A Discussion with Samia Huq, Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics and Social Science, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh
November 9, 2011
Background: This discussion from November 2011 between Samia Huq and Katherine Marshall and Michael Bodakowski took place during a WFDD/Berkley Center conference that took stock of research and policy work on development and religion and drew on Huq’s co-moderation of the January 2011 consultation (held in Dhaka, Bangladesh) on faith and development in South and Central Asia. She reflects here on gender and Islam in Bangladeshi society. She recounts how her participation in women’s Islamic discussion groups inspired her to change her thesis topic and involved her in successive research projects investigating women’s roles. Huq leads a research project looking at various forms of modern practice of religious adherence by women in Bangladesh, analyzing religious strands and changes for Bangladeshi society as well as how gender dynamics both shape and are shaped by Islam. Huq offers a comparative angle through her work with researchers from other Muslim countries. She reflects on her affiliation with BRAC, one of the largest and best-known NGOs in the world.
What path brought you to where you are today?
I came to my current research and my interest in religion by a circuitous route. I was a Ph.D. student of anthropology at Brandeis University near Boston, Massachusetts, and focused on economic anthropology. My initial research plan for my dissertation was to look at urban slums, marriage transactions, and families. In my graduate course work, I did not take a single course in religion or anything really related to it. I was about to embark on my thesis research when I moved back to Bangladesh, and that is when September 11 happened.
In this new international political context, I heard many heated debates about Islam and the Qur’an. Some of them were constructive and nuanced, and some were not well grounded in the facts, and aggressive. A lot of them were foreign, Western, on the BBC and CNN. As I watched these debates on the television, I found them very interesting. In terms of my faith, I called myself a Muslim, but at that point I did not know my faith very well, because I had been raised in a very secular environment. My grandparents were religious and very traditional; but I think my parents had come of age into a particular kind of post-colonial modernity, and I was a product of that. I knew the stories, and I knew the rituals, but I felt that substantively and also textually, I did not know much about Islam at all. That frustrated me, especially in the global political climate, where everybody seemed to know a lot, or were trying to know a lot.
So I started to read an English translation of the Qur’an on my own. I didn’t do very well because it’s a dense text to read. It’s steeped in history, and I had forgotten a lot of the history. There were too many footnotes for me to really sit down and give the time and dedication it needed. So I gave up, while remaining intellectually dissatisfied with my own level of understanding vis-à-vis the religion to which I belonged.
A few months later a friend invited me to tea and as we were chatting I asked her offhandedly why she happened to have chosen that day to have tea and not the next. She answered, “Tomorrow I go to a Qur’an class.” She invited me to come to this class, which was taught by a woman. My only previous frame of reference of this kind of event was the religious lessons I had taken as a small child, which consisted of reading and writing in Arabic. As children, it was not a very pleasurable exercise. It was something that our parents felt we had to do, but to us, as children, it made little sense. In this adult class, my friend said, we go through the Qur’an in English, and the teacher explains what the text means. Given my experience that led to failed attempts at reading and understanding the meaning of the Qur'an, I was rather interested and decided to go.
How did you find the classes?
The teacher had been offering classes in Urdu for primarily middle to upper class, fairly conservative, women. She felt, however, that Dhaka was ready for an English class; since the teacher was from Pakistan, she couldn’t offer a class in Bengali. I went to my first class on a Saturday afternoon; there were five of us, and I actually quite liked it. It felt as if I was in college again. The teacher explained the text thoroughly, including all the historical anecdotes, so I did not have to do the hard work of reading myself. I attended the class for two and a half years. We read the Qur’an cover to cover, three to four times. The class began with five of us, and grew to about eighty, all women! The class really acquired a life of its own. It made a huge splash! In certain social circles, it became the talk of the town. The women in the class, who came from a particular socioeconomic category, found themselves making huge changes in their lives; I enjoyed seeing and thinking about how and why these changes were taking place.
