Bangladesh - Encyclopedia Information
Official name People’s Republic of Bangladesh
Formation 1971 / 1971
Population 164 million / 3180 people per sq mile (1228 people per sq km)
Total area 55,598 sq. miles (144,000 sq. km)
Languages Bengali*, Urdu, Chakma, Marma (Magh), Garo, Khasi, Santhali, Tripuri, Mro
Religions Muslim (mainly Sunni) 88%, Hindu 11%, Other 1%
Ethnic mix Bengali 98%, Other 2%
Government Parliamentary system
Currency Taka = 100 poisha
Literacy rate 56%
Calorie consumption 2250 kilocalories
Bangladesh has a rich historical and cultural past. The modern country was created from part of the former British colony of India and so shares a common regional history with both India and Pakistan. Over the centuries, the region witnessed the influx of many ethnic groups: Arab, Dravidian, European, Indo-Aryan, Mongol (Mughal), Persian, and Turkish.
Around 1200 C.E. Sufi Muslim invaders subjugated Hindu and Buddhist royal dynasties, and converted most of the local population to Islam. Since then, Islam has played a pivotal role in the region’s history and politics.
Portuguese traders and Christian missionaries reached Bengal in the latter part of the 15th century. They were followed by the Dutch, the French, and the British East India Companies during the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1859 the British Crown took control from the British East India Company, extending the British Empire in this part of the world from Bengal in the east to the Indus River in the west.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries both Muslim and Hindu leaders began to press for a greater degree of independence.
Prominent in the independence movement was the Indian National Congress, created in 1885 by English-speaking intellectuals. Growing concern about Hindu domination of the movement, however, led Muslim leaders to form the All India Muslim League in 1906.
The idea of a separate Muslim state emerged in the 1930s. On March 23, 1940, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948), leader of the Muslim League, publicly endorsed the Pakistan Resolution that called for the creation of an independent state in regions where Muslims were a majority.
In June 1947 the United Kingdom decided to grant full dominion status to the two states created out of colonial India— India and Pakistan. The latter was split into two sections separated by approximately 1,000 miles of Indian territory. West Pakistan comprised four provinces; East Pakistan was formed as single province. Each province had a legislature. The capital of Pakistan was located at Karachi. Islamabad became the capital in 1967.
Political instability and economic difficulties marked the next three decades of Pakistan’s history.
A significant amount of national revenues went toward developing West Pakistan at the expense of the East. Frictions between West and East Pakistan culminated in a 1971 army crackdown against the East Pakistan dissident movement led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1921–75), leader of the Awami League (AL) Party, who had won the previous election on a platform of greater autonomy for the eastern province. What followed was one of the worst genocides in living memory and a mass exodus of millions of refugees into India. The death toll was estimated to be as high as two million. The disaster was compounded by torrential rains and destructive flooding. This human rights crisis was brought to worldwide attention by the famous Bangladesh concerts in New York in June 1971 (the first such benefit concert) and an album produced by George Harrison (1943–2001) and Ravi Shankar (b. 1920).
India and Pakistan went to war in December 1971, with Bangla Muktijodhas (“Freedom Fighters”) fighting side by side with the Indian army. The combined forces soon overwhelmed the Pakistani army in the eastern sector and ended the genocide. Pakistan’s forces surrendered on December 16, 1971. What had been West Pakistan was now called Pakistan; East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The constitution of the new nation created a strong prime minister, an independent judiciary, and a unicameral legislature on a modified British model. The highly popular Mujibur Rahman assumed the office of prime minister.
In 1974 Mujibur Rahman proclaimed a state of emergency and amended the constitution to limit the powers of the legislative and judicial branches. The new constitution established an executive presidency, and instituted a one-party system. Rahman held the office of president until August 1975, when he was assassinated by mid-level army officers. This began a new phase of violence for Bangladesh, marked by successive military coups and assassinations.
In September 1991 the electorate approved another set of changes to the constitution, formally re-creating a parliamentary system, and returning governing power to the office of the prime minister, as in the original.
In an unusual move for a Muslim state, Bangladesh has twice had a woman at the helm: Begum Khaleda Zia (b. 1945), the widow of the assassinated former president Ziaur Rahman (1936–81); and Sheikh Hasina Wazed (b. 1947), the daughter of Mujibur Rahman.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Bangladesh, located on the northern coast of the Bay of Bengal, is surrounded by India, with a small common border with Myanmar in the southeast.
