Gender, Veiling, and Class: Symbolic Boundaries and Veiling in Bengali Muslim Families

By Md. A Sabur

In the wake of rapid changes due to economic growth, women in Bangladesh have quickly begun to participate in secular education and paid labor. At the same time, there has been increasing visibility of Islamic practices and gender conservatism among women. I address this paradox: “more modern” and “more religious” at the same time in contemporary Bangladeshi society. My research focuses on the meaning of veiling among Bengali Muslim migrant families in rural Bangladesh. These women are experiencing upward class mobility based on remittances from family members who are migrant workers.

The findings from my recent article in Gender & Society focus on transnational families whose husbands work abroad and whose wives take care of families in rural Bangladesh. I show that veiling is not simply religiously motivated but also helps cultivate social boundaries, distancing these women who aspire to or already belong to the middle class from working-class or poor women. They do gender by veiling because doing so also identifies them as middle class and so they gain privilege, status, and prestige in rural Bangladesh.

My research team and I interviewed 57 Muslim migrant couples (114 interviews). We also did  ethnographic research in Bangladesh, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and South Korea. 43 of the 57 wives in these migrant couples practice veiling in public spaces—including the burqa, abaya, khimar, headscarf, and chador. Only two Muslim couples disagreed that women should veil and do not practice veiling. Twelve couples mention that although wives do not currently practice veiling, they may in the future. All the remaining 43 couples (86 respondents) report that  veiling was practiced and discussed why at some length in the interviews.

Although veiling is usually explained as a gendered expression of religiosity, my research digs deep into the everyday uses of veiling in Muslim families. We learned that the women in middle-class families wear veils to protect their natal and husbands’ families’ honor and assert their middle-class status. In some cases, these families have attained middle-class status through remittances from migrant husbands. Veiling serves as a form of conspicuous consumption, validating their newly acquired social status and setting them apart from lower-class Muslim families. Middle-class Muslim families both enable and encourage veiling to signal their upward class mobility.

Middle-class Muslim women make a variety of choices in what veils they wear, when they wear them and where they wear them. Their husbands also send or bring them expensive veils from abroad, which helps solidify their class status while encouraging them to veil. Yet while veiling helps women and their families emphasize their middle-class status, new middle-class Muslims encounter challenges, tension, and conflicts. For example, women may face generational conflicts as to “proper” gender norms, with mothers-in-law concerned that wives do not wear traditional sarees and have instead adopted veiling.

In the age of globalization and transnational labor migration, the expansion of the new middle-class has been accompanied by gender conservatism in many locations like Bangladesh. My research shows that veiling serves to daily produce class inequality and social hierarchy through conspicuous consumption.

Md A Sabur (@SaburMdA) is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at North South University Dhaka, Bangladesh. His research focuses on transnational labor migration, remittances, and changes in women’s status in rural Bangladesh.

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