Women and religion in Bangladesh: new paths

About the author
Firdous Azim is professor in the department of English and the humanities at BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh

In south Asia as elsewhere in the world, religion has come to play an increasing role in shaping and reshaping women's lives. This process is a particular challenge to people like myself, a feminist who "grew up" intellectually and politically via involvement in the women's movement of the 1980s in Bangladesh. The activism of that period was explicitly secular; its main priorities were the issues of rights, inequalities and violence prevalent in a young state which had achieved independence only in 1971.

Firdous Azim is professor in the department of English and the humanities at BRAC University, Dhaka, BangladeshAt that time, the idea of religion - specifically, in Bangladesh, Islam - as a site in which women might find or exercise "empowerment" was unthinkable to us. A generation later, however, the whole area of religion - the application of its foundational beliefs, its public presence, its social and cultural practices - has acquired different meanings. The new ways that women are engaging with these aspects of religion form the basis of a research project I and my colleagues are conducting, as part of the international "pathways to women's empowerment" initiative. This article describes how the focus of our work is evolving to take account of the growing influence of religion in women's lives.

A generation's journey

Also in openDemocracy:

Andrea Cornwall, "Pathways to women's empowerment" (27 July 2007)

Srilatha Batliwala, "Putting power back into empowerment" (27 July 2007)

Mulki Al-Sharmani, "Egypt's family courts: route to empowerment?" (7 September 2007)

Cecilia Sardenberg, "The right to abortion: briefing from Brazil" (26 October 2007)

These articles are part of a collaboration between openDemocracy and the research consortium Pathways of Women's Empowerment, project of the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.

This explores ideas, projects and initiatives from around the world - Brazil to Egypt, Sierra Leone to Bangladesh - which aims to understand what enables women to empower themselves and sustain changes in gendered power relations
Many women from secular or only mildly religious backgrounds have - in Bangladesh as elsewhere - viewed Islam very often as a regressive force. Today, however, such views are challenged by the undoubted influence of modernising tendencies in Islam. The projection of a new, public face via numerous television channels dedicated to Islam is but one example. This face is often more militant, assertive, and dominating than in earlier generations; but this too is where its modernity lies.

The impact of such trends on women is striking. In the women's movement of the 1980s, religion was seen as a personal issue: a private segment of a traditional way of life, and nothing to do with the "movement". In many ways, the modernising currents of Islam create the potential for women to move into the emerging public space - but within an Islamic framework. The result is a connection between the private and the public that did not exist before.

When we sought to develop a women's movement in the 1980s, our main themes were grounded in a certain idea of the "woman" our efforts were dedicated to nurturing: she was the citizen of a newly independent country, where the tools of citizenship could be used to establish her identity, her rights, her social and political position. That kind of women's movement had a real and important effect in many countries, Bangladesh included; when it was combined with the energies of NGOs and development agencies - especially those focused on women's empowerment (and specifically women's economic emancipation) - the results were dynamic. Together, the partnership between local, national and international strands coalesced into the worldwide movement of women that culminated in the Beijing conference of 1995.

Today, the architects of the 1980s movement remain feminists, but we are addressing a different set of issues - and a different "woman". After all, a generation has passed since those pioneering days. The questions of citizenship, rights, identity and social and political place with which we began have either been transformed or are understood very differently from twenty or thirty years ago. The women who set out on this journey have also changed along the way.

A matter of practice

In light of these considerations, and in seeking to identify the influences on the "new" women around us, our research team felt that religion - particularly Islam - needed to be understood through a fresh set of lenses. In making this choice, however, we were torn between two ways that religion "works". The first is in relation to the wider cultural sphere: how religion addresses women, gives women certain rights, separates women along communal lines (which lends force to the great effort of the women's movement in breaking down these religious dividing-lines and talking about women as citizens). The second is in relation to women's own experience: how they are taking on religious roles for themselves, such as starting classes to study the Qur'an (which suggests the need for researchers to be more actively involved in studying women's religious practice).

The choice of the second path has led us in our research to try to understand religion as everyday, active experience - something that women live and engage with, rather than as doctrine or politics. In Bangladesh, after all, religion is not doctrinal or dogmatic. When Islam entered this region, no one could read Arabic; the first preachers didn't recite the Qur'an, they took up the stories, the myths, and the religious beliefs that were already here and mixed them up with the stories of Islam to preach a religion and an ideology of equality in and liberation from a caste-divided society.

Also in openDemocracy about women in Bangladesh:

Naila Kabeer, "The cost of good intentions: 'solidarity' in Bangladesh" (23 June 2004)

Farida Khan, "Getting real about globalisation in Bangladesh" (14 April 2004)

Santi Rozario, "The dark side of micro-credit" (10 December 2007)

In the focus-group discussions that have resulted from this approach, we have talked about women's identification as Muslims, but we have also brought in other issues such as attitudes towards sex and marriage, and then looked at how religion influences our ideas and behaviour. We have yet to do a systematic analysis of the findings from this research, but initial anecdotal evidence suggests that women negotiate their relationship with religion in a very fluid, creative manner. Islam is often used in a practical way, as "the religion for us and what we need to do"; when it is not needed it is ignored, and other factors are allowed to come into play. Islam, however, does play a crucial role in the way women negotiate their personal lives and as such is of both strategic and real importance in their lives.

The heart of change

This research is urban-based, as we're looking at young urban women to provide us with a picture of change and transformation. The activity and public role of these women are key: they are working women and young students who embody and illuminate issues of sexuality, marriage and paid employment (rather than motherhood, children and housework). The challenge for us is to "read" these discussions in a way that brings out the empowering factors in young women's testimonies, to look at how they are reframing the cultural contours that surround them.

These women's negotiation of the new spaces that religion has created can be empowering, but the nature of these spaces remains defined by patriarchy. This element is not being contested or denied; rather, what women seem to be doing is negotiating for greater rights within patriarchal structures.

The research group's focus on urban women has a particular relevance in today's Bangladesh. This is a country where ideas of women's empowerment have almost always been seen in relation to rural women. But there is increasing movement from rural to urban areas, and this is just one aspect of a society where migration is becoming the defining principle. In this increasingly dynamic and fluid society, the most fertile spaces are urban slums - which are often, quite literally, here today and gone tomorrow. A generation of women has grown up and then moved out of them, to be replaced by new arrivals. These energetic, mobile, and unsettled spaces are also the environment where where new female identities - including those which use religion in creative and practical ways - are being formed.