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Beyond the Paradox: Religion, Family and Modernity in Contemporary Bangladesh

  • SARAH C. WHITE (a1)

This paper reflects on the apparent ‘paradox’ of a contemporary Bangladesh that appears both ‘more modern’ and ‘more Islamic’, focusing on changes in the family (and the gender and generational orders that it embodies) as a central locus of anxiety and contestation. The paper begins with theory, how the paradox is framed by classical social science expectations of religious decline and how this has been contested by contemporary writers who describe specifically modern forms of piety. It then turns to Bangladesh, where highly publicized symbolic oppositions between ‘religion’ and ‘development’ contrast sharply with people's pragmatic accommodation of development goods in everyday life. Analysis of religious references in interview data reveal the co-existence of very different understandings: a more traditional view of religion as embedded in the moral order; and a more modern deliberate cultivation of a religious life. They also reveal how many of the uses which people make of religion are not specifically religious: to conjure a moral universe, to mark what is important to them, to say things about themselves. The final section returns to theory, reflecting on how this is informed by the findings from Bangladesh, and suggesting that the importance of the private and personal as a site for governance offers a further dimension of why the supposed ‘paradox’ of a religious modernity may not be so paradoxical after all.

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1 Jahanara Begum—40a Mm (see footnote 12 for key to codes regarding quotations from interviews).

2 Arthur W. and McNicholl G. 1978. ‘An analytical survey of population and development in Bangladesh’. Population and Development Review 4 (1):2380.

3 Bangladesh at a Glance. Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) 2007. (accessed 27 December 2011).

5 The 2001 Bangladesh Census figures are Muslim 89.6 per cent; Hindu 9.4 per cent; Christian 0.3 per cent; Buddhist 0.6 per cent; Others 0.15 per cent. In the 1981 Census, Muslims were 86.7 per cent, Hindus 12.1 per cent.

6 Seabrook J. (2002). Freedom Unfinished: Fundamentalism and Popular Resistance in Bangladesh Today. Zed Books; Riaz Ai. (2008). Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh. A Complex Web. London: Routledge; Datta S. (2008). ‘Islamic Militancy in Bangladesh: The Threat from Within’, South Asia: Journal of South Asia, 30 (1), pp. 145170; Karlekar H. (2005). Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan? Sage.

7 Ahmed R. (1981). The Bengal Muslims, 1871–1906: A Quest of Identify. Delhi: OUP; Maloney C., Aziz A. and Sarkar P. C. (1981). Beliefs and Fertility in Bangladesh. Bangladesh: International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research (ICDDR,B); Abecassis D. (1990). Identity, Islam and Human Development in Rural Bangladesh. Dhaka: University Press Limited; Banu UAB R. A. (1992). Islam in Bangladesh. Leiden: E. J. Brill; Uddin S. M. 2006. Constructing Bangladesh: Religion, Ethnicity, and Language in an Islamic Nation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

8 The closeness of these ties are underlined by the fact that ‘dharma’, the term derived from Sanskrit which is commonly translated as ‘religion’ in Bangladesh and northern India, is also used to describe the cultural grounding of this moral order, providing a foundational logic which structures the family along with all social institutions, including, but not limited to, those identified more particularly as ‘religious’. For more detailed discussion see a companion paper, ‘Religion, politics and the moral order in Bangladesh’, J. Devine and S. C. White, (2009) Religions and Development Working Paper 40, University of Birmingham. Discussion with Joe Devine has been of great significance in preparing this paper, and special thanks are due to him as a supportive and stimulating colleague.

9 The logic behind this selection of villages was to capture a contrast in distance from the hub of development/modernity in Bangladesh, the capital city, Dhaka. This was relevant to the larger study within which the data presented in this paper were gathered, but no clear patterns by site could be identified in the much more limited sample and focus of attention here.

10 The 2006 research was conducted under the ESRC Research Group Wellbeing in Developing Countries (WeD), University of Bath, 2002–2007. The support of the ESRC is gratefully acknowledged. The 2008 study and analysis of this data has been carried out under the Research Programme Consortium in Religion and Development led by the University of Birmingham, 2005–2010, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) for the benefit of developing countries. The views expressed are not necessarily those of DFID. The interviews were conducted by members of the WeD Bangladesh team, following profiles which I designed. Particular thanks are due to M. Hasan Ashraf, Nasrin Sultana, Suborna Camelia, Taifur Rahman, and Tahmina Ahmed.

11 The 2006 research involved 58 respondents from couples in which husband and wife were interviewed separately and 10 single elderly life histories. From the 2008 research this paper draws on one individual case history; eight focus groups and one extended case study focused on religion and family life. All the interviewees were drawn from the wider WeD sample and thus had already completed a general household questionnaire.

