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EVIAN CONFERENCE

Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah had called a Conference in Evian, France known as the Evian Conference between July 4, 1952 and July 8, 1952 to discuss various economic and social problems confronting the African Ismailis and also to make necessary amendments in the Constitution of the African Councils. It was attended by 40 members including the President and the Secretary of the Supreme Council, the Presidents of the Provincial Councils and of the Ismailia Association, educational administrators, the managing director of the Jubilee Insurance Company, and three members of the East African Legislative Council.

The health of the Imam was impaired and confined to bed. Even in this state of health, he spared five complete days to hear the verbal and written reports and had a total sitting of 18 hours with the delegates. One of the major decisions reached at the Conference urged all Ismaili women of East Africa to adopt western dress for political and economic reasons. At the end of the Conference, the Imam sent following cable message:-

Aixles Bains

Very glad to hear various excellent resolutions Evian Conference carried out in spirit and letter. All those who help receive double blessings. Very glad ladies intend when new clothes ordered have western fashion economic material clothes made as Burma for all unity with new western African ideals. For economic reasons old-fashioned clothes should be worn till used up by time and age when new clothes ordered new fashion should become general

Soon after the Conference, the wives of the leaders responded thereby setting an example for the rest of the community. The Ismailia Association arranged lectures by missionaries in the Jamatkhana to encourage women to adopt western dress. This particular guidance is a good illustration of the Imam's reasoning in urging change on his people. He saw that adopting western dress would make it easier for Ismailis to be identified with and assimilated into the indigenous population. Various changes were also brought about in the school curriculum. Gujrati was gradually replaced by English as the medium of instruction. It was decided to introduce French as the second language. Emphasis was also placed on the teaching of commercial subjects for boys and domestic science for girls. Changes were made also to help Ismailis obtain higher education. The Gold Grant Committee of 1937 was taken over by the Central Committee in 1946 with a fund of $. 44,860 and an annual grant of $. 13,458 from the Imam. The grant was later raised to $. 157,000. Because of limited communal resources, it was decided after the Evian Conference that bursaries would be granted for those professions only of direct benefit to the community. Further, changes in the distribution of education at a time when education became more important for material success gave rise to new interest groups. Economic power was no longer associated only with business but also with the professions. A corollary effect of increased educational opportunity was the changing role of women, which in turn had its effect on the family. Unlike other Muslim women, the Ismaili women were no longer limited to the traditional role of housewife. But the main effect of educational opportunity on the woman's changing role was to open a broader range of career possibilities. The change in the role of women, then, was more in terms of a climate of opinion which allowed them increasing latitude and independence.

Clearly, the Imam's own willingness to accept new ideas, his skill in translating them into guidance and in channeling them through the councils, while communicating with his people at large, were important forces in creating change while perpetuating continuity. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah lived at a time when vast changes were occurring, and he realized that the success of his followers depended on their capacity for accommodating to these changes while maintaining their cultural identity. The Imam also said, "Ismailism has survived because it has always been fluid. Rigidity is contrary to our whole life and outlook" (Memoirs of Aga Khan, p. 185).


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