I realized about a year and a half into the classes that there were certain things that I did not particularly agree with. I started to be critical, and I found that there wasn’t much space for a critical approach and for different opinions, and different ways of coming to faith. So I started to branch off on my own, to read on my own, and that’s when I came upon the texts of Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas, women scholars of Islam who are reinterpreting texts in a feminist spirit.
I went on to have children and to prepare for my initial dissertation fieldwork on urban slums and marriage transactions. It was in September 2007 that I came across the DfID (UK) funded research program, “Pathways to Women’s Empowerment,” based at the University of Sussex. As a part of this research program the team at BRAC University, wanted to look at how young women think of the role of religion in their everyday lives, and whether they think they are dealing with anything new when they engage with religious ideals and concepts. I became involved and started putting together a reading list for those of us who were going to be involved with the project. At this point I asked myself what I was doing tying myself to a thesis on urban studies and marriage transactions? While that had made sense for me five years ago, my interests had changed drastically since then. That is how my Ph.D. topic took form.
How did you go about your research?
I decided to revisit the discussion circles, the ones that I had attended myself, along with a few new ones, which became the topic of my Ph.D. thesis, Islamic Discussion Circles in Urban Bangladesh: Enacting, Negotiating, and Contesting Piety.
For my research, I focused on three sites, and drew heavily from my two and a half year personal involvement. I had never thought of it as participant observation at the time, but I was heavily involved and I knew things that I think might be difficult for even a highly skilled researcher to know. We did the research for “Pathways to Women’s Empowerment,” (alongside my doctoral work), and one year into the Pathways program, the Bangladesh Development Institute (BDI), at BRAC University, formally opened its doors and the program formally came under the umbrella of BDI. I worked for the two (the project and BDI), alongside my Ph.D. work.
Could you give us a brief overview of BRAC and BDI?
BRAC is an NGO—the name is an acronym for Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee—that started in 1972. Its most successful programs have been in education, but their programs cover a wide range of sectors, such as health, their urban program and of course microfinance. BRAC University started in 2001. One of BRAC’s aims of starting a university was to critically and analytically take stock of the huge amounts of development work that has taken place in Bangladesh in the past four decades, including the work of BRAC. The University is thus a place where we think nationally and globally about different arenas of development, constantly bringing to bear upon this thinking the experiences from Bangladesh in conjunction with important global players. BDI is a key institute within the university that carries forward this thinking by way of research and critical analysis, using BRAC as a laboratory to review existing development models and possibly test out new ones.
How specifically have the issues of faith and religion influenced your work?
The influence has definitely been there, since, to begin with, I discovered the world of taleem (religious discussion circles) for my own learning. I find, of course, that there are aspects of the religious discourse that are constricting and that religion is often deployed to regurgitate the same without successfully getting to the roots of power and oppression. But there are also very constricting aspects of the secular discourse that makes it very difficult to practically and analytically distinguish between different religious voices and subsequently create a space for dialogue. I do not believe that this is a very productive place to be. What has happened politically in many of the post-colonial contexts (definitely in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) is that you have a very hardcore post-colonial secular modern mindset, and then you have the traditional religious perspectives. As the religious groups try to claim modernity, that is where there seems to be a real problem; not just at the level of power struggle, but also at the level of real policies and development issues.
For example, take the case of the National Women’s Development Policy in Bangladesh, the government’s policy to work towards equal rights for women in “all spheres of life.” Who has actually been involved in the discussion, and who has sat together at the same table to discuss the issues? That is something of huge importance. Are we going into the policy with substantial research? Have we engaged the appropriate people who have looked at the issues? Have we looked at it ourselves? Have we tried to have a conversation through which we articulate and back up changes that are always sensitive and even subject to Islamist attacks? While we must never pander to regressive forces, there are other voices that can be a part of the process and help articulate policy changes. This conversation should ideally be one where different groups are open to hearing and learning from each others’ perspectives and then arriving at some consensus. This will not be a “fault” free process, but it is worth an attempt. Such attempts, I believe, will be beneficial to our extremely politicized and polarized political and cultural terrain.
