by J. Sydney Jones
Bangladesh, which means the "Land of the Bengalis" in the Bengali language, is a republic located in Southeast Asia. Almost entirely surrounded by India, of which it was a part until 1947, Bangladesh is bounded to the east, north, and west by that larger country, and to the southeast by Myanmar, formerly Burma. To the south of the country lies the Bay of Bengal. Formally known as the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Bangladesh won its independence in 1971 after a bloody civil war. The war left much of the nation and its economy in ruins. Fully two-thirds of Bangladesh is made up of low-lying delta land, through which the many arms of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers flow to the sea. Annual flooding is both a gift and a curse, providing the nutrients and water supply for Bangladesh's three-crop rice production, but also displacing thousands of Bangladeshis annually. The country has a warm climate and often experiences devastating cyclones and hurricanes.
With an area of 55,598 square miles (144,000 square kilometers), Bangladesh is approximately the size of Wisconsin. Yet it has a population of more than 130 million according to a 1996 estimate. It is thus one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with more than 2,300 people per square mile. The population is made up primarily of cultural and ethnic Bengalis, similar to their Indian neighbors in West Bengal. There is also an Urdu-speaking minority known as Biharis, who originally came from the Indian state of Bihar during the 1947 partition and stayed on after Bangladesh's independence in 1971. In addition, there is a large mixture of Islamic settlers from Arabia, Persia, and Turkey, who began arriving in the region in the eighth century a.d. In southeastern Bangladesh, there are also several hundred thousand tribal people who live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Although Bangladesh is primarily a Muslim country, there are also Hindu and Christian minorities. Bengali (or Bangla) and Urdu are the principal languages of Bangladesh, although English is commonly spoken as the second language. The capital of the country is Dhaka, and another major city is Chittagong. About 70 percent of the population live in rural areas and agriculture is the primary industry. Jute, rice, and tea are major agricultural products.
While Bangladesh only gained its independence in 1971, the area it occupies has a long cultural history. Originally known as Bengal, the region of the eastern Indian subcontinent around the Bay of Bengal has been settled since the first centuries of the Christian era and has a recorded history of over two millennia. The earliest inhabitants of the region were of mixed Mongoloid, Austric, and Dravidian heritage. This early civilization had highly developed arts, trade, and agriculture. Between 2000 and 1500 b.c., much of this was swept aside after invasions by Aryanx, which brought the Sanskrit language and Vedic Hinduism to India. Bangladeshis are primarily descendants of the non-Aryan inhabitants of the region.
Bengal has a rich literary heritage, as written records in Bengali date back to the ninth or tenth century. Under the Buddhist Pala kings, Bengal was first unified politically between the eighth and twelfth centuries. At the height of its power in the early ninth century, this Pala empire included all of Bengal and most of Assam and Bihar.
The Hindu Sena empire took the place of the Pala empire in the late eleventh century but by about 1200 was already suffering from repeated incursions by invading Muslim armies led by Muhammad Bhaktyar. Muslim domination lasted until the Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which the British, under Robert Clive, defeated the Muslim ruler of the region and established British rule. However, more than 500 years of Muslim rule in the area left a lasting legacy. Bengali Muslim rulers generally sponsored the arts and sciences at their courts and became patrons of poets, both Hindu and Muslim. A high point of Bengali literature was reached between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this time period, large numbers of Bengali, especially in the east, converted from Hinduism and Buddhism to Islam. This had a lasting effect in the region, in effect creating two Bengals—one in the west that was Hindu, and one in the east that was Muslim.
With the defeat of the Muslim ruler Siraj-ud-Daula at the Battle of Plassey, Bengal fell under British rule. In 1905, the British partitioned Bengal into Muslim and Hindu areas, but the partition lasted only until 1912. Thereafter, Bengal remained a unified part of the British Raj until 1947. Two legacies of British rule were the English language and a European-style educational system.
During the nearly two centuries of British rule, the rift between Muslims and Hindus increasingly widened. Muslims believed that Hindus received better treatment and gained advancement more rapidly than they did. With the end of the Raj, the stage was thus set for a partition of the two religious groups. India remained primarily Hindu, while the state of Pakistan was formed for Muslims. East Bengal became East Pakistan, separated from West Pakistan by more than 1,000 miles, and by a part of the nation of India.
