Episode 4: A Closer Look at Bangladesh
Through the Eyes of a Bengali Academic and a Supreme Court Lawyer
June 17, 2021 — Bengali academic Dr. Faraha Nawaz and Supreme Court lawyer Sara Hossain share their view on Bangladesh's potential, where they see the biggest challenges, and discuss the changing role of women in Bangladesh as part of A Closer Look, a 5-part series by the Asia Society Switzerland, the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies of the University of Zurich, and the Schweizerische Asiengesellschaft. The series sheds light on different Asian countries from the perspective of leading local voices. Season 1 covers Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Brunei, Bangladesh and Bhutan. (61 min., 10 sec.)
Our key takeaways
Bangladesh's main strengths and concerns
According to Dr. Faraha Nawaz, Bangladesh can look back on many achievements since the 1990s, for example in the fields of women empowerment, literacy and school enrollments, and its garment industry is the second most successful in the world. Among its biggest challenges are overpopulation, corruption, unemployment, a high gap between rich and poor, as well as the lurking crisis caused by climate change and the use of Bangladesh’s natural resources. Opportunities lie with the people of Bangladesh, especially the younger generations that can look back on the generations who founded the country and learn from their mistakes, as highlighted by Sara Hossain.
The biggest misconceptions about Bangladesh
People still consider Bangladeshi to be Indian, despite Bangladesh being an independent country since 1972, as pointed out by Dr. Faraha Nawaz. Moreover, many people are surprised to hear that society is very open although Bangladesh is a Muslim country. Wearing a hijab is up to the women's choice. Lastly, Bangladesh's media coverage in the west does not reflect its significance.
Current state of society and politics
The country has historically been resilient against political unrest and natural adversities. There is overwhelmingly one major language and ethnicity [Bengali], but from the 1990s onward, there was a greater recognition for minor languages, religions and ethnic groups.
Bangladesh has been going through a remarkable development since the 1990s. Millions have been pulled out of poverty, the garment industry flourished, and before the pandemic economic growth exceeded 7% for four years in a row, outpacing not just Pakistan and India, but even China. Migrant workers contributed largely to the country's economic growth. NGOs and other institutions also helped shape the space in Bangladesh and positively influenced social indicators.
The country’s political and human rights situation is complicated, with many noting that an impressive record of improved social indicators is contrasted with an erosion of democratic institutions.
Islamism and extremism in Bangladesh
Sara Hossain explained that there is a political accommodation of extremist groups by the government, and extremism is being more and more incorporated into the state functioning and its political fabric. Even parliament members and people in power make extremist comments quite freely without consequences, which is concerning.
Military dictatorship in the 1980s brought the Islam back into the government and made it the state religion. This in turn is problematic as it threatens secularism and negatively impacts the freedom of expression, and it supports child marriage laws because of religious inclusion. People who speak out critically against religious extremism have been murdered and threatened.
A lot of women in Bangladesh have profited from Microfinancing, as Dr. Faraha Nawaz showcases in her book Microfinance and Women’s Empowerment in Bangladesh. It is not only the remote access to financial means, but also the platform it creates for networking that has empowered women.
Women are the main driving force in the garment industry, which in turn has had a good effect on women and their social empowerment. However, despite being a driving force, the workers do not get enough recognition and are often underpaid according to Dr. Faraha Nawaz. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many have lost their job.
Also, domestic violence remains of concern. Sara Hossain played a key role in drafting Bangladesh's first comprehensive legislation on violence against women, which went on to become law in 2010. However, the legislation is still used very little, also during the pandemic. The big challenge is how to make information more accessible to women in need (70% of married women experience domestic violence, but only 2% seek help).
Bangladesh’s ties with India and Pakistan
In 1971, the former East Pakistan, became Bangladesh, when the two parts of Pakistan split after an independence war which drew in neighboring India. India has played a key role for Bangladesh’s independence.
