Diversity and Cross-Cultural Issues in Bangladesh

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In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Bangladesh, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Bangladesh.

Outside of Bangladesh’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Bangladesh are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Bangladesh, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Bangladesh

The Peace Corps staff in Bangladesh recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms.

We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who will take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

In Bangladesh, the virtues of the ideal woman include patience, obedience, endurance, and self-sacrifice. Although women are visible in public, particularly in Dhaka, the majority have limited opportunities outside the home and even face discrimination within their own families. What follows is an outline of the typical rural woman’s life.

When a girl is born her birth is rarely celebrated and no call for prayer is given, as it would be for a boy. From early childhood, girls are made aware that, unlike their brothers, they are liabilities rather than assets to the family. In a country of great scarcity, what little is available—from food to clothing to education to health care—is offered first to males. Over 50 percent of girls ages six to seven months have stunted growth, and the death rate for girls ages one to four is 15 per 1,000, compared with 12 per 1,000 for boys of the same age.

Girls are trained to take on the only socially acceptable role for a woman, that of wife and mother. From a young age, a girl helps her mother with household chores and looks after younger children. Only 50 percent of girls enroll in primary school, compared with 70 percent of boys. In secondary schools, girls’ attendance is less than half that of boys.

Beginning at about age 10, segregation of the genders becomes stricter. Some families observe purdah, a Muslim and Hindu practice in which a girl’s movements outside the home are restricted to protect her chastity and reputation. How strictly a young woman observes purdah depends on her economic status, as poorer women in villages need freedom of movement to fetch water, tend animals, and so on.

Rural women generally perform tasks at home—cooking, cleaning, and child care—while men negotiate with the outside world as they work in the fields or go to the market. Thus Bangladesh differs from other predominantly Muslim countries where women can freely work in the fields and go to the market. In addition, rural Bangladeshi women generally do not share in tasks that involve earning an income.

The legal age of marriage is 18; however, 20 percent of women have their first child before age 15, 66 percent before age18, and 80 percent before age 20. Dowries are illegal in Bangladesh but are still very common, as is wife beating. After marriage, a wife’s position is inferior to that of other women in her husband’s household. The twin threats of polygamy and divorce, both sanctioned by Muslim law, help husbands to ensure their wives’ obedience. If a husband instigates divorce, the wife has no choice but to accept the decision, as Muslim law allows a man to divorce his wife on any grounds simply by saying “I divorce you” three times. (Women have the right to initiate divorce but are discouraged from doing so by societal pressure.) An unattached woman, whether single, widowed, or divorced, has little or no social standing, so a wife banished from her husband’s home usually returns to her parents, leaving her children behind.

As long as they lack an independent means of livelihood and a broader social movement to back them up, women are likely to respond to male domination with only small acts of self-assertion. In urban areas women are more openly assertive, politically conscious, and organized, partly because of the opportunities for wage employment, albeit in low-paying jobs such as garment factory labor and street cleaning. Middle-class urban women have greater opportunities for education and careers, but they are usually employed in traditionally female occupations such as teaching and nursing. There is, however, a small but growing group of extremely well-educated and articulate professional women who are acting as a catalyst for change by helping women get educated, gain employment, and become leaders in their communities. Many organizations work specifically with women’s groups, raising awareness and providing opportunities for women to work together in starting and running their own businesses.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

Although Islam was declared the state religion in 1988, freedom of religion is a legal right in Bangladesh. As the dominant religion, Islam is also the major social and cultural force in Bangladeshi society. The Koran forbids drinking alcohol, eating pork, gambling, and money lending for profit. It also lays down the rules for marriage and divorce and the penalties for crimes. Islam seems to give many Bangladeshis enormous patience in the face of extreme poverty and frequent naturaldisasters. An expression one often hears is “Inshallah,” which means “As Allah wills it, so it will be.” Most Bangladeshis view religious identity as a basic fact about a person and are likely to ask about your religion almost as frequently as they ask how many brothers and sisters you have. Many assume that all Americans are Christians, and Volunteers who are not Christian may experience some challenges. Jews in particular may encounter negative attitudes.

Although Muslims and Hindus in Bangladesh interact freely on a professional level, there are some animosities between Hindu and Muslim communities. People who are atheists or seem ambiguous about their religious identity may be regarded as foolish or morally reprehensible, as rejecting the religion one is born into is considered a serious matter. Some Volunteers without a specific religion have found calling themselves “humanist” to be a good compromise.