Relations between the two regions of the country were poor from the outset, as the Bengalis distrusted their fellow countrymen in Pakistan. East and West Pakistan were culturally and linguistically distinct from one another; the only thing held in common by the regions was religion. In the 1950s, East Pakistan resisted an attempt by Urdu-speaking West Pakistan to make Urdu the official language of the entire country. Though East Pakistan was occupied by the majority of the population of the new country of Pakistan, and accounted for most of the foreign exchange, through its rice and jute production and the activities of the port of Chittagong, it held less political power than West Pakistan. Fewer than 13 percent of Pakistani government employees were Bengali, and less than 10 percent of high-ranking army officials were from the eastern wing of the newly constituted Pakistan. Only 36 percent of the national budget was spent in East Pakistan.
By the early 1960s, an independence movement began to form under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib). However, in 1966, Sheikh Mujib was imprisoned on conspiracy charges. Three years later, a new president in Pakistan allowed free elections in an attempt to alleviate an increasingly tense political situation. Unrest in East Pakistan had led leaders in West Pakistan to fear a possible revolution. But when Sheikh Mujib and his Awami League won overwhelmingly in East Pakistan on a platform of autonomy for that region, creating a new majority in the national assembly, West Pakistan simply postponed the assembly. This effort to forestall autonomy led to a general strike in March of 1971, which was put down by Pakistani soldiers. East Pakistan subsequently proclaimed its independence. West Pakistan declared East Pakistan a rebel province and sent its professional army to end the insurrection, outlawing the Awami League and jailing Sheikh Mujib once again. Terror tactics were used, and lists of teachers, students, and other professionals were gathered; these people became the targets of assassination. Some ten million people fled to India while the Bengalis fought a guerrilla-style war against the well-armed military.
In December of 1971, India allied itself with Bangladesh and in a two-week war defeated the Pakistani forces. The government in exile returned from Calcutta to Dhaka and Sheikh Mujib was released from Pakistani prison to become the first leader of the newly named Bangladesh. Finally, in 1973, Pakistan recognized the new state. But the war for independence had been costly. It is estimated that three million Bengalis died in the fighting and more than a million homes were destroyed. In addition, tea plantations in northern Sylhet and jute mills were destroyed. Many of the millions who had fled the country returned after independence only to find their homes and villages in ruins. However, a new nation, Bangladesh, had been formed, made up of former east Bengal as well as the former Sylhet district of Assam.
When Sheikh Mujib attempted to create a stronger central government in 1975 and banned all political parties but his own Awami League, he was killed in a coup led by army officers. Another coup led to the rule of General Zia in 1977 until his assassination in 1981. In 1982, General Ershad took over from a civilian government but was forced to resign in 1990. The widow of General Zia, Begum Zia, became the first female prime minister of the country in 1991. She was succeeded by Sheikh Hasina Wajid, who was sworn in as prime minister in 1996. This led to the coalition of the Awami League and the Jatiya party.
Bangladesh celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1996, but it still has far to go to accomplish all four of its originally stated aims: democracy, secularism, socialism, and nationalism. A fledgling democracy, it has weathered several attempts at dictatorship and has made room within its borders for diverse religious groups. Yet huge problems exist. Overpopulation, frequent natural catastrophes (including the 1970 cyclone and tidal wave that killed 300,000, the 1988 floods, and the 1991 cyclone which caused the deaths of 139,000), as well as impoverished conditions have led to immigration pressures since independence in 1971.
THE FIRST BANGLADESHIS IN AMERICA
As the nation-state of Bangladesh did not come into existence until 1971, there were no Bangladeshi immigrants per se to the United States until after that time. However, immigrants from the Bengali region to America have been arriving since 1887. Their numbers were small, in part because of the discriminatory immigration laws that allowed citizenship only to white Caucasians. These immigrants included dissident student activists, both Hindu and Muslim, who fled to the United States after the partition of Bengal in 1905 at the hands of British viceroy George Lord Curzon. Small groups of these male students settled on the West Coast, in San Francisco, Oregon, and Washington. Such student immigrants were from both West and East Bengal and numbered only in the hundreds.
Merchant marines also immigrated in small numbers in the early years of the twentieth century. Escaping poverty, they simply jumped ship after docking in New York or San Francisco. As anti-miscegenation laws forbade their marrying white women, this first wave of male immigrants from Bengal married mostly Mexican, black, or mixed-race women and also formed communities with these ethnic groups.