Pakistan never apologized for the genocide it committed and families are still separated, which shapes the connections between the countries.
Even if the countries pursue different political agendas, Sara Hossain noted that there are people to people relationships, also in professional fields, such as human rights, women rights, etc. in the whole of South Asia.
Bangladesh has hosted more than 800’000 Rohingya refugees – the world’s largest refugee camp. From a humanitarian perspective the country is very supportive, and the government is working to relocate the Rohingya refugees and make a return with dignity and respect possible. Many NGO's and international humanitarian organizations are also working with the government.
Excursion to Bangladesh
Dr. Faraha Nawaz recommends visiting Cox's Bazar (the longest sea beach in the world), Saint Martin Island, the mangrove forests, and the whole country, as each part has a different kind of beauty
Sara Hossain recommends exploring the country’s many and large rivers amongst the hugest in the world, such as the Brahmaputra
and try eat...
National Fish (Hilsa), recommended by Sara Hossain
Traditional Bangladeshi food and roadside snacks, recommended by Dr. Faraha Nawaz
Leading newspapers are also available in English, such as the Daily Prothom alo
The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, by Salil Tripathi about the Bangladeshi war
Books written by Shaheen Akhtar, who has won numerous awards for her fiction about Bangladesh's history and women's experience
Dr. Faraha Nawaz is an Associate Professor at the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. Dr. Nawaz has proven her excellence both in basic and applied research as well as in publishing. As an academic, she has devoted herself in undertaking wide-ranging research in social sciences in general and gender issues in particular. She has published articles in refereed journals, chapters in edited books, and is the sole author of a book published from Palgrave Macmillan Microfinance and Women’s Empowerment in Bangladesh. Dr Nawaz is an active member of a number of international professional groups and networks such as NAPSIPAG, ISTR, EROPA, NZSAC, Dev Net and AWID, and has presented scholarly papers in various international conferences. She is a recipient of prestigious awards including gold medals, Charles Wallace award, Dev net Research award from New Zealand, Malaysian scholarly award, Australian Government scholarship, etc. She was an international fellow of Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, USA and a research fellow of Contemporary South Asian Studies program of School of Interdisciplinary area studies, University of OXFORD, UK.
Sara Hossain is a barrister practicing in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, mainly in the areas of constitutional, public interest and family law. She is a partner at the law firm of Dr. Kamal Hossain and Associates, and serves pro bono as the Honorary Executive Director of the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust. Sara’s casework on women’s rights before the Supreme Court of Bangladesh has included among others, representing public interest petitioners, including BLAST, in writs challenging ‘fatwa’ violence (degrading punishments being imposed on women and girls accused of violating community norms on sexuality), ‘forced veiling’ and the use of the ‘two finger test’ as a form of medical evidence collection. Sara writes and speaks on public interest law, human rights and women’s rights and access to justice. Her publications include Confronting Constitutional Curtailments: Attempts to Rebuild Independence of the Judiciary in Bangladesh, in Paul Brass (ed) Handbook of Politics in South Asia (Routledge, 2010), Wayward Girls and Well-Wisher Parents: Habeas Corpus, Women’s Rights to Consent and the Bangladesh Courts in Aisha Gill (ed) Forced Marriage (Zed, London 2010); (with Bina de Costa) Redress for Sexual Violence Before the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh: Lessons from History, and Hopes for the Future in Criminal Law Forum, Volume 21, Number 2, 331-359; (Co-edited with Lynn Welchman) Honour: Crimes, Paradigms and Violence against Women (Zed Books, London, 2005); (co-edited with Dina M. Siddiqi) Human Rights in Bangladesh 2007 (ASK, Dhaka, 2008); (with Sajeda Amin) Rohingya Refugee Women and Girls: Remedies and Responses to Sexual and Gender based Violence in Bangladesh in Imtiaz Ahmed (ed) The Rohingya Refugee Crisis: Towards Sustainable Solutions, (Dhaka 2019).