Bangladesh belongs to what has been described as a belt of ‘classic patriarchy’footnote1 which stretches from northern Africa across the Middle East to the northern plains of the Indian sub-continent.footnote The social structures in this belt are characterized by their institutionalization of extremely restrictive codes of behaviour for women. They stand in marked contrast to the societies of south India and much of Southeast Asia whose institutions and practices permit a more egalitarian system of gender relations.footnote2 In as much as both Muslim and non-Muslim societies are encompassed within this belt, Islam is only partially implicated in their extreme forms of female subordination. What the societies have in common are the practice of rigid gender segregation, specific forms of family and kinship and a powerful ideology linking family honour to female virtue. Men are entrusted with safeguarding family honour through their control over female members; they are backed by complex social arrangements which ensure the protection—and dependence—of women.

While the dominant ideology governing relations between women and men in Bangladesh is Islam, it is not the same version that prevails in West Asia or even in Pakistan of which it was once part. As a social force, Islam is tempered or reinforced by the cultural context into which it is introduced. Bangladesh’s location has made it resistant to the ‘divine, theocratic, centralist and establishment-based’ version of Islam, linked to Arabic learning and oriented to the Middle East, practised for instance in Pakistan.footnote3 In terms of its cultural location, it lies on the far eastern frontier of classic patriarchy, at its point of transition to the more ‘feminine’ cultures of Burma and the rest of Southeast Asia. Indeed, there is some evidence that the original cultivators of the Bengal delta came from Southeast Asia and introduced their own belief systems into the region. The country’s geographical location on the periphery of the Indian subcontinent, its complex network of rivers and massive annual flooding, meant that it remained isolated for several centuries from north Indian peasant culture. The great religions of India—Brahminical Hinduism, with its caste stratification, and Islam—reached Bengal later than the rest of northern India. Each was imposed in turn on a pre-existing folk culture whose beliefs and customs can still be detected beneath the edifices constructed by formal religions. Beliefs about the land and the seasons, about pollution, sexuality and childbirth, about kinship and fate, about ghosts, demons and holy men are shared by Muslim and Hindu peasant alike and are essentially Bengali beliefs, the ‘little tradition’. In addition, other aspects of culture—songs, art, literature, cinema, language, apparel, and diet—also transcend political and religious boundaries with Hindu West Bengal.

As a result, there are ingrained tensions between what is considered Bengali about the Bangladeshi identity and what is considered Islamic. Many aspects of the indigenous culture were regarded as products of Hindu influence by Pakistan’s ruling Muslim fraternity and underlay its deep fear and resistance to the prospect of Bengali rule in 1971. Despite the efforts of the country’s military regime, tensions in the national identity continue to impede mobilization of popular grassroots support for the kind of Islamic fundamentalism that characterizes state policy towards women in Pakistan today. In any attempt to analyse women’s subordination in Bangladesh, therefore, it is not sufficient to point to the ideology and practices of Islam. The fact that many of the structures of subordination pre-date Islam and are shared with Hindu northern India suggest that these latter must also be brought into the analysis.

The following account of the situation of women in Bangladesh is divided into three parts. The introductory section provides a historical background, touching briefly on the social implications of the development processes instituted in the country at different stages of its recent history. The second section analyses the structures of women’s oppression in Bangladesh. The final section examines attempts that have been and are being made to transform the situation of Bangladeshi women.

In 1947, two hundred years of British rule in the Indian subcontinent came to an end when India was granted independence. At the same time, a homeland was created for the Muslims of India by carving a new nation out of the eastern (East Bengal) and north-western (Sind, Baluchistan, Northwest Frontier Province and West Punjab) extremities of the country. They became respectively known as East and West Pakistan. (Throughout this article, Pakistan refers to what was previously known as West Pakistan; Bangladesh or East Bengal refers to what was previously known as East Pakistan.) The rationale for the new state of Pakistan was essentially theological; Islam was the sole principle of nationhood unifying two widely disparate units, separated not only by a thousand miles of hostile Indian territory, but by sharp cultural and linguistic differences.