy and pious members within shomaz highlight how “honor” or
social-reputation systems become central to belonging within Rohingya communities.
The organization and composition of shomaz was dependent on the particular demographics of
an area. As discussed, a fara may consist of several sub-clans of a gusshi or multiple, unrelated
gusshi within its borders. Depending on the size of the fara and relationships between gusshi, a
fara may be further subdivided into different maldas or “congregations.”39 Each malda
contained a mosque that was presided over by the mosque committee required for its
maintenance and the management of traditions and ceremonies that characterize Muslim
communal life. If a fara was small enough, then it was not subdivided, and there were then no
distinctions between fara and a malda. There was often a single mosque in these small faras
that had a mosque committee, which by extension, acted as the shomaz committee. People
from these faras still use the word shomaz and malda interchangeably; for others, there are
notable conflations between the terms “mosque committee” and shomaz based on the size and
dynamics of the communities that they represented. In most cases, faras were large and
contained many people and were thus subdivided into maldas; therefore, larger faras had
multiple mosque committees. While these mosque committees operated with a certain level of
autonomy, many faras had a larger socially representative structure also called a shomaz. Some
faras may have one united shomaz or it may have had multiple shomaz within its borders. The
latter often happened if gusshis and their maldas separated from a larger shomaz (or were
excommunicated) and formed a new shomaz within the same fara. Whichever the case, each
malda often sent one or two representatives from its mosque committees to their respective
shomaz committees in a larger fara.40
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
mechanisms in order for both Buddhist and Muslim communities to survive; however, “a turn to
religion for safety [also] meant increased religious devotion.”32 The possible origination for
religious communalism therefore may have arisen out of a tumultuous period where hyperlocal
affiliation to religiously organized communities provided safety and security for Arakanese
Muslims.33
These schisms continued to develop over time. Charney argues that in the 18th century while
“religious identities existed, weaker for some and stronger for others, there is not a good deal of
evidence to suggest that most groups in Arakanese society linked community membership to
religious identity.”34 It wasn’t until the 19th century that religious communalism fully developed
in Northern Arakan, arising from mutually interlinked dynamics of population growth, over
cultivation within the Arakan region, migration, and land competition between Muslim and
Buddhist communities. Within this dynamic the British Empire favored Muslim cultivators
because they were believed to be superior to Buddhist cultivators who were “overly fond of
finding comfort in opium and indolence.”35 Land competition drove a turn towards local
communities and religious leaders in order to cope with the challenges of surviving on limited
cultivatable land. Religion and religious leaders began to provide the primary means of
collective action and social organization. Religious and social projects became a part of
supporting both the immediate communities’ needs and the development of a wider imagined
Muslim community. Much of this was encouraged and facilitated through changes in British
colonial administration policy which sought to increase revenue through new taxation schemes.
Religion, centered around community mosques and monasteries, therefore became the
primary socio-political institution for Muslim and Buddhist communities, and effectively drew
clear lines between the two.36
There is a significant and serious gap in the historical record and scholarship regarding the
early 20th century developments of Arakanese Muslims in terms of social and organizational
identities. The Rohingya shomaz was largely described by respondents as being a Muslim
community organized around a mosque or group of mosques and comprised from various local
gusshis that largely resembled the broad historical characteristics of Muslims living in historical
Rakhine.37 Even if other households or religious communities lived nearby, it seems they were
not imagined as belonging to the same shomaz. This is perhaps because shomaz membership
seems to have largely been determined through active participation within the Mosques as the
central organizing social and religious institution.38 Gusshi, particularly handani gusshi, most
likely led the formation and creation of shomaz in Arakan as a part of both historical migration
across the region and through izzot and merit-accumulation systems that encouraged the
construction of Mosques and social infrastructures. Shomaz leaders and handani gusshi
members therefore could be the descendants of the original settlers of a fara, meaning they
18
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively
because of the traumas associated with the displacement. No doubt, many individuals and
groups, especially those that were “excommunicated,” such as women, people not conforming
to Islamic social norms or marginalized groups, may have provided alternative or more critical
views of their function and operation.
44 FGDs with men and women
45 See Charney (1999, p 297), who finds this dynamic arising within 17th and 18th centuries within Muslim communities,
Ripoll who briefly mentions zakat or donations to the poor (2017, p 23), and Munsoor who refers to the “pro-poor”
mentality of shomaz (2013, p 225)
46 FGD with women
47 FGD with men
48 Someone who has memorized the entire Quran, a hafez is generally well respected by religiously educated people
within Rohingya communities.