What are the real flashpoint issues around your work?
The real flashpoints are interconnected and therefore require careful attention and reflection. If the question is around women’s rights, then we have to address different layers that go right down to women’s position and status within the family and in marriage. At the root of raising women’s status, is reform around women’s property rights. We need to look at and rethink cultural notions of what constitutes transferrable property and what doesn’t? Education is of course important, and it is key to bringing about change; a positive note is that today (actually for the past 25 to 30 years), the majority of university students are women. I believe that the secular NGOs have played a big role in promoting girls’ education. The BRAC schools are a bright example of how changes can be brought about for girls through literacy.
What kinds of issues have people not thought about sufficiently? What topics need more careful debate?
Well, people have not sufficiently thought about what it means to give women property rights, and whether introducing new policies and laws will really bring about the desired results. This question goes out to both he secular and the religious blocks. To the religious block, I would ask, “What does complementarity of roles mean for you?” To begin a mutual dialogue, the religious blocks need to articulate these answers themselves, and to point out some of the stumbling blocks they see within their discourse. This would be a sensitive conversation—and would need to happen thoughtfully and carefully. They (the religious groups) have been hearing for the longest time that they are traditional, that they are passive, and that they are aggressive. If we go to them in a very militant way to drive home a message, it is not going to work, constructive dialogue will not happen. That’s human nature—people’s defenses will be up. Somebody has to talk to them very nicely and convincingly, and know how to speak their language. I do not think the secular civil society has the language for that yet. That’s one layer of the problem.
Are the issues that arise for women and religion primarily relevant for the poor?
In theory, religious discourse asserts that their message aims to liberate all. But the way in which some religious voices talk about complementarity leaves many questions unanswered. Many of the prominent voices are those of well-off, educated women. Their message on women’s rights seems to work for their lot, but I feel that they don’t think hard enough about the applicability of their message to the poorer women around them. I was there when the National Women’s Development Policy was declared and a whole series of clashes took place. There are very well off women—lawyers and doctors—who are saying, “No, we don’t believe in that kind of policy, that’s a Western policy, and it doesn’t work for us—why would I get as much as my brother would? My brother has to pay for his family, and I don’t. My husband has to pay for me.” Those women probably have a good standing in their homes, amongst the male members of the family. So, they would never concede to the fact that they do not believe they are equal, because they employ a very different definition. They have a very different understanding of equal rights.
It is important to sit with them and discuss the issues. I started to do just that, talking about issues around the messages of gender complementarity—it’s one thing to say that in an ideal world, everyone must love and respect each other and that through love and mutual respect, people will give each other their rights. But in reality it doesn’t pan out that way. We found ourselves quickly speaking about mechanisms that would serve as a safety net when a woman falls through the cracks, and when their rights are denied. As the conversation progressed, they started to see what I was saying, and came to see and recognize that the present system is not always fair; they asked me to come back and talk to them more. They acknowledged that they needed to think about the challenges they faced. We also need to take a hard look at why we have in many cases, made so little progress. I told the women that I may not have any grand ideas myself, but that only through conversation can we arrive at possible solutions.
What kind of progress do you mean exactly—intellectually, or practically?
Both. Religious women claim that a religious discourse can be empowering, that it can make women aware of their own rights, and teach them how to assert those rights in a more nuanced way that does not rock the boat completely. We need to understand this process. An entry point could be looking more closely at negotiations that inevitably take place within families on gender/power relations and the forms they take. Are pro-women negotiations aided by women’s networks? What is it about these networks: the language employed in talking about rights, the incentives offered, etc that lead to greater awareness and capacity to assert oneself? At a practical level, if we are able to create a space that acknowledges this process at home, then that may lead to greater intellectual engagement. We could then begin to ask and assess what the discourse says. What does it deliver and what are some of the practical fallouts? What can we do to expand the discourse to accommodate those fallouts?