Though some of the early Bengali immigrants, such as the student activist Taraknath Das, tested the discriminatory immigration and naturalization laws, little changed in the first half of the twentieth century. Das was able to gain citizenship by proving to a clerk that anthropologists officially labeled his race Caucasian. A handful of Bengali and Indian immigrants won citizenship on these grounds, until the 1924 Immigration Act further restricted citizenship rights. Court battles ensued, and finally in 1946, naturalization was granted to Indians, including both Muslim and Hindu Bengalis. A quota of 100 immigrants per year was set, and in 1965, Indian and Pakistani immigrants were given the same status as other nationalities.
SIGNIFICANT IMMIGRATION WAVES
With the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, official records were of emmigration from that country, separate from that of Indians and Bengalis. In the 1960s, just prior to independence, many East Bengalis fled to the United States to avoid political persecution, or, in the case of religious minorities, to avoid religious discrimination. This first wave of immigrants was generally composed of professionals, well educated and affluent.
Since 1971, the number of immigrants from this region has increased annually. In 1973, 154 Bangladeshi immigrants arrived in the United States; 147 in 1974; 404 in 1975, and 590 in 1976. These immigrants were mostly younger males who were leaving behind the hard economic and political times of the still developing Bangladesh. The overpopulation of the region and subsequent poverty are the main reasons for such emigration from Bangladesh.
By 1980, there were an estimated 3,500 Bangladeshi in the United States, 200 of whom had already become U.S. citizens. They settled in every state of the union but were concentrated in the urban areas of New York, New Jersey, and California. Fully a third of these early immigrants were professionals, and many of the remaining two-thirds were white-collar workers. These trained professionals, seeking a better life in American, created a brain drain for Bangladesh, adding to that country's difficulties in establishing itself. This first wave of Bangladeshi immigrants was young, between 10 and 39 years old and more than 60 percent male. About half of these immigrants were already married when they arrived, with families awaiting immigration once the spouse was settled. They formed civic organizations and clubs in the locales where they settled, and they tended to keep to their ethnic and religious communities. Bangladeshi immigrants typically supported Democratic candidates as a result of Republican support for Pakistan during the independence movement.
More recent immigration waves have brought much larger numbers of both documented and undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh. Between 1982 and 1992, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization service legally admitted 28,850 Bangladeshi. From 1988 to 1993, some 6,000 Bangladeshis also won visas through a lottery. But there is also a large number of undocumented Bangladeshis living in the United States. Some estimates are as high as 150,000, with more than 50,000 living in the metropolitan New York area alone. Other large enclaves of Bangladeshis can be found in Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. In Los Angeles, the Bangladeshi community is centered in and around the downtown area, where shop and restaurant signs are often in Bengali.
Recent immigrants from Bangladesh also include groups of the Hill Peoples of Chittagong, who are distinct in culture from the Bengalis of Bangladesh and left Bangladesh to escape repression by the government. In addition, there are Bangladeshis who immigrated to the United States indirectly, who initially moved to the Middle East, Australia, or Africa for work before arriving in America. Though recent immigrants tend to be more geographically mobile than the first wave of immigrants from Bengal and Bangladesh, most still preserve strong ties to Bangladesh and become involved in local organizations that reflect their religious or geographical affiliations in their home country.
Acculturation and Assimilation
Bangladeshis are fairly recent arrivals to the United States and tend to maintain ethnic enclaves in the areas where they settle. Having recently won a war of independence and the right to self-identity in the subcontinent, the immigrants who flee the poverty of the country attempt to preserve their newfound Bangladeshi identity in this country. Whereas other immigrant groups have had several generations to assimilate, Bangladeshi Americans are largely in their first generation. Although Bangladeshi Americans are sometimes stereotyped into the larger Muslim community of Arabs because most Bangladeshis are Muslim, these immigrants have a distinct identity. As Katy Gardner pointed out in her study of the Bangladeshi diaspora, Global Migrants, Local Lives, Bangladeshis take their sense of home with them. "Rather than rigidly bound locales, desh [country or home] and bidesh [foreign country] are fluid categories, which are dynamically interrelated. Since desh is where the social group is located, it can be recreated bidesh."