49 Fieldnotes, May 2019
50 Munsoor (2013), p 302
51 Munsoor (2013), p 296-297
This was reaffirmed many times within interviews with the Rohingya in the camps, who
repeatedly described their shomaz committees as fulfilling similar functions in Rakhine; of
particular note was the ritual sharing of meat during Qurban Eid, provision of zakat, and
maintenance of social harmony and unity between rich and poor.44 Emphasis on the shomaz as
a “unified society” where rich and poor came together was a theme within our discussions:45
In Myanmar, Shomaz was formed based on masjid and madrasha. If there is any
ceremony (mela), communal feast (fatiya), Islamic lecture (waaz), or during Qurban (ritual
sharing of meat and food), then the somaz was usually involved in the process. Somaz
means to be the children of same mother but it is not only your relatives (gusshi) that are
included. You have to take all, whether they are your relatives or not. Rich or poor, all the
people of shomaz have to visit me whether I have money or not. They have to pray in one
mosque. They have to be united in their opinions.46
Unity was affirmed many times as an important quality and value within shomaz across all
interviews with different Rohingya from all social backgrounds in the camps. For Rohingya, unity
of shomaz in beliefs, actions, and opinions is the basis on which the strength of a shomaz can
even be derived. For one male respondent, shomaz was literally defined as “working together
with unity and living together with unity.”47 This heavy emphasis on the importance of unity was
elaborated in a discussion with a hafez48 who was also a member of a Rohingya civil society
organization: “How can the fingers of a hand accomplish anything if they are not united? How
can we accomplish anything if our voices are not the same?”49 It is of interest to note anxiety
surrounding unity and Rohingya’s unwillingness to dissent from a publicly stated opinion when
speaking together as groups. This is elaborated by explanations in Munsoor’s work that
Rohingya in his research dissented in their opinions over a school committee nomination
through their “tone of voice,” using either low or high pitch tones to show interest in candidacy
or support for a candidate. In the event of disagreement candidates were asked to leave while
the disagreement was discussed so as not to cause disunity or factionalism within the group.50
Shomaz committees’ role in socially policing and overseeing members in their community was
frequently mentioned as a part of process through which unity, and thereby strength, was
maintained. Their authority on conflict resolution largely stems from their ability to exert social
influence on various people within their shomaz because of their own social reputations. In
Myanmar, social exclusion and banishment from participation within one’s gusshi or shomaz
seemed to be the primary means of social control and a way of maintaining “Islamic teachings
and a code of ethics based on religion:”
There are some people, who are not following the religious rules, who are not really
working with the Shomaz or giving their contributions, they are kept out of the Shomaz’.
Further, those who are drunkards, alcoholics, [and] gamblers…are also excluded.51
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
19
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively
because of the traumas associated with the displacement. No doubt, many individuals and
groups, especially those that were “excommunicated,” such as women, people not conforming
to Islamic social norms or marginalized groups, may have provided alternative or more critical
views of their function and operation.
52 FGD with Imams, FGDs with men
53 UNDP (2015), p36-37
54 KII with former Ukkatta
This was repeatedly reconfirmed within interviews with Rohingya who identified and equated
the shomaz committees and structures as the main source of control, religious and social, that
was recognized and supported by Rohingya themselves. Participants often described the
shomaz as generally enforcing the religious adherence of shomaz and gusshi members,
encouraging households who were less active in attending Mosque functions to attend.52
Keeping in mind the fact that social reputation, izzot, was derived from being perceived as
pious, anyone with social standing was therefore more or less forced to also display their piety
in order to obtain social reputation regardless of their actual devotion.