This could be one model to deal with the religious block. Then, we need a similar exercise to find better ways to talk to the secular block.
How do you define the secular block? Are they modernists, or feminists?
The secular block definitely consists of modernists, and many also are or would like to see themselves as feminists. There is a vibrant feminist movement including several organizations, some very large. The largest one is actually affiliated with the Awami League; it is seen as the Awami League’s women’s wing. They are viewed as very Bengali, and as a very secular group. They have very problematic relationships with the Jamaat-e-Islami, so there are political contentions as well, which further complicate efforts to bridge the religious-secular binary.
One possibility is to bring these issues into a civil society conversation that might help to take some of the political spikes off, and make it a little more neutral. Trying to get beyond the religion versus secular impasse through a civil society engagement, would allow, at least one hopes, greater dialogue, conversations and even an airing out that the wider public can hear and possibly even contribute towards. We can focus on people from civil society who are identified as politically more tame, who could talk about the issues and engage in a fruitful manner. That type of engagement is currently missing.
Those in this secular block, would many of them call themselves Muslim?
Yes they would, but only at home. It is a very private matter to them. I think that these attitudes are the result of a particular kind of activism, training, and socialization, including their friends, their family, where they have studied, and the kinds of movements they were involved in during their youth. For example, the Liberation War movement was a very secular movement, and it fought against a hegemonic construction and political use of Islam by the West Pakistani authorities. Many people were involved with Communist party politics that was not very pro-religion. They saw the nationalist struggle and the subsequent project of nation building as being a predominantly secular struggle. Religion was considered to be something that had long since been dealt with, and that modernity at large had dealt with. So why is the question of religion back again? Why would it be anywhere but inside the home, if anywhere at all?
How does the secular block view those that regularly attend madrasas and mosques?
Well, madrasa students are mostly poor and from outside the cities. So, they are very much seen as the masses with the more conservative agenda, and often with inadequate training to face the modern world. In the recent past, and especially in relation to regional and global events, madrasas have also been viewed as training grounds for militancy. However, this is something that needs to be further investigated and better substantiated. This aside, secular folk feel that people who “rely” on religion do so because it offers them a kind of therapy. My estimate is that most hard core secularists feel that such “services” of religion can equally be found elsewhere, and thus, religion offers some sort of a “false consciousness.” The old (Marxian) view of modernity thus remains very much alive in the secular quarters. They feel that their education and their socialization have them at a level where they feel better able to negotiate social constraints. Thus, they do not need the “salvific” services of religion: whether they come through mosques, madrasas, or taleem (religious discussion circles).
The fastest growing group in the United States in terms of religion is termed SBNR: spiritual but not religious—people who are questing spiritually but resist either labels or belonging to a specific community. Is there a similar trend at work in Bangladesh?
There are some parallels, above all in the way in which women are redefining the way they see religion and its significance for them. I presented my findings in Cairo for a Pathways meeting recently, and highlighted how some women have demonstrated a liking for a new kind of religion, one that wasn’t about visiting the shrines or going back to Sufi saints and drinking holy water. This “new religion” was actually about seeing Islam on TV. It was about reading texts for yourself. This was not an option available to women thirty years ago when they could not read, when they did not get out of the house much, and when their only networks were their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts.
This new religion takes different forms. In rural areas, to go to the neighboring village and to meet with other women (in the context of discussions about Islam) is empowering. To talk about religion gives these women a legitimacy that actually enables them to leave the house. It is an outing and they made friends, even amongst the middle classes. In addition to religion, the women talk about problematic marriages, in-laws, and their children; there is a lot of support that is happening. It is also a very safe environment, because the gatherings are often in a religious teacher’s house.
