Changing mores on religion and gender in Bangladesh

Changing mores on religion and gender in Bangladesh

In the pantheon of Islamic states, Bangladesh seems an unlikely place for a secular revolution. It is a dry country with no bars, casinos or horse races. Bangladesh is not liberal in its social mores, compared with Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey or Indonesia. And secular principles are far from being consistently upheld: Madrasas receive state funding, while citizens are often hounded for perceived slights to Islam.

Yet, since its landslide election in 2008, the ruling Awami League party has rolled back the Islamization trend of recent decades. In July, the government banned the extremist scholar Syed Abul Ala Maududi’s books. A historic Supreme Court ruling last month struck down a constitutional amendment that had paved the way for Islamist politics. And a special tribunal to try war crimes of the 1971 Liberation War began its work last month.

These trials are garnering a significant amount of public attention, as the accused are mostly leaders of Islamist political parties. The Awami League is emboldened, no doubt, by its resounding majority—its alliance controls 264 out of the 300-seat parliament. Its leaders sense a historic opportunity to redress the past. In the late 1990s, the Awami League adopted an arguably more moderate course, but this leniency was violently repaid when an alliance of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami won power, when repeated terroristic attacks killed top Awami League leaders. This, combined with the desire to see justice done, has shaped the party’s determined mood.

Cynics argue that the trials are politically motivated. The principal target, Jamaat-e-Islami, is a crucial ally of the main opposition BNP. Yet, any perceived benefits to the Awami League are not as straightforward as they may seem. Driving Jamaat underground might make it more dangerous, and any votes lost by Jamaat due to the trials will accrue to the BNP, not to the Awami League. Indeed, it might have been safer for the Awami League to ignore the historical injustices. With the advent of the trials, many are now anxious of violent extremist reprisals. Yet, repeated opinion polls indicate overwhelming public support for the trials.

Aside from the political jousting, the widespread public support for all the secularizing measures is worth closer scrutiny. Bangladesh’s Sufi Islamic roots clearly play a big role. Religious practice in this delta consisted of practices woven gently into the existing cultural fabric, not harshly imposed from outside. While the Islamism that has swept the region in recent decades has left a mark—from greater numbers of madrasas to the prevalence of burqas worn by women —it did not uproot a deeper cultural antipathy to extremism.

Yet this is also a society where the high court dared to declare fatwas illegal and ruled last week that no woman can be forced to wear burqas at work or school; a society where the secular holidays such as the Bengali New Year and Valentine’s Day—both irritating to the fundamentalists—are celebrated by millions of youth. Even in its heyday, Jamaat never garnered more than 10% of the popular vote.

Why? Credit women’s empowerment, which provides not only a sign of societal progress, but also remains its most salient cause. The prime minister and the opposition leader are both women. The foreign affairs, home and agricultural ministries are all run by women. Women hold top jobs in government, banks and business, and are especially prominent in legal, medical and social industries. They excel in art, culture and sport. They serve in the armed forces and fly planes for the national airlines. In the lower socio-economic spheres, women work in agriculture, microfinance and the garment industry. Tens of millions of women are economic decision-makers.

Of course, the struggle for gender rights and equity still has a long way to go. But the attempt to achieve these worthy goals, led mainly by non-governmental organizations, has also increased social resiliency against religious fanaticism. In fact, it’s not a stretch to argue that the government’s actions to stem Islamism could never have been imagined without society’s secular backdrop.

The foreign community could reinforce these positive trends by supporting the war crimes tribunal. Important in its own right, the success of the trials is crucial to the secularization process as well. Trade and development partners also need to review their economic policies. The US, for example, could reduce its punitive tariffs on Bangladeshi garments, providing an immediate boost to the economy.

Just as importantly, it’s key to recognize that Bangladesh has come further on its own in the struggle to stay secular than many Muslim countries —even those with greater foreign aid or intervention. Which just goes to show that Bangladeshis can do much to build themselves a better future. Is there a more positive example for the Islamic world?


K Anis Ahmed is vice-president of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

Comments are welcome at