It is important to distinguish between social and political governance systems in Rakhine, noting
that shomaz committees were not officially recognized governing bodies. Rohingya people in
the camps largely explained that political authority to govern rested with the Village
Administration of Myanmar’s local governments. Briefly, Myanmar’s local governance system
similarly revolves around villages as the central units of organization with two key institutions:
The first is, what was then still called the Village Peace and Development Committee
(VPDC), locally known as the Ya Ya Ka. The second is the set of formal recognized elders
in the village, locally known as the NaYaKa, also known as Village Elders and Respected
Persons (ERPs). Though both of these committees were formally recognized, both locally
and in the eyes of the administration, there was little in the way of formal guidelines... The
VPDC was the only formal institution that is found in every village. At the village level, the
VPDC included three main types of position holders, 10-household leaders, 100-household
leaders and the tract level representatives, also known as the president, chairman or
‘member one’. Ten-household leaders were recognized but had relatively limited standing
within the village, and their role was limited to participating in village meetings. The
importance of the 100-household leaders varied according to their number in the village,
which generally ranged from one to three, and whether the village was home to ‘member
one’ or the tract chairman. The role of the VPDC extended far beyond enacting official
township orders. As the formally recognized village leaders, the senior Ya Ya Ka [VPDC]
supported villagers in various ways: helping them resolve conflicts, mobilizing and
managing funds for community development, and mediating between the village and
township officials. The importance of the VPDC was largely a reflection of the fact that
important and powerful social leaders tended to occupy these positions, and that there
was a strong interface between the VPDC and embedded local relations and structures
more generally.53
However the reality within Rakhine was reportedly different than what was officially mandated
between the NaYaKa and the VPDC. Most interviewees in the consultation describe a two-Ukatta
(chairman) system that operated under the NaYaKa administration: one Rakhine and one
Rohingya. Though Maungdaw and Buthidaung districts were majority Muslim, most village
tracts had at least one area that was Rakhine not Rohingya. The NaYaKa often appointed an
Ukatta from the Rakhine communities as the administrator regardless of their numerical
insignificance in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships. Elected or selected Muslim Ukkattas
were always subservient to the Rakhine Ukatta. However, both Ukkattas were perceived more as
informants or “messengers” of the Myanmar government, rather than governors, by the
Rohingya community .54
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
20
55 KII with former Ukkatta
56 UNDP (2015), p 37
57 Davies (2018), p 9
58 More specifically, following the selection of the head of 10 households, they would select a head of 100 households
who would then nominate and elect the ukkatta to be appointed by Department of General Administration.
59 Munsoor (2013), p 296
Though the Rohingya Ukkattas lacked formal governing powers, they were nonetheless
important within the shomaz. They were the shomaz’s primary link to the formal Myanmar
government, and increasingly the main arbitrators in the social lives of Rohingyas, which was
another reason that more powerful Rohingya were selected as representatives. Historically, the
shomaz committees exerted greater influence within the Rohingya community, but with the
enactment of the NaYaKa system, the authority of the shomaz may have declined steadily over
the years. Social roles and functions that were traditionally the purview of the shomaz and its
committees were later put directly under the jurisdiction of the NaYaKa administrators.
Marriages, number of children, domestic violence, and other information had to be reported to
the NaYaKa via the Ukkatta and his associates. They served as the formal, yet tenuous link,
between the Myanmar government and the previously autonomous local shomaz units. This
status also enabled them to take and extract bribes in exchange for the numerous approvals
required for marriage and travel– this point was noted by Rohingya living in camps who often
describe the system as dominated by corruption, especially in recent history. 55
The enactment of the Village Tract and Ward Law in Myanmar in 2012 significantly changed
many relationships between shomaz and Myanmar’s governance institutions.56 These reforms
replaced traditional methods of selecting Ukkatta with popular election, whereas historically
they had been selected from locally important community figures by Myanmar officials.57 Within
a series of reforms, the law provided one vote per head of 10-household, which, except in the
case of widows, was always a man.58 This new form of election was perhaps a source of social
upset to existing shomaz committees though there is insufficient evidence from our
consultations to draw definitive conclusions regarding this. Within interviews, Rohingya
commented that elections were not perceived as fair because handani gusshi candidates or
individuals with high izzot often ran unopposed because of their ability to exert social pressure
on other potential candidates. In this, elections were perceived to have been socially
pre-determined before ballots were even cast. Again, dissent, even in anonymous elections,
seems to have been largely avoided and socially prevented. Interestingly, for Rohingya the
structures 10-household leaders (sae-mu) and 100-household leaders (rae-mu), which were a
part of the NaYaKa governance model, were mostly used in the arrangement of forced labor
and payment of ad-hoc taxes from Rohingya households. For Rohingya, the rae-mu and sae-mu
were often appointed by the Ukkatta and at times, overlapped with shomaz committee
membership. However, generally the rae-mu and sae-mu systems were negatively perceived by
Rohingya in this consultation and also partially accused of participating within corrupt and
discriminatory systems of the Myanmar government to various extents.
