Constructed Communities: The Contribution of Bangladeshi Women to Life in New York City[i]
by Florence E. McCarthy, Moses Seenarine, and Nina Asher
Teachers College, Columbia University
unpublished paper, October 1996
The rich and abundant literature on immigrants and immigration leaves largely unaddressed the creative construction of community among immigrant populations as an essential ingredient in a decision to settle permanently in the United States. By "community" I mean the patterns of social relations, exchange, identification, connection and belonging (in addition to making a living and the structural arrangements of making a life) that make people feel at home in a place. "Construction" refers to processes by which community is not only "imagined", but enacted, and not only created by men, but by women as well.
In this article I argue that in order to understand how immigrants make a life for themselves in new places, it is essential to include the crucial contributions women make in shaping community definition and form through their involvement in cultural and social reproduction, and in the responsibilities they hold for the lives of family members. I also argue that having an identifiable community is an essential ingredient for cultural groups negotiatind a place and gaining legitimacy in the multicultural mosaic of the United States. In this sense, being "different" is now, in the i990s, perhaps more important to some immigrant groups than "fitting in." Women's contributions to shaping a distinct Bangladeshi community will be examined in the patterns of their accommodation to American life, their concerns with child rearing, and in the ways they use Islam in their children's socialization.
Constructing community refers to the processes, activities, and often conscious thought that is employed in establishing forms of connection and belonging among people, and providing a grounding for people's sense of who they are. Community in this sense is a construction -- both imagined and enacted -- involving conscious effort in sifting, sorting, making, and selecting from cultural forms and traditions at "home". It includes taking on selected values and behaviors of the dominant new culture, and fashioning new interpretations and meaning systems, as well as new behaviors, activities and a normative order by which individuals are variously bound to communities which they can imagine (Anderson, 1991) and in which they can participate and change. These communities are often characterized by strong family and relational ties which provide a base for individuals as they mediate and develop complex identities that reflect the complexity of their lives. Obviously, as well, constructed communities are not geographically bound but can and do transcend specific spatial locations. As socially constructed, communities are heterogeneous, diverse and include age, gender and generational divisions. In addition, communities are not uniform in the extent to which individuals ascribe loyalty or meaning to them. It is important to mention as well that what "home" is constantly changes, so that what may be preserved as a home tradition in the United States may in fact be out of date or no longer applicable in the country of origin.[ii]
The idea of distinctive communities was first suggested to me by a young Bangladeshi high school student who said, "In America you can succeed while still retaining the essence or flavor of your community." He went on, "You fit in if you are part of a community in America." One interpretation of this is that in order to fit in, it is necessary for some immigrants, especially newer arrivals, to establish a community of their own as a way of maintaining a cultural distinctiveness that sets them apart from the dominant culture.
The need to be distinctive may be caused by many factors, among them a disjuncture in experience or feeling that the majority culture is too different from or threatening to the cultural base which ground peoples' experience, their sense of belonging, and their sense of identity. Establishing a community among people from home may counteract the disparities of the dominant culture, but it takes time to develop and depends on sufficient numbers to provide support systems, friends and social networks, a sense of solidarity, and various norms, values and meanings to guide various aspects of peoples' lives.[iii] Clearly this is not a linear process, but is likely to be varied, discontinuous and uneven in its development.
In the process of constructing communities, groups of immigrants such as the Bangladeshis add their own piece to the patchwork of immigrant communities which make up the cultural mosaic of American society. If they do not establish a separate, identifiable community recognized by members of the dominant culture and other racial and ethnic groups, new immigrants will be considered as part of the major racial/ethnic dynamics of American society, and become swept up in the interplay among Whites, Blacks and Hispanics.[iv] To avoid this, some immigrants feel compelled to establish and maintain their own recognizable communities.
What is occurring among some of the Bangladeshis is a purposeful and conscious effort to actively fashion a life for themselves in the United States. This involves an eclectic, fluid shaping of behavior, normative expectations, patterns of connection and social relations involving family, friends, work and worship in organizing life here. The fluidity includes concessions and negotiations by Bangladeshis, especially the women, to the lure yet dangers of the larger dominant culture, and to the norms, traditions, customs and cultural forms from Bangladesh. These processes of negotiation will be illustrated in the responses Bangladeshi women make to life in the United States.
