Rural Women in Bangladesh : The Legal Status of Women and the Relationship between NGOs and Religious Groups

University dissertation from History of Religions, Lund University

Abstract: Bangladesh is one of the largest Muslim countries in the world. In spite of political turmoil, frequent natural disasters and widespread corruption it has, in less than four decades after its birth as an independent state, gained visible success in human development - especially the education of women and girls, family planning and health, and microcredit to the poor. As a Muslim country it has strong patriarchal social norms and cultural legacies that are predominantly derived from Hinduism. In general, most of the population is religious and devoted to a life of piety. On the one hand, the lives of women are affected by the prevailing patriarchy, religious practices, social and cultural norms. On the other hand, women are also influenced by the conscious interventions of the government, NGOs and microcredit institutions. In recent decades, the status of women has changed drastically from limited movement inside the four walls of the home to a dominant presence in the labour-market, small businesses, careers in media and private sectors, participation in local as well as national politics, and a greater role in household decisionmaking. The country has a long tradition of Sufi orders which hold reasonably sympathetic outlooks towards women. However, in recent years, Bangladesh has been deeply influenced by Deobandi-cum-Wahhabi Islam with Salafi ideology. This ideology has been propagated through countrywide qaomi madrassahs and Jamaat-e-Islami’s devotional activities that are combined with economic, theological, and moral support from Middle Eastern societies. Since the beginning of 1990s, religious militancy, in the name of the Puriterian movement with the slogan “return to the origin”, has increased drastically. This has resulted in countrywide terrorist activities, demonstrations against development programmes by the Grameen Bank and other NGOs, misogynous activities including attacks on women and organizers involved with NGOs, and the denial of secular laws resulting in numerous attacks on public premises and holy shrines of Muslim saints. This study thus provides an analytical discussion on the status of rural women in Bangladesh focusing on the legal status, religious practices, and patriarchal social norms in a new era of economic freedom created by microcredit programmes and government policies. It also analyses the conflict and debate about women and development activities between NGOs and the Islamist groups.