Therefore, while shomaz committees on their own had social authority and respect from
Rohingya gusshi within a community, they were able to formalize their authority through
participation in the VPDC and EPR committees. One shomaz member from Munsoor’s study
also noted that shomaz often enacted their power by influencing other administrative
structures within the area, such as the VPDC.59 From this standpoint, shomaz can also therefore
be understood as an interesting nexus between formal systems of the Myanmar government
and informal social institutions based on Islamic values and social practices. Both Ripoll and
Munsoor further note that shomaz’s significance seems to have declined prior to displacement
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively
because of the traumas associated with the displacement. No doubt, many individuals and
groups, especially those that were “excommunicated,” such as women, people not conforming
to Islamic social norms or marginalized groups, may have provided alternative or more critical
views of their function and operation.
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
21
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively
because of the traumas associated with the displacement. No doubt, many individuals and
groups, especially those that were “excommunicated,” such as women, people not conforming
to Islamic social norms or marginalized groups, may have provided alternative or more critical
views of their function and operation.
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
60 Ripoll (2017), p 9
due to persistent pressures and discrimination experienced by the Rohingya at the hands of the
Myanmar government. Ripoll cites Wakar Uddin, the General of the Arakan Rohingya Union, that
the “constant attack on local institutions of the Myanmar government… has ‘undermined the
social fabric’ of Rohingya society. Even in the case of mullahs and mulvis, he highlights how the
persecution of religious people, the destruction of mosques, higher religious education
institutions, and historical documents have undermined the status of these figures.”60 Many of
these attacks were policy level restrictions placed on Rohingya that progressively stripped them
of rights within the Myanmar government. There was also the notorious NaSaKa, or border
guard police, that was responsible for enforcing harsh and discriminatory measures on the
Rohingya.
In appreciating the inter-relationship of the shomaz, its inherent logic and values, and its
relationship with the formal Myanmar state apparatus, a set of mutually reinforcing social
dynamics that helped perpetuate and maintain social cohesion within Rohingya communities
are evident. The importance of unity as a social value arises because social exclusion largely
requires the wider set of gusshis to enforce and support the decision of the shomaz committee
regarding social matters. Shomaz committee members were the highest holders of izzot, vital
brokers between the Rohingya and the Myanmar government, arbitrators, and an important
part of social safety networks for the poor. As a result, they no doubt were able to encourage
and enforce consensus and collective action against dissenting group members. Social
exclusion, as a punishment, needs to be understood as an incredibly threatening prospect for
families who rely on their shomaz not only because they were important social units of
belonging, membership, and faith but also important social support systems that worked as
intermediaries with Myanmar’s authorities, provided or facilitated livelihood opportunities, and
offered a social safety net for families who were unable to support themselves. Within these
dynamics “social deviance” from Islamic values is largely conflated with social criminality
meaning that there is little differentiation between the two and that both carry the same
potential punishment – social exclusion. Hence, the system of izzot, social hierarchy, wealth
redistribution, and punishment of religious or social dissent are a reinforcing set of social
dynamics that kept communities socially united and religiously devoted.
22
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively
because of the traumas associated with the displacement. No doubt, many individuals and
groups, especially those that were “excommunicated,” such as women, people not conforming
to Islamic social norms or marginalized groups, may have provided alternative or more critical
views of their function and operation.
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
61 Discussion with IOM Site Management team active during 2019 of the response.
62 The full dataset has not been released due to sensitivities around the collection of names of places of origins. However,
the NPM Round 9 report is available on Humanitarian Response.
SHOMAZ & GUSSHI
AFTER DISPLACEMENT
One of the first questions in considering shomaz after the displacement was whether and how
much the shomaz remained “intact” within the camps. In understanding shomaz and gusshi as
comprised of a series of social networks, to understand whether shomaz “survived”
displacement requires a better understanding of displacement patterns across the camps and
whether shomaz and gusshi largely resettled together. There are competing anecdotal
narratives from various humanitarians to support both accounts and often it is wrongly argued
that the reality is an either or scenario. Staff working in IOM’s Site Management Unit argue that
displacement patterns vary significantly according to camp, with certain Camps, like Camp 20
extension, being highly fragmented due to the fact that residents were largely relocated again
after their initial arrival for road and facility construction projects. This idea stands in contrast to
camps along the eastern side of Kutupalong Balukahli Expansion which many people argue
contain groups of Rohingya that fled and settled together from the same places of origin.61
Fortunately, there are several sets of data which can begin to illuminate this picture.