Women’s engagement with this new kind of religion, has a very modern dimension. Religious engagement for these women is not necessarily about recoiling at home, but about living in the “modern” world linked to a particular kind of inner questioning and inner change for self-reflection. The very secular feminist intellectuals present there from different countries were very upset to hear me present the issues in this manner. The Egyptians overall were highly divided on this question. There were seventy of us, all women, from eight countries, with two people from DfID monitoring the event, and the whole room became somewhat tense with opposing ideas. At one point, I felt the room would crumble in the tension.
Crumble in what way exactly?
The brittleness of the tensions came as a reaction to my suggestion and challenge that religion can actually present itself in a positive way, and moreover, that it may offer a way to address to women’s wellbeing and empowerment. Do those who stand for women’s empowerment want to factor religion into the equation? What would the parameters of that be? Would the parameters be different from what we thought of as acceptable religious parameters in the 1960s and 1970s? Does our present time call for a redefining, both conceptually and analytically, and then do we take that conceptual framework to the field? I do not think people wanted to budge from their old conceptualizations.
Some in the audience were quiet, but the dominant ones were almost aggressive. Finally, one person from Egypt got up and said, “I think first we need to address our own discomfort with religion. I think we need to do that before we say religion is this, or religious engagement must lead to that.” One of the things that came up in the conversation, even from these various secular feminists, was that spirituality is fine but religion is not.
How far do you believe such exchanges are affected by the post-9/11 context?
I believe that there is a definite correlation. Putting religious identity on the table has been subject to and shaped by different kinds of historical moments such as anti-colonial struggles and nationalist movements. At the current moment, the events following from 9/11, especially the “war on terror” has led to different kinds of, often contradictory, reactions. One has been xenophobia and at the same time, a need to understand the “Muslim world” better. In both these registers, critics argue that a Muslim identity is privileged. Many Muslims, on the other hand, have reacted violently, while others have engaged productively in order to redeem their faith as well as build greater bridges. Thus, when it is argued that religious resurgence may offer something positive, critics see it as playing into the hands of western powers, for whom, privileging the Muslimness of the “Muslim World” has been a pretext for different kinds of interventions. Many at home feel that we must therefore not put religion back on the table, and look at and stress on the other registers through which Muslim populations lead their lives. In the development world, critics argue that donors’ need to understand Muslim populations so that their funded projects become more effective, is actually just another kind of imperialist agenda. Talking about what is good about religion, then becomes subject to critiques of all of these issues.
Which donors specifically did they mean?
Like I said, the donors that like to frame all Muslim societies as “the Islamic world,” when we are so much more and so many other things as well. The participants meant that by discussing women’s religious activities, we were reinforcing and re-inscribing that “Islamic” identity, one with which they were uncomfortable.
We responded that we are fully aware of the many problems of calling the Muslim World the Muslim World. And we are also aware of the interconnections between western programs and “home-grown problems.” However, our argument was that if people themselves are privileging their Islamic identity, it is important to listen to how they frame it, construct it, and use it in their “modern” lives. To say that people have become pawns of a western, imperialist agenda will do very little for a real understanding of how people’s lives are affected and changed. But there were some people who did not want to hear what we were trying to say and would give it that kind of confrontational tenor. They suggested that the donors want to see evidence of an essentialist view of Muslims and the places they inhabit and then, to carry these obviously distorted arguments further. Critics argue that the logical next step of such an argument would be to have oppressive interventions leading to domination in these countries. Research, relief, rehabilitation, and aid would be a part of that project. Overall, there was a lot of suspicion.
Were they looking for more of a mainstream dialogue on gender?
I think that they wanted us to see and talk about the things that are not so rosy about women engaging with an Islamic identity, that is, to be a little more critical. It is fine to be critical, but I think that the criticism also calls for a new kind of language.
At a meeting not long ago with BRAC’s founder, Fazle Hasan Abed, he responded to a question I posed, “How do you deal with religion?” with the response, “as little as possible, but within the Bangladesh context we have to; the religious schools have to include a religious element because that’s the policy.” Is the unease you meet similar in any fashion?