The country is low-lying riverine land traversed by the many branches and tributaries of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. Tropical monsoons, frequent floods, and cyclones inflict heavy damage in the delta region. Bangladesh has a tropical climate, with a hot and rainy summer and a pronounced dry season in the cooler months. January is the coolest month of the year, with temperatures averaging near 79°F, and April, the warmest month, with temperatures ranging between 91° and 97°F. The climate is one of the wettest in the world; most places receive more than 60 inches of rain a year, and areas near the hills receive 200 inches. Most rain falls during the monsoon season (June–September), and little during the dry season (November–February).
During the rainy season the Ganges River turns into “cyclone alley.”
Since its creation, Bangladesh has suffered natural calamities and political upheavals. Development of the labor force, nutrition, and the building of infrastructure for sufficient health care and population control continue to be the major concerns of the country.
One of the world’s most densely populated nations, since the 1980s Bangladesh has been caught in the vicious cycle of population growth and poverty. Although the rate of growth declined marginally in the early 21st century, the ever-increasing population continues to be a tremendous burden on the nation. On the positive side, the situation provides an abundant and cheap labor force that is easily trainable and convertible into a semi-skilled and skilled workforce, making it a haven for every sector of the computer technology industry, from distributors, dealers, and resellers of computer and allied products, to vendors of locally assembled computers, software developers and exporters, and Internet service providers (ISPs).
However, Bangladesh is still primarily an agricultural country, with some 60 percent of the population engaged in farming. Jute and tea are principal sources of foreign exchange. Bangladesh’s government offers incentives to encourage the use of local fabrics in the export-oriented garment industries.
Toward this end, the import of capital machinery and cotton are duty-free.
Major impediments to growth include frequent cyclones and floods, inefficient state-owned enterprises, inadequate port facilities, a rapidly growing labor force that cannot be absorbed by agriculture, delays in exploiting energy resources (natural gas), insufficient power supplies, and slow implementation of economic reforms. Progress on these issues is stalled in many instances by political infighting and corruption at all levels of government. Opposition from the bureaucracy, public sector unions, and other vested interest groups are other obstacles to development.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Bangladesh is famous for the remarkable ethnic and cultural homogeneity of its population. More than 98 percent of its people are Bengalis; the rest are Biharis, or non-Bengali Muslims, and indigenous tribes. The majority of Bangladeshis are Muslim (83 percent). The other important minority religious groups are Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians.
Bangladeshis are particularly proud of their valuable cultural and linguistic heritage, because their independent nation is the result of a powerful movement to uphold and preserve their language and culture. Bangladeshis identify closely with Bangla, their national language. In English the word Bengali refers to both the language, called Bangla, and the people who speak it.
In rural Bangladesh the basic social unit in a village is the family (paribar or gushti), generally consisting of a patrilineal extended household (chula) living in a homestead (bari). Above the bari level, patrilineal ties are linked into sequentially larger groups based on real, fictional, or assumed relationships. The significant unit larger than kinship is the voluntary religious and mutual benefit association known as the society (samaj or millat). An informal council of samaj elders (matabdars or sardars) settles village disputes. Factional competition between the matabdars is a major dynamic of social and political interaction.
Groups of homes in a village, usually thatched bamboo huts, are called paras, and each para has its own name. Several paras constitute a mauza, the basic revenue and census survey unit. Toward the end of the 20th century, a few brick structures had begun to appear.
Traditionally farming was one of the most desirable occupations, but in the 1980s parents began to encourage their children to leave the increasingly overcrowded villages to find more secure employment in the towns. Traditional sources of prestige, such as landholding, distinguished lineage, and religious piety were being replaced by modern education, higher income, and steadier work. But these changes could not prevent rural poverty from increasing, nor did they improve the quality of life for those who migrated to the towns and cities. The women go to work in the garment industry in Dhaka; approximately 800,000 people work in the 4,000 factories, 75 percent of them women. The men rent rickshaws, ruining their legs transporting people through the clogged streets.
In the 1970s the population of Dhaka, the capital, was estimated to be about one million. During the 1980s an administrative decentralization program encouraged the growth of urban areas. Most of the urban population—government functionaries, merchants, and other business personnel—congregated in shabby structures with poor sanitation and few modern amenities. By the time the 21st century began the population of Dhaka was estimated to be anywhere from six million to 15 million; the city is so crowded that accurate numbers are impossible to get. What is beyond question is the problem of solid-waste disposal. Somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 tons of solid waste are produced every day in Dhaka, but only 50 percent of it is removed; the remaining half lies along the roads, in open drains and low-lying areas, contributing to the deteriorating quality of Dhaka’s environment.