Women's Activities and the Construction of Community
In analyzing women's active contributions to community it is important to stress that family organization and relations, particularly forms of social and cultural reproduction, family maintenance and community management are important not only to family, but are integral and defining aspects of community. The attempt to define community as only formal organization or publicly visible activities related to men's responsibilities, follows the long tradition of relegating women's activities to the periphery that reinforce a gendered concept of community that has little place in it for family or those arenas thought to be women's concerns. For example, the work of Kibria (1990) exhibits this tendency as women's groups and networks are considered part of the "informal" Vietnamese women's community while men's activities constitute the "formal" community.
Contrary to this tendency is the argument that women's activities in the social and cultural reproduction of "family" and in creating social relations and networks are not separate from, but rather critical to the creation of community. An indication of this is found in the work of Chavez (1988; 1991; 1994) highlighted below, which indicates that it is with the establishment of family that immigrants begin to operate in terms of "imagined communities." It is not only that family grounds individuals in the lives they are making, but also that the circumstances and dynamics of family operations and their attendant meanings contribute significantly to the definition and activities of the larger community itself.[v] The social meanings attributed to "womanhood" and the commensurate treatment of women, for example, are embodied in schooling for girls, church and/or mosque activities, marriage arrangements as well as patterns of socializing and interacting with the larger dominant society.
Community in the Immigrant Discourse
In most studies of immigrant experiences, community is assumed to be the general institutionalized patterns of life which an immigrant assumes and accepts as he or she arrives in a new setting. Assumed as well is that this community reflects the dominant culture of the nation of which it is a part. The concept of community, and that to which adjustment is assumed to be made, refers to the larger social world and the dominant culture, not to what immigrants may construct for themselves.
The idea of immigrants' constructing their own communities, as distinct from the larger dominant culture and society, serves as a critical factor in the "success" of their immigrant experience, yet remains largely unexplored. For example, one trend in the literature analyzes immigration in response to complex factors of history (Chandrasekher, 1982; Daniels, 1989; Tinker, 1977), and global, national and local conditions (Light and Bonacich, 1988; Margolis, 1994) which encourage people to leave their countries of origin and venture to a new place. Variations of this theme focus on differences between "sojourners" and "settlers," (Chavez, 1988), circulatory migration, and the "myth of return" (Kelly, 1990).
An extensive literature revolves around the experience of migrants in new settings, the processes of adjustment involving assimilation (Melendy, 1977; Helweg and Helweg, 1990; Sodowsky and Carey, 1987), or acculturation (Leonard, 1990; Gibson, 1987; Gupta, 1975; Wakil, Parvez, Siddique, Wakil, 1981). A more recent focus on "new immigrants" concerns issues such as diversity (Lamphere, 1992), the interrelatedness of family and work (Zavella, 1987), religion (Williams, 1988) and marital violence (Abraham, 1995).
Community as a theme in the immigrant literature is used as an organizing principle in the establishment of ethnic businesses, as in the case of Cuban economic enclaves in Miami (Bonacich, 1973; Portes, 1987), Korean entrepreneurs in Los Angeles (Light and Bonacich, 1988) or South Asians in Toronto, Canada (Marger, 1989). In the instances where community is studied as "imagined," it is defined as the extent to which migrants identify and feel connected with the (larger) community in which they live (Chavez, 1994), or the extent to which members of the dominant culture allow "outsiders" to become part of their "imagined" community (Chavez, 1991). As Chavez writes, for immigrants, "the internalization of the image and a sense of connectedness to the community is as important as actual physical presence in the community" (Chavez, 1994:54). Connectedness is measured by the incorporation of migrants into different aspects of social life, and the salience of various social factors in influencing migrants' experience and their decisions to stay in the US (Chavez, 1994).