BRAC’s stance on dealing with religion “as little as possible” probably stems from the fact that BRAC schools have been the target of Islamists in collision in the past with local mullahs. So, there is a real history and experience, where Islamic voices have acted as obstacles in the way of BRAC’s development work. Perhaps, that is why Sir F.H. Abed feels that it is better to continue with BRAC’s work by keeping the question of religion out altogether. However, we at BRAC University have been doing our research and analytical thinking, and have not met any resistance. In fact, investigating and understanding cultural, political phenomena through mapping the terrain, charting the terrain, understanding the discourse, understanding the language, and understanding the modes of mediations are worthy areas of exploration for an academic institution such as BRAC University. Such an understanding would also complement development initiatives as well as help us think and rethink our own national politics and constructions of secularism.
BRAC’s overall aim is much more mainstream development focused—healthcare, service delivery, and things like that. However, understanding the role of religion in the public space, formations of identity, etc are all very important and complementary aspects of the development process. In that, I believe, there is synergy.
Where does the project you described to address religion stand now?
The project of further understanding and talking about religion in the public space, identities and secularism is on-going. I have been carrying on the work, both formally as well as informally, for my own intellectual ruminations. I talk to people in different places and contexts, especially in times of crisis, as much as my time and resources allow me. The Pathways project is finished, and we are in the process of consolidating new research programs. I would like to create a research and communication platform from where we can actually talk about and articulate these kinds of nuanced perspectives from the ground.
I am also involved in a separate research project: a book project. We are looking at the development of the Bangladeshi Muslim woman historically. If you type as a search query, “South Asian Muslims,” you will get North Indian Muslims. If you type in “Bengali woman,” you will get the Bengali Hindu woman. That is what most of the research will tell you. That is what Barbara Metcalf, Gail Minault, and the work by other experts focuses on. It was frustrating that so little information was available on Bangladesh and that it had obvious gaps.
We devised the project in two phases. In the first part (1900 to 1947 and partition), we look at women’s writing—who was writing, what was the content of the writing, who were they writing for, and who was the audience? Who was the “other” they were positioning themselves against? From 1947 onwards, we look at women who were performing and singing. This is one way that a Bengali modernity was formed—women who sang Tagore songs (Tagore being a Bengali icon). Women danced, and all sorts of cultural institutions were developing. So what was happening to these women? How were they negotiating constraints, religious or otherwise, at the time? How was the nation forming? What kinds of discourses on Islam were being written on the nation? What kinds of political negotiations took place and in which discourses were privileged, and which were not?
We are trying to recoup the discourses that may have gotten lost somewhere along the line. We are reading personal memoirs of politicians, and looking at meeting notes and minutes of important meetings to reconstruct a missing history.
Is this program DfID-funded as well?
Yes, this was DfID-funded, but the funding is now over. However, we are continuing with whatever is left of the research and writing on our own.
Over the course of the project, were you able to move into the sensitive issues of violence against women and the religious establishment’s hostility towards “modern” women?
Yes, we tried. In fact, that is a central point I make when talking to women—to encourage them all to push the envelope and expand their framework beyond the picturesque idea of religion that corresponds to only certain settings. The moment a religious discourse is taken outside of the home of the devout and into society, one is often left only with rhetoric. I have urged women, in the course of interviews, and in follow-up discussions, to think about what to do when men just do not behave as religion asks them to. In these situations, is it adequate and even appropriate for religious precepts of complementarity of roles and respect for gender norms as sanctioned by particular readings of religion, to be applicable to women?
To move to a practical level, however, what can be done?