By the end of the 20th century, even in relatively sophisticated urban populations, the segregation of the sexes persisted in Bangladesh. Although urban women enjoyed more physical freedom and could pursue professional careers, they still moved in a different social world from that of men. Moreover 82 percent of Bangladeshi women still lived in rural areas, not in cities. Thus the practice of purdah (the traditional seclusion of women) had become a matter of degree that varied widely according to social milieu.
Traditional, full purdah requires the complete seclusion of women from the time they reach puberty. Within the home women live in private quarters that only male relatives or servants are permitted to enter. Outside the home, a woman in purdah wears a veil or an enveloping, concealing outer garment. Observing the strictures of full purdah requires a devotion to and the financial means to seclude women and forgo their labor in the fields. For most rural families the importance of women’s labor makes full seclusion impossible, although the idea remains. In some areas, for example, women go about unveiled within the confines of the para, or village, but wear the veil or outer garment when they venture farther from the community.
Although Hindu society is formally stratified into caste categories, caste has not figured as prominently in the Bangladeshi Hindu community as it has in the Hindu-dominated Indian state of West Bengal.
About 75 percent of the Hindus in Bangladesh belong to the lower castes, notably namasudras (“lesser cultivators”), while the remaining 25 percent belong primarily to untouchable groups. Even though some Hindus of higher castes belong to the professional class, there is no Hindu upper class.
However as Hindus have increasingly enjoyed professional mobility, the castes have begun to interact in wider political and socioeconomic arenas, with the result that there has been some erosion of caste-consciousness.
Bangladeshi Hindus have been able to assimilate into the Bengali mainstream culture without losing their religious and cultural distinctiveness.
In Bangladesh the function of marriage is to ensure the continuity of families rather than to provide companionship for individuals, and a new bride’s relationship with her mother-in-law is probably more important to her well-being than her (frequently) impersonal relationship with her husband. The process of choosing a spouse reflects this function and depends entirely on one’s social status. Typically parents choose spouses for their children, although men often have some say in the matter. In middle-class urban families men negotiate their own marriages.
Only in the most elite class does a woman participate in her own marriage arrangements. Marriage generally is made between families of similar social standing, although a woman might properly marry a man of somewhat higher status. Financial standing has come to outweigh family background. Often someone with a good job in a Middle Eastern country is preferred to an individual of impeccable lineage.
Bangladesh is renowned for its delicious food. Cooking is considered an art, and each district has its own way of preparing even the simplest dishes. Boiled plain rice is the staple diet of the Bangladeshi. Mustard and soybean oils are used for cooking, and fish is a part of all meals. Hilsa, the most popular fish, is available mainly during the rainy season. The hilsa caught from the river Padma is world famous and exported to countries such as the United Kingdom and United States, where there are large numbers of Bengali expatriates. The many types of freshwater fish (from rivers and lakes) are consumed in large quantities.
In an average Bangladeshi home, the staple meal consists of plain boiled rice served with an assortment of fried vegetables. This forms the first course and is followed by rice and soupy lentils. The third course is rice eaten along with fish or mutton curry. Occasionally chicken curry is prepared. In addition to fish, mutton, and chicken, beef is also consumed (by Muslims) in the form of spicy curries. Cooking methods used throughout the West, such as roasting, smoking, and baking, are not integral to Bangladeshi culinary arts and are not often used. The meal is generally finished with sweetmeats, usually prepared at home.
Bengali sweets, primarily based on milk products such as yogurt and cottage cheese (paneer), are immensely popular and well known all over the subcontinent, including misti doi (sweet yogurt), sandesh (a sweet cottage cheese, sugar, and cardamom), roshogolla (sweet creamy balls), and roshmalai (cheese patties), especially that made in the Comilla district, to name but a few. The first step in most of the recipes for these sweets is making the cottage cheese from lemon juice added to boiled milk.
The birth of a new child, especially a boy, is a time of great rejoicing in the Muslim community, because a child is considered a token of Allah’s mercy. This attitude is very much alive in Bangladesh. Despite the burgeoning population, children are often referred to as wealth. After the birth babies are washed immediately to remove all impurities. The first sound that a baby hears has to be its father (or a male relative) whispering the call to prayer or adhan into the right ear and then the left. This helps the baby to understand its duty to Allah from the very start of its life.
Traditionally Bengalis welcome the newborn by placing a few drops of honey on its tongue and in each ear. The sweetness of the honey welcomes the infant to the sweetness of a good life. In addition, it is believed that the baby will grow up hearing sweet words and be a soft- and sweet-spoken person.