The first and largest data set was gathered within Round 9 of the Needs and Population Survey
where respondents were asked to report the three largest places of origin within their
Majhi-block.62 To better understand whether groups of Rohingya fled and settled with people
who were from the same village tract, this data was analyzed to determine the largest possible
percentage of people from the same reported place of origin within the surveyed Majhi block.
This analysis is limited by the above understanding that a single village tract had multiple fara,
shomaz and gusshi, meaning that members from the same place of origin didn’t necessarily
know each other or share the same group memberships or general locality. However, this data
does provide insights into whether people settled as groups based on a generalized place of
origin. In examining the largest demographic with a shared place of origin, it is possible to see
how communities potentially remained “intact” or “fragmented” within the new administrative
boundaries of the displacement camps.
23
63 Data for this was gathered in March 2019 across Camps 20, 20 extension, and 9 during regular meetings with Imams.
Of the 89 mosques within those camps, only three chose not to provide information.
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively
because of the traumas associated with the displacement. No doubt, many individuals and
groups, especially those that were “excommunicated,” such as women, people not conforming
to Islamic social norms or marginalized groups, may have provided alternative or more critical
views of their function and operation.
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
One of the first questions in considering shomaz after the displacement was whether and how
much the shomaz remained “intact” within the camps. In understanding shomaz and gusshi as
comprised of a series of social networks, to understand whether shomaz “survived”
displacement requires a better understanding of displacement patterns across the camps and
whether shomaz and gusshi largely resettled together. There are competing anecdotal
narratives from various humanitarians to support both accounts and often it is wrongly argued
that the reality is an either or scenario. Staff working in IOM’s Site Management Unit argue that
displacement patterns vary significantly according to camp, with certain Camps, like Camp 20
extension, being highly fragmented due to the fact that residents were largely relocated again
after their initial arrival for road and facility construction projects. This idea stands in contrast to
camps along the eastern side of Kutupalong Balukahli Expansion which many people argue
contain groups of Rohingya that fled and settled together from the same places of origin.61
Fortunately, there are several sets of data which can begin to illuminate this picture.
The first and largest data set was gathered within Round 9 of the Needs and Population Survey
where respondents were asked to report the three largest places of origin within their
Majhi-block.62 To better understand whether groups of Rohingya fled and settled with people
who were from the same village tract, this data was analyzed to determine the largest possible
percentage of people from the same reported place of origin within the surveyed Majhi block.
This analysis is limited by the above understanding that a single village tract had multiple fara,
shomaz and gusshi, meaning that members from the same place of origin didn’t necessarily
know each other or share the same group memberships or general locality. However, this data
does provide insights into whether people settled as groups based on a generalized place of
origin. In examining the largest demographic with a shared place of origin, it is possible to see
how communities potentially remained “intact” or “fragmented” within the new administrative
boundaries of the displacement camps.
From the above it is clear that 64% of all surveyed Majhi blocks reported that only between
31-50% of their block was from the same place of origin. This means that while some families
did indeed settle with people from their place of origin, rarely did they constitute a majority
within their new sub-blocks. This analysis was repeated at camp level and despite various
conceptions of humanitarians, there is a similar pattern of displacement and fragmentation
across all the camps without a significant difference between any of them. While there are no
doubt some Mahji Blocks where this is not the case, as is evident from the above, the
predominant narrative arising from this analysis is that communities were largely fragmented
as they fled. In considering that the above doesn’t even mean people knew each other before
they fled, it further suggests that a higher degree of social fragmentation occurred than what is
presented in the above.
The second data set was gathered as a part of an IOM Mosque Mapping exercise to better
understand the formation of mosque congregations and committees.63 Within this exercise,
Imams representing 86 different Mosques from three camps were asked various questions
about their congregations. In summary, on average Imams reported 128 households attended
Jummah prayer but reported that only 13% of their congregation was the same congregation
they had in Myanmar. This was reconfirmed with another question that explored the
congregations’ respective places of origin:
Where are most of your congregation form?