The finding most relevant for this study is that material aspects of life such as family and children, employment, legal status and friends are more important predictors of migrants staying in the US than is a sense of connectedness with the community. What this suggests is that it is the processes of making a life in a place, not only the ability to "imagine" membership in a larger community, that establishes a sense of belonging and a desire to remain in the new country. This calls for a focus on the connection between the enactment of social factors and their relevance to imagining membership in the community, an issue unexplored by Chavez. It also calls for study of the particular contributions women make in fashioning the connections that constiute community.
Whatever the major focus of particular studies, immigration is usually presumed to be a male experience, often leaving addressed the experience of women, or the gender differences that are likely to occur among immigrant men and women, particularly in situations where women accompany or join family members as immigrants.[vi] One needs to turn to studies in England to find gender considered in relation to immigration. Scholars such as Heleh Afshar (1989), Parminder Bhachu (1988; 1991), Margaret Boneham (1989), Beatrice Drury (1991), Pnina Werbner (1988) and Sallie Westwood (1988) refreshingly link gender issues to migration and analyze the variety of ways South Asian women mediate forms of cultural expression and reproduction, kinship, social and work relations and ethnic identity in various English cities.
Bhachu, for example, explores processes of change within established communities, particularly the role of women in cultural reproduction as reflected in changes in the marriage and dowry practices among the East African Sikh community. These are areas of social life controlled by women, and while much of the form may conform to tradition, the content of marriage and dowry arrangements vary, reflecting absorption of regional, class and specific English cultural attributes (Bachu, 1991). An important influence contributing to the alteration of "traditional" practices marriage and dowry is the differential opportunities women have to participate in the labor market (Bachu, 1988; 1991).
What is not explored in Bachu's writing are other dimensions of community life that might also have been subjected to the conscious alteration of its members. An implied division appears to exist among older versus younger women, and/or those who work versus those who do not. However, it may be the case that elders or non-working people also have had to change their thinking and behavior in adapting to English life, and perhaps they too had to negotiate new meanings and patterns of behavior in learning to live in England. In a related manner, the points of agreement and alliance among women, regardless of age or class, are also not explored.
During the summer of 1994, an exploratory study of the Bangladeshi community was undertaken in New York City. This initial study built on the studies of other immigrants, particularly South Asians, and on a deep interest acquired through years of association, study and research in Bangladesh and South Asia. The study explored factors prompting immigration, sources of support, family background and relations in the US and Bangladesh, occupations and careers, the experience of living in the States, concerns for children and family life, connections to Bangladesh, organizations and forms of social support among Bangladeshis in the New York area.
Conscious of the gender division of labor and differential responsibilities for social and cultural reproduction, two different interviewing frames were developed; one devoted to the business and occupational experiences of Bangladeshi males; the other focusing on the family and social responsibilities of females. Each frame, however, was not mutually exclusive: men were asked about concerns for children and family as well as about the Bangladeshi community, their experience of living in the States, and their opinion of what others, particularly Americans, might think about Bangladeshis. Women were asked about their children, their forms of support to and from their husbands, personal aspirations for education and careers, in addition to their view of the Bangladeshi community, relations with Americans, and "making it" in America.
A snow-ball, referred sampling procedure was followed in generating respondents for the study. Initial contact was made with Bangladeshi organizations in the area, as well as with businessmen. From these contacts we learned of a Bangladeshi school, and of the activities of various organizations: from conversations with other Bangladeshis, we developed interview questions. We attended the school and spoke to parents, teachers and students; we attended social functions of different organizations and spoke with people there; we gathered names, asked people to participate, and eventually interviewed 50 people. Where possible, we interviewed couples (4), usually done separately.
The respondents are quite diverse: students, waiters, restaurant owners, businessmen, pharmacists, engineers, bank tellers, accountants, dentists, street vendors and economists. Given the small sample size, and its non-random character, little attempt is made to generalize to the community as a whole, or beyond it to a wider immigrant context. Rather our purpose is to ullustrate the dynamic processes by which these Bangladeshis have created lives for themselves in the United States.
