Symbolic boundaries and veil in Bengali Muslim families – gender and society

Symbolic boundaries and veil in Bengali Muslim families - gender and society
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By Md. A Sabur

After rapid changes due to economic growth, women in Bangladesh quickly began participating in secular education and paid employment. At the same time, Islamic practices and gender conservatism have increased among women. I turn to this paradox: ‘more modern’ and ‘more religious’ in modern Bangladeshi society. My study focuses on the meaning of the veil of Bengali Muslim migrant families in rural Bangladesh. These women experience a higher class based on remittances from migrant workers ’family members.

Conclusions from my recent article Gender and society focus on transnational families whose husbands work abroad and wives take care of families in a Bangladeshi village. I show that coverage is not only a religious motive, but also helps to cultivate social boundaries that distract these women, who aspire to or already belong to the middle class, from working or poor women. They hide their sex under cover, as this also identifies them as the middle class, giving them privileges, status and prestige in rural Bangladesh.

My research team and I interviewed 57 couples of Muslim migrants (114 interviews). We also conducted ethnographic surveys in Bangladesh, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and South Korea. 43 of the 57 wives living in these migrant couples cover with cloaks in public spaces, including a burqa, abaya, khimara, scarf and chador. Only two Muslim couples disagreed that women should cover a veil and not practice covering. Twelve couples mention that although wives do not currently practice covering with a veil, they may in the future. All the remaining 43 couples (86 respondents) report that coverage was practiced and had a long discussion during the interview as to why.

Although the veil is generally interpreted as an expression of religiosity by gender, my research delves into the day-to-day use of the veil in Muslim families. We have learned that women in middle-class families wear veils to protect the honor of their birth and husband’s families and to confirm their middle-class status. In some cases, these families gained middle-class status through remittances from migrant men. The veil is an obvious form of consumption that affirms their newly acquired social status and distinguishes them from lower-class Muslim families. Middle-class Muslim families enable and encourage cover-ups to signal their upward mobility.

Middle-class Muslims choose different veils when and where they wear them. Their husbands also send or bring them expensive veils from abroad, which helps strengthen their class status and encourages them to cover up. But while the veil helps women and their families emphasize their middle-class status, new middle-class Muslims face challenges, tensions and conflicts. For example, women may face intergenerational conflicts over “proper” gender norms, and mothers-in-law worry that their wives will not wear traditional skirts and instead cover themselves.

In the age of globalization and cross-border labor migration, the development of a new middle class in many places, such as Bangladesh, has been accompanied by gender conservatism. My research shows that the curtain helps to create class inequality and social hierarchy on a daily basis due to noticeable consumption.

Md A Sabur (@SaburMdA) is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at Amherst University in Massachusetts and a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at North-South University in Dhaka, Bangladesh. His research focuses on international labor migration, remittances, and changes in the status of women in rural Bangladesh.

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