12 The case studies are coded as follows. The number after the initials of the name shows the district and couple number. The small letter shows sex—a for female, b for male. The next capital letter shows religion, ‘M’ for Muslim or ‘H’ for Hindu. The final letter provides a very rough economic categorization: ‘r’ for rich, ‘m’ for middle, ‘p’ for poor, based on a mix of occupational and asset status, and self-classification. The case study respondent profile is as follows: Manikganj total 33: 7 Hindu, 26 Muslim; 7 rich, 11 middle, 15 poor; Dinajpur: total 35: 4 Hindu, 29 Muslim, 2 Santal (Adivasi); 4 rich, 22 middle, 9 poor. Focus groups were organized separately by age and gender. The sample was chosen to cover a range of criteria, and not intended to be representative of the villages as a whole, either by wealth or religion.

13 Thomas S. M. (2004). The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Politics. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.

14 Huntington S. P. (1993). ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’, Foreign Affairs 72 (3): 2249, Summer.

15 Grossberg L. (1996) ‘Identity and cultural studies: is that all there is?’ In Hall Stuart and du Gay Paul (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity. London: Sage, pp. 87107, especially p. 93.

16 Said E. (1985). Orientalism. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

17 Deeb L. (2006). An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi'a Lebanon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 15.

18 Mahmood Saba. (2005). The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton University Press, p. 25.

19 Deeb, An Enchanted Modern, p. 18.

20 Engels Frederich. (2004), (1884). The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Australia: Resistance Books.

21 Edholm F., Harris O. and Young K. (1977). ‘Conceptualizing women’, Critique of Anthropology 3 (9/10):101130.

22 Mahmood (2005), The Politics of Piety. See also e.g. on Bedouin people in Egypt, Abu Lughod Lila. 1990. ‘The romance of resistance: tracing transformations of power through Bedouin women’. American Ethnologist 17 (1):4155; on Korea, Kendall L. (1996). Getting Married in Korea. Of Gender, Morality and Modernity. Berkeley/London: University of California Press; on Andalucia, Spain, Collier J. F. (1997). From Duty to Desire: Remaking families in a Spanish village. Princeton: Princeton University Press; on Lebanon, Joseph S. (ed.) (1999). Intimate Selving in Arab Families: Gender, Self and Identity. Syracuse University Press; on Nepal, Ahearn Laura M. 2001. Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; and on Kerala, Osella F. and Osella C. (2008). ‘Islamism and social reform in Kerala, South India’. Modern Asian Studies. 42 (2–3): 259281, March.

23 See for example, Fraser N. (1997) Justice Interruptus. Critical Reflections on the ‘Post-Socialist’ Condition. London: Routledge.

24 Rose N. (1989). Governing the Soul. The Shaping of the Private Self. London: Routledge.

25 Ibid, p. 208.

26 Ibid, p. 238.

27 Ibid, p. 239.

28 This resonance is not coincidental, of course: Mahmood draws heavily on Foucauldian analysis in presenting her study.

29 Haniffa F. (2008). ‘Piety as politics amongst Muslim women in contemporary Sri Lanka’. Modern Asian Studies 42 (2–3): 347375, March.

30 Giddens A. (1998). Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

31 Hall Stuart. 1996. ‘When was the “post-colonial”? Thinking at the Limit’. pp. 242260, in Chambers Iain and Curti Lidia (eds) The Post-Colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons. London: Routledge.

32 Between January 1993 and December 1996 more than 60 fatwas were recorded in Bangladesh as reported by Ain O Salish Kendro in Shehabuddin, Elora (1999). ‘Contesting the Illicit: Gender and the Politics of Fatwas in Bangladesh’. Signs, Vol. 24, No. 4, Institutions, Regulation, and Social Control (Summer), pp. 1011–1044. In a great victory for feminist organization, the highest court in Bangladesh declared all fatwas illegal in 2000, see Karim Lamia. (2004). ‘Democratizing Bangladesh: State, NGOs, and Militant Islam’. Cultural Dynamics 16 (2/3):291–31, p. 303.

33 Naher A. (2005). Gender, Religion and Development in Rural Bangladesh. University of Heidelberg: unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. For further discussion see Shehabuddin Elora. (2008). Reshaping the Holy. Democracy, Development and Muslim Women in Bangladesh. New York: Columbia University Press.

34 ‘Jiri’, in Chittagong district, South East Bangladesh, 1996–1998, with short follow-up visits in 1999 and 2001.

35 Naher, Gender, Religion and Development p. 151.

36 ‘Sir’ refers to a Grameen Bank worker.

37 Naher, Gender, Religion and Development, p. 152, my translation.

39 ‘Purdah’, literally ‘curtain’, refers to the norm of female seclusion. This cultural orientation is common to both Hindus and Muslims in northern India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, though norms for its practice have always varied. See e.g., Papanek H. and Minault G. (eds) Separate Worlds: Studies of Purdah in South Asia. Columbia, Missouri: South Asia Books'.

40 Goetz A. M. and Sen Gupta R. (1996). ‘Who takes the credit? Gender, power and loan use in rural BangladeshWorld Development 24:1: 4583.