I believe that the first thing to do is to start talking about these issues through a critical but also an honest assessment of the religious establishment, the discourse around religion, along with the anxiety secularists feel about it. My research has shown that women are struggling to see the way forward with integrity and to open up more options and possibilities for themselves. I don’t know if the men are struggling as much. After the January, 2011 Dhaka Conference, a well-known Muslim preacher came up to me, and he said, “You know you’re right, women might be able to lead mixed congregations, but don’t say that anywhere else. Right now we’re in this nice hotel with Americans, it’s safe, but don’t go out and say this.” It was interesting to me that as a man, he is aware of the literature and traditions that open these possibilities. I really think it is about engaging, talking, and forging dialogues between different stake holders—that is the most important thing we can do. Perhaps I am being very naïve, but we are making a first attempt at least to try to engage. We don’t know what will happen. If a group of 10, or even three people, start thinking differently, that’s a start, isn’t it?
Is BRAC working on violence against women in the population?
Yes, through its Human Rights and Legal Services division, it helps victims find legal help. BDI is also involved in a multi-partner research project funded by the NIH. The present belief is that one of the outcomes of development is increased violence against women. However, there are several questions. For example, has violence against women gone up or is it just reported more because women are more empowered? Do women now have the space to actually complain? Is violence genuinely up because changes have happened, and there is a gender imbalance that families are trying to cope with and come to terms with? One thing researchers and development workers are increasingly saying is that men need to be a part of the anti-violence awareness raising initiatives, and that this has to be done in a sensitive way so that men really hear and understand.
USAID takes pride in their mullah project in Bangladesh. Have you had any link with the project? What is your sense of its impact?
There is much talk about it. Some are very suspicious; some think that without really looking at the religious discourse, bringing the mullahs into a liberal framework is problematic. While the intention is to create a liberal trajectory, many are critical of whether religion can be “tamed” and “mainstreamed” in that manner. I do not know if anyone has done a proper systematic objective evaluation of the project. If you talk to the mullahs that have been a part of it, they are very happy to be involved in what has become a sort of pet project of the U.S.
All of the mullahs are men. Is there any push in Bangladesh for female Muslim leaders (alima), as there has been in other countries?
There are no women mullahs in Bangladesh. The older women who run the discussion circles that I now know so well stay away from this topic. They see it as a competitive process in a way. Men are fine, they say—they can do their thing, while women, in more recent years, have been training themselves mostly informally to become preachers of taleem run for friends, family and other women from the neighborhood. Many of these preachers feel they make a real difference to the lives of the women that come to hear them, and so don’t really feel like they need to take on a more public role. One woman actually comes on TV, and she is quite well respected for that. But if you talk to her, she very clearly says that she doesn’t desire a seat of power, at least the kind the ulama have as “official” voices of religion. Having said that, she is very active on television and writes, so people know her as a preacher.
I see an inkling of change amongst the younger women to engage the topic. They are looking for spaces and for networks. They come to my anthropology of religion class to read Talal Asad. They are looking to expand the framework, but at present, the religious leaders are still men.
We have spoken to the wife of the Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami. She is the president of the women’s wing, and she is an active and strong woman who is firmly grounded in her opinions. Some of the younger women in the Jama’at that I have met are dynamic. They are young doctors, in their late twenties and early thirties. Some are just newly married, and some are not married yet. There are also Jama’at dissidents—women who began with Jama’at, but feel now that they want to be on a different kind of platform.
How does having a woman head of state play into the equation, or does it at all?
I am not sure how much, but it may, at least to some extent. A couple of months ago there was an e-mail circulating about the five worst countries in the world for women, and Bangladesh was not on that list, while India and Pakistan were. In many ways, I think we have done fairly well, having come from being labeled a hopeless basket case in 1971. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has defended the National Women’s Development Policy, saying that men and women will have equal rights in all spheres of life, though she did not explain in detail what that means, and how she will achieve this without going against the Quran and Hadith (that is what the government said in response to Islamist protests). This lack of explanation may be a problem. Passing the bill in parliament is an important step. We’ll have to wait and see what substantive changes are introduced and how.
What about the religious tensions? Where are they coming from?