A sample of sixteen women provide the main focus of this article. The women arrived in the States at various times; 8 of them coming during the Seventies; 6 during the Eighties, and 2 arrives in the Nineties. Except for one of the widows, who was brought by her sister, the others followed their husbands to the States, after marriage or once their husbands had acquired jobs or finished their licensing requirements[vii].
The women are Muslim, except for one who is a Christian; all are married, although two are widowed, and one is in the process of a divorce. Their husbands currently occupy positions among a professional strata of chemists (1), pharmacists (7), and dentists (1); and lower middle class occupations such as small business owners (1), bookkeepers (1) or work in real estate (1). Two husbands are currently holding working class occupations such as a taxi-driver (1) and a laundromat worker/manager (1). Both widowed women work; one as a teacher's aide, the other as a nutrition planner in a large hospital. Each widowed woman has two grown sons, and each woman lives with their sons. Five other women are currently working: one is a doctor, one is a clerk in a department store; one works in a pharmaceutical company; one woman helps in her husband's pharmacy, and one woman is a restaurant owner.
Outlines of the Bangladeshi Community
Bangladeshis, as a relatively new immigrant group, began coming to the United States and to New York City in identifiable numbers during the Seventies (Rivera-Batiz, 1993). However, as in most demographic accounts, the New York City planning and census data do not differentiate among South Asians. Estimates of the number of Bangladeshis in New York City indicate some 15,000 as of 1990 (Rivera-Batiz, 1993). The Bangladeshis themselves estimate there are roughly 100,000 Bangladeshis in the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Following the experience of other South Asian communities, the first wave of immigrant Bangladeshis were educated professionals. Since the Eighties, however, a change in US immigration laws and shifting economic conditions in Bangladesh have prompted increasing numbers of lesser educated, lesser skilled people to immigrate. Among these more recent arrivals are a large number who enter illegally, coming on a student or tourist visa and not leaving when the visa expires or when schooling is completed.
The factors of length of time in the country, education and occupation, legal status and children born or primarily educated in the States, differentiate among Bangladeshis and influence the differential forms of community that are developing or supported by different groups of Bangladeshis. Examples of these various groupings include those living the "bachelor life", professionals, business people, and working class men and women[viii].
Patterns of Adjustment by Bangladeshi Females
As Bangladeshi women begin to find their way in New York City, their varied experiences help to fashion their understanding of the dominant culture and informs their ideas about community, family relations and later their approach to child rearing. This is done with varying degrees of collaboration with their husbands, but it is generally acknowledged among the Bangladeshis that women carry the responsibilities for family, for social and cultural reproduction, and for external family affairs such as dealing with schools, shopkeepers, and children's friends and their families. Thus their husbands are unlikely to provide answers to how families negotiate in their new world.
For many young couples who come from fairly well-off, educated families in Bangladesh, life in the States means an initial loss of status and class privilege and requires independence from extended or joint family support systems. For women, the smaller, nuclear family form which they assume, means they carry the full burden of housework: cleaning, shopping, cooking; dealing with shopkeepers, service and utility people, supermarkets, and managing budgets and money. These are important tasks unlikely to have been part of their daily routine in Bangladesh. As one woman, married at 17, said
It was hard. I arrived with two kids. Husband had no job. I had to do all the cleaning, cooking, caring for the kids and family. I was not prepared for it. For example, I had to make four separate trips a day taking the children to school.
Unlike their lives in Bangladesh, there were no servants to help in the house, no husband or father to do shopping, no mother to help teach or instruct about cooking, buying, or managing. As another woman said, "But he (my husband) does nothing at home. I do everything. Bills, banking, everything I take care of." Or, said another, "I was married when I was sixteen and a half. It was so hard, coming here then. I was so young, I didn't know anything, cooking, cleaning, how to manage."
Nor was there the same supportive framework of family and kin ties, which together with friends, provided the relational context for both women and men. As many recalled of their first years in the United States: "We didn't know the channels. We had to make our way on our own." "It was lonely initially."
