The most violent protests against NGOs (non-governmental organisations) took place during the 1990s. Among the organisations affected were BRAC, one of the world’s largest aid organisations; Grameen Bank, which offers micro-loans to poor people; and Proshika, one of the largest NGOs in the country. Today the situation is calmer, but the conflict between those who are trying to strengthen the status of women and those who want to maintain the patriarchal norms remains below the surface.
“And the Islamists’ position has become stronger in recent years, with the support of Saudi Arabia, among others. For example, a few years ago 10 smuggled lorries full of weapons were found, believed to be intended for Islamist groups”, says religious historian Abdel Baten Miaji at Lund University. He has written about the conflicts between religious groups and NGOs in his thesis, which he will soon be defending.
It is uncertain whether the Islamists will once again turn against the many non-governmental organisations in Bangladesh – at the moment the conflict is primarily with the country’s Government, as the Government has recently launched a tribunal against war criminals of 1971. However, it is clear that the Islamist groups, the traditional village elite and the money lenders do not look kindly on anyone who disturbs the norms and upsets the balance of power between men and women, rich and poor.
“The textile industry has strengthened the position of women by giving them work. But this is not viewed as being as dangerous as the non-governmental organisations. They not only want to strengthen women’s finances, but also their self-confidence”, says Abdel Baten Miaji.
Seeing women go to courses and meetings, and sometimes even spend a night away from home in connection with a course, angers those who consider that a woman’s place is in the home. The NGOs are also criticised for trying to bring in Christianity on the sly, for being corrupt and badly run, and for charging excessive interest.
According to Abdel Baten Miaji, it is primarily the latter criticism that may hold some water. While the normal interest rates from the banks in Bangladesh are between 10 and 12 per cent, the total cost of a micro-loan can be over 30 per cent.
“But the alternative for a poor woman is not taking a bank loan. If she needs money she has to go to the village money lenders, who charge at least 120 per cent interest!” he explains.
Abdel Baten Miaji personally sees it as self-evident that the NGOs have given women better access to credit, healthcare and education, and have also got the authorities to take more interest in the status of women. Bangladesh is a Muslim country and this of course influences both the Government and public authorities. However, the traditional form of Islam in Bangladesh is Sufism, a form which takes a more open view of the role of women in society than the Wahhabi Islam that has spread from the Middle East since the 1990s.
Abdel Baten Miaji will defend his thesis “Rural women in Bangladesh – the legal status of women and the relationship between NGOs and religious groups” on 21 May.
An English summary of the thesis can be found at www.lu.se/o.o.i.s?id=12588&postid=1579637.