Between three and seven days after birth (this ritual can also be observed in multiples of seven—14, 21, or 28) the baby’s head is shaved to remove the birth hair and encourage the growth of a thick head of hair. This ceremony is called the aqiqah, and it symbolizes the removal of misfortunes from the child, so that it can begin a good and independent life. In olden days silver equal to the weight of the discarded hair was distributed among the poor.
Nowadays it is more common to sacrifice an animal (two for a boy, one for a girl) and share the meat with relatives and neighbors as a celebration of the birth.
Babies also receive their proper names on this day. The choice of name is taken very seriously, since it is thought to influence the future character and behavior of the child. The local imam (Muslim priest) may be consulted. In addition to the Muslim (Arabic) name, it is common to give a Bengali name to the child, too. Both names are often used in conjunction.
The naming ceremony is important and has great religious significance.
COMING OF AGE
Muslim boys generally experience a major change in status—circumcision (khitan)—when they have recited the entire Koran through once. In Bangladesh this tradition is followed, and the boy undergoes the operation between 10 and 12 years of age. This is a puberty rite, separating the boy from childhood and granting him new status as a man.
The ceremony is accompanied by a great deal of festivity, music, special foods, and many guests. God is praised loudly during the actual ritual circumcision, partly, some say, to drown out the boy’s cries.
Circumcision is not mentioned in the Koran, but Muslims everywhere regard it as essential, and the Hadith records it as a practice enjoined by all past prophets. Significantly it is also known by a euphemism: tahara, which means “purification.”
Most Bangladeshis are married according to traditional Muslim wedding practices arranged by the couples’ families. Muslim law holds that both the bride and the bridegroom are free to refuse the spouse that their parents have chosen for them during the ceremony itself when the kazi (Muslim marriage registrar) asks for their consent.
In most urban areas it is more common for the bride and the bridegroom to choose their own life partners. Before the wedding takes place, the bride’s and the bridegroom’s families decide on a sum of money or quantity of household goods that the groom’s family must give to the bride. This sum of money is called a mehe, a sort of insurance for the bride, just in case the marriage fails. Weddings usually take place in the bride’s home and are performed by an imam.
The bride and the bridegroom sit in separate rooms during the marriage ceremony. Two guests—one from the bride’s family and one from the groom’s family—witness the bride’s consent for marriage and report this to the imam. The ceremony begins with the imam reciting passages from the Koran. The imam then speaks about the duties of marriage and asks the bridegroom if he agrees to the marriage. Once the bridegroom has agreed to the marriage, the bride, the bridegroom, and the two witnesses sign a marriage contract that confirms their agreement.
The Koran says that a man may marry up to four wives but only if he can treat them all equally.
However, most Muslim men in Bangladesh marry only one wife. If a marriage does not work out, the Koran says that Muslims are allowed to get divorced but only as a last resort. First the couple must try to resolve their problems themselves. If this does not work, each spouse must choose a friend or relative for counseling. If this too fails, they must wait for four months before they end their marriage. In Bangladesh, the divorce rate is under 10 percent.
Bangladeshi Muslims adhere strictly to the Islamic practices pertaining to death and funerals. Since death is unpredictable and can happen at any time, Muslims are exhorted to be always prepared for the inevitable. However, it is improper for a person to wish for death. The dying person is encouraged to declare his or her faith. Cremation and other modes of disposal are strictly forbidden by Islam. The body must be ritually washed and draped before burial, which should be as soon as possible after death. The dead body is treated with gentleness and respect. A baby dying at or before birth must be given a name.
Religious laws do not allow Muslim women to attend burials. Mourners gather and the body is carried on a bier by at least four men to the burial ground. Attendees at funerals cover their heads with a cap as a mark of respect. A prayer is recited for the deceased just before the burial. Those attending the funeral form a double line facing each other, and the bier is passed on the shoulders along this line toward the grave. In the case of a child the bier is carried in the arms of a relative. The wrapped body is laid directly at the bottom of the grave, on its right side with its face turned toward Mecca. The grave is sealed and then covered with earth. Although graves are dug by gravediggers, the task of filling them with earth is carried out by the relatives. The grave is marked by creating a raised mound of earth. A stone may be used to mark its location, but no writings are allowed. Buildings or other structures are not allowed on top of the grave.
After the funeral a wake is held for both men and women, usually on the same day, in the form of a meal for all those attending the funeral.