Bengali is a language rich in proverbs, many of them reflecting the moral values and ethics of a rural, agrarian society. Homey virtues are represented in the saying, "All are kings in their own houses," while meeting one's own consequences are reflected in "Like sin, like atonement." Food becomes a metaphor in many proverbs: "Have I drawn a harrow over your ripe corn?" is said to someone who, without reason, is angry at the other; and "He has spoiled my rice when just ready!" is used to described a situation when something, after much effort, begins to take effect and then is set back or ruined by some outside force or person.
Ignorant actions are mocked in proverbs such as "Cutting the root below and watering the bush above," and "'Tis standing below the tree while felling." Things that last briefly are caught in the phrase, "'Tis a palm tree's shade," while "An ocean of wisdom" can be applied to wise men and fools alike, the latter with a sarcastic voice. Doing one's best in spite of all is reflected in "One puts on a rag rather than go naked," while the effects of inattention are summed up in "He hears at one ear, but it goes out at the other." Along the same lines, giddy oversight is summed up in "Blind with both his eyes open!" and the futility of striving for the unreachable is represented in "'Tis sand mixed up with molasses." Peasant irony and understanding of material realities is represented in "He who has money may ask for judgment."
Rice is the mainstay of the Bangladeshi diet. In Bangladesh the cultivation of this crop occupies 80 percent of the cultivated land and is grown in three crops. A summer rice, aus, is harvested in July or August, after which the autumn rice, or amon, is planted, still using the water from monsoon season. A third crop, the winter rice, boro, is grown in December through April.
In addition to this staple, Bangladeshis eat all sorts of fish, another mainstay in the Bangladeshi diet. Meat is also consumed, except pork, which is forbidden by Islamic tradition. Like much of the food on the subcontinent, Bangladeshi cuisine is highly spiced. Curries are popular, as is rice pilaf, and Bangladeshi cuisine is also noted for a variety of milk-based sweets.
In Bangladesh one of the few overt differences between Muslims and Hindus is in traditional dress. Muslim men tend to wear a sarong-like garment, the lungi, which is tied around the waist. This garment is worn with a short vest. Muslim men also wear beards, traditional in many Muslim cultures. Hindu men, however, wear the dhoti, a pleated white garment that is brought between the legs and tied in front. The educated classes of men often wear loose-fitting, lightweight cotton trousers called pajamas (from which the English word is derived) with a collarless, knee-length shirt, known as the panjabi. For formal attire, they wear modified Western suits. For traditional ceremonies, such as weddings, the sherwani and churidar, a calf-length tunic and tight-fitting trousers, are often seen, accompanied by a turban.
Hindu women wear the sari, while their Muslim counterparts wear the burqa in public, a long black or white garment that covers them from head to foot and has a veil. Such burqas are rarely seen in the United States, but women here often wear the sawar-chamise, loose pants and a long shirt combination in vibrant colors. On traditional occasions the sari is often worn.
DANCES AND SONGS
Bengali tradition is rich in music and dance, and much of it is story-based. This strong folk tradition has remained alive in many Bangladeshi American communities, where holidays and festival times are celebrated with Bangladeshi dance and song as well as with drama and poetry. Many of the string and percussion instruments employed are common to the subcontinent as a whole.
There are four main categories of music in the culture: classical, light classical, devotional, and popular. Of the first category, the two best known are Hindustani devotional songs, dhrupad, and a blending of Indian and Perso-Arab systems known as khayal. Devotional music includes forms that are typical to the subcontinent, such as the Sufi Muslim Qawaali music and kirtan. In its popular music, however, Bangladesh proves to be most original, developing forms for which there are no real equivalents outside the borders of Bangladesh. Characterized by spontaneity and high energy, these include bhatiali, bhawaiya, jari, sari, marfati, and baul.
Bangladeshi culture also has highly developed forms of dance, including such classical dances as kathakali and bharata-natya, both of which are typical throughout the subcontinent. However, specific to Bangladesh are indigenous dances such as dhali, baul, maipuri, and snake dances. These hearken back to tribal and communal life and describe various aspects of that lifestyle. These dances are performed on certain festival days. In both music and dance, improvisation is considered the primary goal.
