Cultural Identities

The most important symbol of national identity is the Bangla language. The flag is a dark green rectangle with a red circle just left of center. Green symbolizes the trees and fields of the countryside: red represents the rising sun and the blood spilled in the 1971 war for liberation. The national anthem was taken from a poem by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and links a love of the natural realm and land with the national identity. To listen to the National Anthem please click here

Since independence in 1971, the national identity has evolved. Islamic religious identity has become an increasingly important element in the national dialogue. Many Islamic holy days are nationally celebrated, and Islam pervades public space and the media.

Bangladeshi national identity is rooted in a Bengali culture that transcends international borders and includes the area of Bangladesh itself West Bengal, India. Symbolically, Bangladeshi identity is centered on the 1971 struggle for independence from Pakistan. During that struggle, the key elements of Bangladeshi identity coalesced around the importance of the Bengali mother tongue and the distinctiveness of a culture or way of life connected to the floodplains of the region. Since that time, national identity has become increasingly linked to Islamic symbols as opposed to the Hindu Bengali, a fact that serves to reinforce the difference between Hindu West Bengal and Islamic Bangladesh. Being Bangladesh in some sense means feeling connected to the natural land- water systems of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and other rivers that drain into the Bay of Bengal. There is an envisioning of nature and the annual cycle as intensely beautiful, as deep green paddy turns golden, dark clouds heavy with monsoon rains gradually clear and flooded fields dry. Even urban families retain a sense of connectedness to this rural system. The great poets of the region, Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nurul Islam have enshrined the Bengali sense of the beauty and power of the region’s nature.

The most significant social divide is between Muslims and Hindus. In 1947 millions of Hindus moved west into West Bengal, while millions of Muslims moved east into the newly created East Pakistan. Violence occurred as the columns of people moved past each other. Today, in most sections of the country, Hindu and Muslims live peacefully in adjacent areas and connected by their economic roles and structures. Both groups view themselves as members of the same culture.

From 1976 to 1998 there was sustained cultural conflict over the control of the southeastern Chittagong Hill Tracts. That area is home to a number of tribal groups that resisted the movement of Bangladeshi Muslims into their territory. In 1998, a peace accord granted those groups a degree of autonomy and self- governance. These tribal groups still do not identify themselves with national culture.

Religious Beliefs
The symbols and sound of Islam, such as the call to prayer, punctuate daily life. Bangladesh conceptualizes themselves and others fundamentally through their religious. For example, the nationality of foreigners is considered secondary to their religious identity.

Islam is a part of everyday life in all parts of the country, and nearly every village has at least a small mosque and an imam (cleric). Prayer is supposed to be performed five times daily, but only the committed uphold that standard. Friday afternoon prayer is often the only time that mosques become crowded.
Throughout the country there is a belief in spirits that inhabit natural spaces such as trees, hollows, and riverbanks. These beliefs are derided by Islamic religious authorities.

Hinduism encompasses an array of deities, including Krishna, Ram, Durga, Kali, and Ganesh. Bangladeshi Hindus pay particular attention to the female goddess Durga, and rituals devoted to her are among the most widely celebrated.

Religious Practitioners
The imam is associated with a mosque and is an important person in both rural and urban society, leading of followers. The imam’s power is based on his knowledge of the Koran and memorization of phrases in Arabic. Relatively few imams understand Arabic in the spoken or written form. An imam’s power is based on his ability to persuade groups of men to act in conjunction with Islamic rules. In many villages the imam is believed to have access to the supernatural, with the ability to write charms that protect individuals from evil spirits, imbue liquids with holy healing properties, or ward off reverse of bad luck.

Brahman priests perform rituals for the Hindu community during major festivals when offerings are made but also in daily acts of worship. They are respected, but does not have the codified hierarchical structure of Islam. Thus, a Brahman priest may not have a position of leadership outside his religious duties.

Classes and Castes
The Muslim class system is similar to a caste structure. The Ashraf is a small upper-class of old-money descendants of early Muslim officials and merchants whose roots are in Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iran. Some Ashraf families trace their lineage to the prophet Mohammed. The rest of the population is conceived of as the indigenous majority artaf. This distinction mirrors the Hindu separation between the Brahman and those in lower castes. While both Muslim and Hindu categories are recognized by educated people, the vast majority of citizens envision class in a more localized, rural context.

In rural areas, class is linked to the amount of land owned, occupation, and education. A landowner with more than five acres is at the top of the socioeconomic scale and small subsistence farmers are in the middle. At the bottom of the scale are the landless rural households that account for about 30 percent of the rural population. Landowning status reflects socioeconomic class position in rural areas, although occupation and education also play a role.

Hindu castes also play a role in the rural economy. Hindu groups are involved in the hereditary occupations that fill the economic niches that support a farming based economy. Small numbers of higher caste groups have remained in the country, and some of those people are large landowners, businessmen, and service providers.

In urban areas the great majority of people are laborers. There is a middle class of small businessmen and midlevel office workers, and above this is an emerging entrepreneurial group and upper- level service workers.

Division of Labor by Gender
Women traditionally are in charge of household affairs and are not encouraged to move outside the immediate neighborhood unaccompanied. Thus, most women’s economic and social lives revolve around the home, children and family. Islamic practice reserves prayer inside the mosque for males only; women practice religion within the home. Bangladesh has had two female prime ministers since 1991, both elected with widespread popular support, but women are not generally publicly active in politics.

Men are expected to be the heads of their households and to work outside the home. Men often do the majority of the shopping, since that requires interaction in crowed market. Men spend lot of time socializing with other men outside the home.

The Relative Status of Women and Men
The society is patriarchal in nearly every area of the life, although some women have achieved significant position of the political power at national level. For ordinary women, education is stressed less than it is for men, and authority is reserved for the woman’s father, older brother, and husband.


Traditional marriage ceremony of Bangladesh
Marriage is almost always an arranged affair and takes place when the parents, particularly the father, decide that a child should be marriage. Men marry typically around age twenty: five or older, and women marry between ages fifteen and twenty; thus the husband is usually at least ten years older than a wife. Muslim allows polygynous marriage, but its occurrence is rare and is dependent on a man’s ability to support multiple households.

A parent who decides that a child is ready to marry may contact agencies, go-between, relatives, and friends to find an appropriate mate. Of immediate concern are the status and characteristics of the potential in-law’s family. Generally an equal match is sought in terms of family economic status, educational background, and piousness. A father may allow his child to choose among five or six potential mates, providing the child with the relevant data on each candidate.

If is customary for the child to rule out clearly unacceptable candidates, leaving a slate of candidates from which the father choose. An arrangement between two families may be sealed with an agreement on a dowry and the types of gifts to be made to the groom.