0%
10%
15%
2%
83%
20%
30%
40%
50%
60%
70%
80%
90%
from same village from 2-3 village in
Myanmar
from more than 4 village in
Myanmar
Settlement patterns of Majhi Blocks based on
largest demographic place of origin
Highest percentage of households from the same place of origin
0%
Less than 20% 21-30% from
same place
31-40% from
same place
41-50% from
same place
51-60% from
same place
61-70% from
same place
71-80% from
same place
81-90% from
same place
91-100% from
same place
5%
10%
15%
20%
25%
30%
35%
40%
45%
% of Sub blocks surveyed
4%
0%
34%
30%
16%
9%
4%
1% 1%
24
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively
because of the traumas associated with the displacement. No doubt, many individuals and
groups, especially those that were “excommunicated,” such as women, people not conforming
to Islamic social norms or marginalized groups, may have provided alternative or more critical
views of their function and operation.
and the two are often intertwined across South Asian and Rohingya communities. From
interviews, historical sources on the Rohingya, and understanding of other South Asian
communities, Rohingya communities largely seem to similarly understand izzot as being
derived from three sources: religious piety and observation of religious practices, financial
wealth, and educational achievements.
The first basis of izzot, religious piety, for Rohingya men, is accumulated by following the model
and Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnah clearly dictates many details of life,
from what clothes to wear, to how to shave one’s facial hair, and how many fingers to use when
eating food, and people who follow the Sunnah are seen as more pious.19 Attendance at
congregational prayers (jummah) at mosques is also important in displaying piety to fellow
community members and a lack of attendance at congregational prayers was noted by many
Rohingya as a sign of people’s lack of faith. The ultimate source of religious izzot is achieved
through the completion of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he or she is given the esteemed
title haaji. Though the Rohingya community traditionally did not follow a strict shariah-based
social governance system, elements of it were observed, particularly relating to women. A
woman’s izzot was linked to her adherence to purdah20 a social practice of women’s seclusion to
“private” spaces. However, there is still unclarity as to how strictly Rohingya communities
adhered to purdah in Myanmar across different contexts and their understanding of the value.
This is perhaps because many Rohingya were historically largely agrarian and maintaining
purdah was difficult for both men and women working together in fields. How much of the
purdah system was a recent adoption from globalized Islamic culture is uncertain, especially
given various reformist trends within Islam. Regardless, there was still a sense of gender
segregation or prohibition in areas deemed sacred, such as mosques and graveyards. A
Rohingya woman’s izzot was also linked to her paternal gusshi’s izzot and is an important factor
in marriage negotiations. For men, a woman’s dishonor may “stain” the family’s social standing
and diminish her marriage prospects as a result.
The second source of izzot, financial status, is often interlinked with more public displays of
wealth based on Islamic traditions. Historically, wealth was contained in the hands of a few
landed elites and urban merchants, which were known as the handani gusshis.21 These gusshi
were wealthy and generally expected to display their wealth by supporting religious traditions
and social functions – by giving zakat during Ramadan, distributing Qurbani meat and ensuring
mosques were properly maintained. Ironically, the redistribution of wealth to obtain izzot
simultaneously established people as patrons but also limited their accumulation of capital –
those with more wealth were expected to redistribute and support the community more to
maintain their standing. Interestingly, both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities
stress the importance of “merit earning” activities, known as kudo in Buddhism and sawab in
Islam.22 Historically, Charney’s work stresses “the importance of mosque building in seventeenth
and eighteenth-century Arakan because the mosque serves not only as the place of worship for
Muslims, but also as a potential center… for the formation of a Muslim community. In other
words, the mosque has social as well as religious functions.23 Wealthier gusshi were literally
expected to “construct” the institutions around which Muslim’s societies were and still are
socially organized. However, the ability and act of such a construction is intertwined with the
socio-economic capacity to do so and the status that is accumulated through such an act.
Finally, education is greatly valued in Rohingya society especially given their historical
deprivation of access to various forms of education. The educated can be divided into two
groups: those educated through traditional Islamic education and those through the Myanmar
state curriculum. Both groups were usually from families with pre-existing financial or social
capital.24 Secular or Myanmar state education was also valued, especially because it enabled
Rohingya to better communicate with Myanmar’s governance structures and because it also
signified a certain social reputation or place within the larger Myanmar nation. However, the
value of Myanmar State education was also limited in the sense that many Rohingya were
prohibited from obtaining higher levels of education and capitalizing on better forms of
employment that would coincide from being educated.25
Other authors exploring izzot within the Rohingya population have noted similar observations
and patterns regarding izzot even if their translation of the term differs.26 Izzot is something to
be acquired through public performance of various actions, cultivation of specific qualities, and
general adherence to religious and social norms. In this way, personal and collective forms of
izzot play an orienting and anchoring role for Rohingya – they place individuals within larger
collectives, like gusshi, and give them social standing and purpose. The ways in which izzot is
gained and accumulated are intangible and often imperceivable to outsiders; izzot can only
exist and operate within tightly knit communities that are based on intimate social networks
where people know each other, their clans, and their collective histories. It is only through this
knowledge that a person’s or group’s izzot can be properly interpreted. Hence, izzot allows
community members to develop and maintain standings within their larger collective identities
and acquire a sense of belonging; however, the same processes that construct value also have
implicit implications for how such standing can be lost.