While the Bangladeshi American community joins in such universal celebrations as New Year's, and in such American festivities as July Fourth and Thanksgiving, the real festival and holiday occasions for them are religious in nature. For Muslim Bangladeshis, the two most important holidays are Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting, and Eid-ul-Azha, the festival of sacrifice, which observes the pilgrimage to Mecca. For Hindu Bangladeshis, important holidays are Diwali, the festival of lights celebrating the return home of the lord Rama, and Holi, the festival of colors that welcomes the return of spring. These holidays are often celebrated with an exchange of visits between friends and relatives, and increasingly with festivals of song and dance. Qawaali music is often played to celebrate the Muslim holy days. Additionally, Hindus celebrate pujas, or festivals, honoring various gods and goddesses.
No specific disease or illness has been identified as being specific to Bangladeshi Americans. The community as a whole accepts the practices of Western medicine, though many still work within the framework of the alternative medical practices of the subcontinent, including, among some Hindus, adherence to the Ayurvedic beliefs in spiritual healing and the use of herbs for preventive treatment.
Bengali, or Bangla, is the language spoken by most of the people of Bangladesh as well as those in the Indian states of Bengal and parts of Assam. More than 200 million people worldwide speak Bengali, making it one of the world's most widely spoken language groups. Part of the Indo-Iranian subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages, Bengali is derived from Sanskrit and further subdivided into the Indic group of languages, which includes Hindi and Urdu.
For the Bangladeshi, Bengali is more than a language, it is a cultural identity. One of the first measures West Pakistan employed in the 1950s in its attempt to incorporate East Pakistan, was to proclaim Urdu the national language of the country. The failure of this measure was a foreshadowing for what would happen to that country. After independence, English in street and commercial signs was replaced with Bengali. Though English continues to be a strong second language in Bangladesh, Bengali is the official language of government and education. Immigrants to the United States thus maintain pride in their language.
Until the 1930s, formal Bengali, sadhu bhasa, was used for literary, printed matter, while the colloquial language, calit bhasa, was the medium of more informal discourse. Now, however, the colloquial is used for all forms. Various dialects exist in different regions of the country; those of Sylhet, Chittagong, and Noakhali are particularly affected by Arab-Persian influences. Loanwords from English, Arabic, Portuguese, Persian, and Hindi are also common, reflecting the history of the nation. Famous writers in Bengali include the Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, a Hindu, whose poems, songs, and stories so lovingly document Bengali life, and Kazi Nazrul Islam, a Muslim poet who is widely known as the voice of Bengali nationalism and independence.
Family and Community Dynamics
A Muslim nation, Bangladesh largely escaped the defining caste system of its Hindu neighbor India. Social organization in the rural districts is based on the village or "family (paribar or gushti ), generally consisting of a complete or incomplete patrilineally extended household (chula ) and residing in a homestead (bari )," according to Bangladesh: A Country Study, edited by James Heitzman and Robert L. Worden. The idea of nuclear family is somewhat alien; this is combined into the larger unit of extended family house, sometimes called the ghar.
From this basic (bari ) level, extended kinship ties are also patrilinealy, based on real or assumed relationships. Such a kinship system becomes incredibly complex, and there are a variety of words to describe relatives of varying degrees. Thus "uncle" for example can have several names. The father's brother is called chacha, while the mother's brother is mama; the father's sister's husband is phupha, and the mother's sister's husband is kalu.
Bangladeshi society is woven together by this intricate kinship system, and even those not related by blood but who are simply older and thus worthy of respect become an aunt (chachi ) or uncle (chacha ), grandfather (dada ) or grandmother (dadi ). The use of such kinship names even extends to people of the same generation, who become brother or sister. Thus, in the United States, Bangladeshis may find some initial difficulty in using people's names instead of kinship titles.
The bari, or household, consists of an extended family, typically married sons on the paternal side. Great respect is shown the father or abba, and mother, amma. Older brothers are also shown such respect. This model, however, tends to break down in the United States, where the necessities of earning a living often send both parents out into the workforce. Though Bangladeshi Americans of the first generation see themselves primarily as members of a complex family relationship rather than as individuals making their own way in the world, the coming generations will likely feel the same individualizing societal pressures that other immigrant groups have experienced. The typical bari relationship of Bangladesh has already been altered to more of the nuclear family model of the United States wherein unmarried children reside with parents until they are married and then move away to their own new family.