As far as I know, no Islamist group has really opposed a female head of state or head of opposition. The largest Islamic political party, i.e., the Jama’at, have even been coalition partners in a female headed government. With regard to things like the Women’s Development Policy, Islamists, however do pose resistance. Islamist protests have also been violent in the past, with groups like the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) carrying out a reign of terror in the early 2000s. There have been several bomb attacks and explosions during cultural events like the Bengali New Year, and explosions at cinema halls. The situation was actually quite tense about five or six years ago.
What kinds of different groups are there within the ulama?
There are various distinct groups. There are political cleavages, i.e., ulamas with different political affinities who have grouped, splintered and regrouped around different issues since the 1970s. The state supports and regulates the aliya madrasas, as well as the Islamic Foundation. There are others ualamas and groups that are outside state jurisdiction. Qaumi madrasas are an important part of this piece. There are political groups such as IOJ who patronize and have followers from the vast number of youth who attend Qaumi madrasas.
How far do the tensions relate to women? How much is purity seen as women being in “their place?"
Women have historically been, and continue to be placed at the center of tensions regarding the construction of modernity, nationalism and development. There have been efforts made and changes attained by secular groups, especially the women’s groups, to accord women different positions away from their “assigned place.” Governments have been more tentative though, and more susceptive to Islamist protests. For example, if you look at the recent passing of the Women’s Development Policy, while the government passed it, they also said that they would never go against Islam. We are not sure what this means. The public is left confused. The National Women’s Development Policy seems to take the position that women are not just pure, pristine things; rather, they can work. There’s a provision in the policy that says women should be allowed to seek independence, and that nobody should harass them when they travel outside their villages, or while working in a city and living in a hostel for women. The Islamists were very upset about this. They felt that this was advocating for no marriage, or the absence of marriage. They accused the policy of meaning that women will never get married. When the government ends its pro-women mandate by saying it will never go against Islam, what Islam are they talking about? What interpretive tradition? It is true that Islamists with their protests are not the only voice of Islam, although theirs are the most vociferous. Is the government then framing its understanding based on an alternative reading, and make their argument of staying true to Islam from that? Or is it adhoc? In the absence of such clarifications, one can never be certain of how old ideas equating “women’s place” with purity are being reformulated.
Is there any son preference in the data on Bangladesh?
The data shows that a son preference leading to abortion and infanticide has decreased substantially. In the early 1980s, it was considered a problem. BDI just did a study as part of the Pathways research that shows that there is not a girl preference, but that rather there is indifference, which is the outcome of a very successful family planning program. Birth rates are down from 6.4 to 2.6 percent, which is amazing.
Having said that, if we were to have that kind of technology, ultrasounds, etc, we do not know what would happen, if rates of son preference would change. The Islamic discourse on abortion is very pro-life. Also, and more importantly, the family planning success along with accompanying awareness about the burden of large families on health and livelihoods, has changed the face of Bangladesh’s development. One hopes that a decrease in son preference which has been replaced by indifference vis-à-vis the sex of the child is here to stay.
What are some of the salient issues and takeaways that you saw coming out of the Capstone Conference in November?
Everyone kept emphasizing that they felt we have barely scratched the surface even after five years of research. As a result, I think that more of the same work is needed, to continue mapping the faith and development landscape, but to do so in greater depth, and to pick up on more themes, and maybe even have regional or global collaborations. Patrice Brodeur, who I spoke with at the conference, is interested in contemporary Muslim thought. His focus is on the Middle East and perhaps Indonesia. An exploration into what we mean by contemporary Muslim thought could be helpful.
What are some of the hermeneutical traditions that we have seen? It is so important, and people do not think about it. Within that, how do we look at not just the theological perspective, but how does the theological perspective link to issues around violence, domestic violence, marriage, transfers of wealth, governance, and law reform? In terms of framing research, there is potential to go in so many interesting ways, and all of them would be fruitful.
Coming out of the conference, I think keeping active networks will be very important, and making them concrete and useful.