64 This series of questions was repeated multiple times over our interviews and focus group discussions.
65 FGD with woman in Camp 9
66 This is reflected in statistics which point to various needs being met; of particular note is that already by July 2018,
84% of refugees reported having access to “life-saving” information, which suggests that people had largely informed
themselves on how to survive and operate within the new camp environment. See Bailey et al (2018).
To further strengthen the findings, when asked whether the Mosque committees were
comprised of members of the same or different villages, all except one reported that Mosque
committee members were all from different local places of origin within their sub-block even if
they were from the same township or village tracts.
These findings were further corroborated qualitatively during interviews. When participants
were asked how many households from their current subblock they knew when they lived in
Rakhine, the number never exceeded 10-20 households.64 As one woman explained, “when we
arrived we were so tired and relieved to be in a safe place that we went to the first available
place and stopped because we were exhausted.65 This sentiment and the immediate
experience of arrival in the camps for many Rohingya is one of relief but also chaotic
randomness. While detailed surveys may reveal a more granular trend in post-displacement
settlement patterns, this consultation found only narratives of fragmentation and social
isolation following their flight from Myanmar. This is perhaps echoed in the repeated accounts
of respondents who reported that they were unable to settle with or nearby their gusshi. Rather,
gusshi members were reported as being scattered across the camp, often in different parts of
the camp that inhibited people’s ability to maintain social ties. Many people said that they did
not even know where many members of their gusshi resided in the camps. The conclusion of
this consultation is that it would be incredibly rare to find shomaz and gusshi structures from
Myanmar intact within the displacement camps.
It is difficult to summarize the many changes to these structures that occurred in the course of
displacement, especially because they were already diverse in Myanmar. It is helpful to imagine
tight-knit communities bound together within small social units in a context where Rohingya
experienced many external social, political, and economic pressures encouraging them to be
united in all aspects of life. Gusshi and shomaz were intertwined with the fara-based Rohingya
societies of Rakhine. Shomaz were critical sources of support and mitigated against the harsh
realities of life for Rohingya within Rakhine State. Furthermore, they were historical social
structures dating back generations with incredibly close ties between households and gusshi. All
of this underwent a rapid transformation and to some extent “death through separation” as
people fled, lost members, were separated, and eventually settled in different parts of the
camps. This transformation is not just about separation from social networks and family
members but a transformation in how people were forced to reorient themselves from living
highly communal lives to suddenly living highly individualized ones based on humanitarian
understandings of nuclear families that are reified through relief distribution mechanisms.
It is understandable that across traumatic events, people seek to recreate familiar patterns of
social organization even when circumstances and contexts vary significantly. In all discussions,
interviewees discussed their “new shomaz” in Bangladesh. At the time of this consultation, it
had been nearly two years since the initial displacement; for many residents this meant that
dealing with immediate needs had largely become more scheduled and routine for most
families.66 These new structures were sometimes referred to as shomaz, malda, or mosjid
shomiti (mosque committee), especially when people were referring to the committee of the
shomaz. This linkage between mosque and community seems to have replicated itself within
the camps and most people identified their own or a combination of geographically neighboring
25
Where in Myanmar there was a self-reinforcing value system of communalism that helped
maintain unity, mitigate conflict, redistribute wealth, and establish leadership; there now exists
an inability or difficulty in re-establishing these arrangements even though there is clear
evidence of many Rohingya are attempting to do so. Communalism has not disappeared and
many Rohingya continue to share and establish ties with each other; however, the prevailing
experience is that their gusshi no longer exist and their new shomaz only a semblance of what
it was before. Whether and how these new shomaz continue to reformulate themselves is
uncertain, but the attempts to recreate such structures is unquestionably experienced as a
positive development that many participants wished could continue. While historical shomaz
were no doubt complicated social systems with people who benefited and suffered under their
operation, a return to the familiarity of the shomaz in Rakhine was generally viewed positively