While in Bangladesh the rate of illiteracy is still relatively high, education is also valued. The Bangladeshi educational system was laid down during the time of British rule; there are now more than 600 colleges in the country. This same emphasis on education accompanies the immigrant to the United States. Indeed, many Bangladeshis have come to the United States on student visas and have stayed on after graduation.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
As with the rest of the subcontinent, women in Bangladeshi society have been traditionally relegated to the home and the role of nurturers while the men were the breadwinners. Women were expected to be demure and even shy in front of strangers, and above all respectful of their husbands. This role was given even stricter meaning in Muslim society, in which women often lived in purdah, confined to the home and living separately from men from the age of puberty. Though such gender roles are breaking down in the Bangladeshi community in the United States, women in the first generation of arrivals tend to adhere more closely to the Bangladeshi model than to the mainstream American model. Even in Bangladesh, however, these roles are breaking down, especially among the educated elite, as witnessed by the election of a female prime minister in 1991.
Arranged marriages are still common in the Bangladeshi American community. Young Bangladeshi men living in the United States generally marry other Bangladeshis, flying back to Bangladesh for the ceremony with a bride chosen for him by his family. Arranged marriages have long been the custom throughout the subcontinent, and the prospective groom's parents set out to find a bride for him of equal status and of lesser age. Tradition and logic dictate that there should be a match between the two in financial matters as well as educational level and religious beliefs. Young couples, after they have been selected for each other, may exchange photos and even talk with each other long distance before the marriage. The fact that a prospective son-in-law lives in the United States is a plus for a Bangladeshi bride's family, promising enhanced opportunities for the couple.
As marriage is a civil contract rather than a religious sacrament in Islam, the marriage contract largely represents the interests of families involved rather than merely the couple getting married. The bride price paid by the groom's family is an insurance against divorce, which can be summarily given in Islam. After the birth of a child, especially a male child, the worth of the new bride rises in the eyes of the husband's family. While arranged marriages are still the predominant custom in Bangladesh except among the educated elite, this practice is slowly changing in the United States, where dating and individual choice are customary.
The wedding ceremony itself can be an extended celebration lasting several days. Muslim rites are generally observed for such ceremonies, which are accompanied by feasting and the signing of the marital agreement by bride and groom. Often the wedding is held at community centers and accompanied by traditional Bangladeshi or Bengali music.
INTERACTIONS WITH OTHER ETHNIC GROUPS
Bangladeshi Americans are predominantly Muslim but these religious ties stretch thinly across cultural lines. Bangladeshi Americans are thus a tightly knit group. Bengali by heritage, Bangladeshi Americans, as individuals, often affiliate with that ethnic minority in the United States, even though Bengalis from India tend to be Hindu. Depending on the degree of religious tension in their homeland, Bengalis of both religious persuasions may associate with each other because of their shared cultural bonds. However, at the group level, the Bangladeshi community generally separates itself from Indian Bengalis, reflecting the national boundaries of their homeland.
More than 85 percent of Bangladeshis follow the tenets of Islam, the state religion of Bangladesh since 1988. Most of them are of the Sunni sect with a small number of Shi'ite Muslims, mostly the descendants of Iranian immigrants. Only about ten percent of the population is Hindu; the remaining population consists of Buddhists, Christians, and followers of various other sects.
For Muslims, the center of their beliefs is Allah, the one God, as well as in the words of the prophet Muhammad, as written down in the Koranor Quran. Muslims pray five times daily, facing Mecca. A charitable religion, Islam believes in helping the poor. Other notable aspects of the religion are its prohibitions against the consumption of pork or alcohol. Ramadan, or Ramzan in Bengali, is a lunar month of fasting: no food or drink is taken from sunrise to sunset, while weekly visits to a mosque on occur on Fridays. This is all something of a hardship in a country such as America with a relatively small Muslim community. Bangladeshi Americans living in more rural areas often have to drive a great distance to reach the nearest mosque. At such mosques they worship with other Muslims from all over the world.
The Hindus of Bangladesh worship many gods and goddesses, including Brahma, the God of Creation, and Surya, the Sun God. These Hindu believers also follow the belief in reincarnation as well as in the caste system, though the Bangladeshi version of this is much more fluid than its Indian counterpart.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Traditionally, the more educated and skilled classes of Bangladeshi society were able to immigrate to the United States. Early statistics gathered with the first decade of Bangladeshi immigrations showed that a third of these immigrants had professional training and the vast majority of the rest had marketable skills. They typically worked in professions such as engineering, economics, architecture, and medicine.
