Faith that fails to heal injustice

Women and Islam in Bangladesh
March 2, 2001

Like many Islamic authors, Taj Hashemi feels that in Bangladesh, as in much of the Islamic world, cultural and patriarchal systems have reinforced gender hierarchies that should have been demolished by Islamic teachings. He argues that women have been oppressed by the ways in which Islamic doctrine has been understood and implemented.

Hashemi adds that the situation has not been helped by the presence of non-governmental organisations that have failed to break down gender structures and have helped bolster class structures. Organisations such as the Grameen Bank, which has singled out women as the best creditors, may have created a "gender war" that could prove detrimental in the long run.

The cultural specificities of Islamic teachings and the myriad ways that male religious leaders have taken over the faith and misinterpreted it in different societies is well documented. In Bangladesh, cultural norms provide contours for the faith. This creates experiences that have greater communality with those of other women in South Asia rather than with rights and entitlements offered by Islam.

Hashemi notes these problems and identifies the religious institutions' "rusticity" and "backwardness" as the culprit in generating and sustaining oppressive attitudes towards women. The mullahs, ignorant men of the cloth, are characterised as a heterogeneous group with a perpetual sense of "inferiority, megalomania and incompat-ibility". They are backward because they eat communally and with their hands. Much as I sympathise with Hashemi's aim of defending the rights of women, it is difficult to agree that people who are ill-educated and/or too poor to live like westerners are necessarily "backward".

The decision of non-governmental organisations to side with the secular elements of society has resulted in a backlash against rural women, Hashemi says. He says the only effective agents of change in Bangladesh are the government, whose policies have helped women, and one local NGO that is engaged in educating women.

Feminists, including myself, are always delighted when men, particularly Muslim men, wield the pen in their defence. In this respect, Hashemi's is a welcome volume. But it has marked differences from the more mainstream work on the subject. The author has a faith in modernity and modernisation that is not always shared by academics working in the field of development studies. And this volume lacks a conception of women, even poor rural women, as being more and other than victims. Rural women can and do act to further their interests and in the continuing familial negotiations that are part of the lives of all women. Their access to credit has been a positive gain. Nevertheless, I am pleased to welcome Hashemi to the fold.

Haleh Afshar teaches politics and women's studies at the University of York.

Women and Islam in Bangladesh: Beyond Subjection and Tyranny

Author - Taj I. Hashemi
ISBN - 0 312 22219 X
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £45.00
Pages - 209

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