41 A fuller discussion of how marriage and family relations are changing in Bangladesh and its implication for gender and generational relations will be presented in a companion paper drawn from the same research project (forthcoming).

42 Osman Ali—7b Mm.

43 Latefa—08a Mr.

44 Osman Ali—17b Mm.

45 Bertocci, P. 1970. Elusive Villages: Social Structure and Community Organization in Rural East Pakistan. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Michigan State University; Cain M. T. 1978. ‘The Household Life Cycle and Economic Mobility in Rural Bangladesh’. Population and Development Review, 4 (3): 421438; Aziz K. M. A. 1979. Kinship in Bangladesh. Dhaka: International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh.

46 Appadurai A. (2004) ‘The capacity to aspire: Culture and the terms of recognition’. In Rao V. and Walton M. (eds), Culture and Public Action. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 5984.

47 19a Hp.

48 014a2.

49 See also Pigg S. L. (1992) ‘Inventing Social Categories through Place: Social Representations and Development in Nepal’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 34 (3):491513.

50 12a Mm.

51 12b Mm.

52 4b Mp.

53 01a mH.

54 18a Mm.

55 See Banu, Islam in Bangladesh, pp. 58–59. As she states (p. 59), in Bangladesh this is usually expressed through the concepts of tadbir (planning) and takdir (fate). These terms are also discussed by Maloney et al., (1981). Beliefs and Fertility in Bangladesh.

56 Dhirendronath—01b Hm.

57 Maleka 011a—Mm.

58 See, for example, Inhorn M. C. (2003). Local Babies, Global Science: Gender, Religion, and In Vitro Fertilization in Egypt. London: Routledge.

59 Kamla—012a Mp.

60 08a Mr.

61 I am not sure why this might be—it could be in part that the emotion of thankfulness requires a personal object?

62 Anjumon Bewa—015a Mp.

63 Wilce J. M. Jr (1998). ‘The pragmatics of “madness”: performance analysis of a Bangladeshi woman's “aberrant” lament’. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 22:154.

64 Das Veena (2000). ‘The act of witnessing: violence, poisonous knowledge, and subjectivity’, pp. 205241, especially p. 220, in Violence and Subjectivity (eds) Das V., Kleinman A., Ramphele M., and Reynolds P.. Berkeley/Oxford: University of California Press.

65 Thus love ‘strikes’ one (maya lage) and sickness ‘happens’ to one (osukh hoyecche).

66 The Jamaat-e-Islami is the main Islamist political party in Bangladesh. Out of favour after liberation for having supported Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami party re-entered politics as an active and visible participant in 1990, forming a ruling coalition with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party after the 1991 election.

67 The Tablighi Jamaat is a worldwide pietist movement of religious revival, typically stated to have begun in 1927. At its core is the call to revival of the inner life and personal purification, which is often delivered through missionary tours undertaken by its members. For more information see Metcalf B. (1998). ‘Islam and women. The case of the tablighi Jamaat’, in Appropriating Gender: Women's Agency, the State and Politicized Religion in South Asia. (Zones of Religion) (eds) Basu Amrita and Jeffrey Patricia. London: Routledge; and Metcalf B. (2003). ‘Travellers’ Tales in the Tablighi Jamaat’. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 588, Islam: Enduring Myths and Changing Realities (July), pp. 136148.

68 ‘Amma Huzur’ is an honorific title. The quotes given here are drawn from two extended interviews which took place in her home. 50a Mm.

69 Huq Maimuna. (2008). ‘Reading the Qur'an in Bangladesh: The Politics of “Belief” Among Islamist Women’. Modern Asian Studies 42 (2–3): 457488, March, p. 46.

70 Ahmad I. (2008). ‘Cracks in the “Mightiest Fortress”: Jamaat-e-Islami's Changing Discourse on Women’. Modern Asian Studies, Volume 42, Special Double Issue 2–3, March 2008, pp. 549575.

71 The candidate was Fatimah Jinnah, sister of Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the most prominent leader of the movement for Pakistan.

72 Shehabuddin E. (2008). ‘Jamaat-i-Islami in Bangladesh: Women, Democracy and the Transformation of Islamist Politics’. Modern Asian Studies 42 (2–3):577603, March.

73 Ibid. pp. 600–601.

74 See also Haniffa (2008). ‘Piety as Politics’.

75 Farzana Haniffa, (2009), pers. comm.

76 Stoler A. L. (1996). Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham/London: Duke University Press, p. 61.

77 This is a frequently quoted hadith, one of the sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.

78 A specific custom mentioned, for example, was the making of sweets and bread on the night of Shab-e-bharat (night of freedom), which had been declared haram (forbidden) by followers of the neo-Orthodox Mohammedi sect.

79 Osella Filippo and Caroline . (2008). ‘Islamism and social reform in Kerala, South India’. Modern Asian Studies. 42 (2–3): 259281, March.

80 See e.g. Thompson E. P.. (1963). The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

81 Hobsbawm E. and Ranger T. (1983). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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