However, the new wave of immigration, partly swelled with visa lottery winners, has among its numbers immigrants with fewer skills and less education. While the new wave includes a large number of computer technicians who find work in Silicon Valley in California, many also are unskilled and work in convenience stores, drive cabs, or find work in other service industries such as hotels. Many street vendors in New York are also of Bengali extraction, some Asian Indian, some Bangladeshi. As the Bangladeshi community continues to grow, new businesses such as restaurants, grocery stores, and travel agencies open, owned by other Bangladeshis, to serve the community.
Politics and Government
Consisting, unofficially, of 150,000 members, the Bangladeshi American community does not wield political clout, even when organized for a specific legislative initiative. Allied with other Muslim groups, however, their voice in political matters is magnified. Most Bangladeshis vote Democratic and stay in close touch with the situation in their homeland. Many immigrants travel to Bangladesh annually, and most send money back to relatives still living in Bangladesh.
Individual and Group Contributions
Because Bangladeshi Americans are a recent and relatively small immigrant group, their contributions have not been widely publicized. One of the best known Bangladeshis worldwide is Muhammad Yunus, who earned his doctorate at Vanderbilt University in the United States and taught economics for seven years in America before returning to Bangladesh, where he established the Grameen Bank. Following the tenets of Islam with its emphasis on obligatory charity, Yunus established loans for the poor, which have revolutionized banking in Asia and allowed legions of women, in particular, to establish small-scale businesses of their own.
Address: 42-23 43rd Avenue, Queens, New York 11102.
Telephone: (718) 482-9923.
Address: 86-26 Queens Blvd., Elmhurst, New York 11373.
Telephone: (718) 639-1176.
Fax: (718) 565-8102.
Address: 37-11 Seventy-third Street, Jackson Heights, New York 11372.
Telephone: (718) 458-5960.
Fax: (718) 458-3484.
E-mail: [email protected].
Carries Asian programming on Saturday mornings.
Contact: Dan Ward.
Address: 8101-A Lee Highway, Falls Church, Virginia 22042.
Telephone: (703) 698-9682.
Fax: (703) 849-9796.
Organizations and Associations
Bangladesh Association for the Senior Citizens.
Address: 132-32 Hillside Avenue, Richmond Hill, New York 11418-1926.
Contact: Ghulam Mainuddin.
Bangladesh Association of Texas.
Address: c/o Iskander Khan, 4325 Grason Drive, Grand Prairie, Texas 75052-0000.
Bangladeshi American Foundation.
An organization founded to promote youth and community development as well as a positive image of Bangladesh. Holds an annual meeting to celebrate the achievements of Bangladeshi Americans.
Contact: M. Badrul Haque.
Address: P.O. Box 61544, Potomac, Maryland 20859-1544.
Bangladeshi Medical Association of North America (BMA).
Seeks to bring together physicians who are from or were trained in Bangladesh to network for further training or placement in North America.
Contact: F. Hasan, M.D., President.
Address: c/o S. Hasan, 1575 Woodward Avenue, Suite 210, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan 48302.
Telephone: (313) 338-8182.
Fax: (248) 338-9520.
ProBaSh (Probashy Bangladeshi Shomity).
According to the website, "a politically and religiously neutral, non-profit, international, Internetbased society of expatriate Bangladeshis working for the betterment of Bangladesh.
Contact: Zunaid Kazi.
E-mail: [email protected].
Museums and Research Centers
American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.
Consortium of member colleges and universities organized to encourage and support research on the history and culture of Bangladesh.
Contact: Dr. Syedur Rahman, Director.
Address: Pennsylvania State University, Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, Rider II Building, Room 312, 227 West Beaver Avenue, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802.
Telephone: (814) 865-0436.
Fax: (814) 865-8299.
E-mail: [email protected].
Sources for Additional Study
Bangladesh: A Country Study, edited by James Heitzman and Robert L. Worden. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989.
Baxter, Craig. Bangladesh: From a Nation to a State. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997.
Gardner, Katy. Global Migrants, Local Lives: Travel and Transformation in Rural Bangladesh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
Harris, Michael S. "Bangladeshis," in American Immigrant Cultures: Builders of a Nation, edited by David Levinson and Melvin Ember. New York: Macmillan Reference, 1997.
Novak, James J. Bangladeshi: Reflections on the Water. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993.
O'Donnell, Charles Peter. Bangladesh: Biography of a Muslim Nation. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1984.