However, it was often in doing family and household tasks that connections were made by the women with neighbors that eased the transition in adapting to life in the States. In learning new skills and sharing household difficulties the women made new friendships. As one woman explained
We came first to an apartment in Jamaica. I remember a neighbor who came by while I was cooking. I put the meat in the oven at high speed and then had to keep adding water as it dried out and the meat never got soft. She saw me do this two or three times and finally asked me, "Why are you putting the water this way? I said, "To get the meat soft." She laughed and said, "Do it this way. Put in a little bit at low heat and leave it. It will get soft." I didn't believe her, but I tried it and of course it worked. . . I've never forgotten her. . .
Another change in the pattern of life is that husbands and wives became more interdependent, as life here finds them leading less segregated lives as in Bangladesh. "My husband and I talk about everything," one woman mentioned. Another said, "If we lived in Bangladesh, our lives would be more separate. Here he can have a Pathmark weekend, but usually we are together." Another notable difference is that there are no clubs for men; and a different pattern of family entertainment and visiting. Here there is less leisure time for women overall, and the time they spend with female friends or extended family members is carefully worked into the daily routine. "This weekend I'm making a barbeque and calling the relatives". Or as a woman whose husband works two jobs said, "Saturday is our day. It is the only time we have. We go out to eat. Go visit relatives." As another said, "We (women) gather on Wednesdays (during religion class) and talk."
Economic necessity required that upon arrival in the US 10 of the 16 women sought employment and contributed their income to support the family. Often the jobs they took were not commensurate with their education and experience. They accepted employment in whatever work they could find; as bank tellers, or clerks, or as wage earners in factories, hospitals and shops. For many, the experience of wage work was not, and could not, have been anticipated by their lives in Bangladesh. As one woman who came to the States in 1978 said:
It was difficult to get a job. I was a junior economist with an MA in my country, here they don't offer me even the elementary job. Whenever I went, they asked me could I do typing. I was so upset. One day I was coming home on the subway crying because it was so hard and they only wanted to know if I could type. There were no jobs for me. Now I understand that everyone needs to know typing. But back then I was very upset, in my own country I had a secretary to do the typing, I was the boss. Here I realized my MA was nothing.
Here we find the isssues of gender and class intertwined, as only women of wealthy or professionally secure families in Bangladesh would have advanced degrees, and being the "boss" was indicative of this high status as well. To seek work in the US where most women seeking exployment, regardless of country of origin, class or status, were expected to type was a bitter affront[ix].
Another woman whose husband was reluctant to come to the US described her experience this way: "I told my husband I would do any job. . .So when we came here, I worked in a sewing factory for two years." In another woman's words, "I have this restaurant. I am cooking, cleaning, waitering (sic), dish washing, everything. I did that for 11, 12, 13 years. Last 5 years it has been more relaxing." The experience of another woman was to get a job through her husband.
His boss arranged for me to get a temporary license to work as a lab technologist. So although I got a temporary license, I could not work since I had no green card. . . I got someone's else's social security number so that I could get paid.
Two of the women became bank tellers, and the process of getting their jobs was much the same. ". . .I went to a bank and asked if they had a position. I took their tests and everything and got a job. I eventually became head teller." Another person said, "I worked in a jewelry company. It was in Manhattan. I worked in the day time, he during the night. We hardly saw each other. I got my job through an agency." A woman who runs her own professional practice noted, "I was surprised that I got my license. Many people don't get it. . . Since I am a doctor[x], I am working. I have a profession and I don't want to waste it. . ."
Only three of the women have never worked, whether in Bangladesh or in the States. Circumstances contributing to their situations were: one was a student earning her qualifications in a profession at home, but choose not to work upon marriage and child-bearing. She remains quite active as an organizer in the Bangladeshi school and in community social organizations."Now I am too old (to get my license). I am busy in the house. I have 3 children and I am busy giving them time." One woman with an advanced degree accompanied her husband abroad where he was employed. She did not work in Bangladesh, and is now too overwhelmed with child rearing in the States to seek employment. "Here I am a more devoted mother than I would have been in Bangladesh, since all the responsibility is on me." The third woman has a husband who was a government officer in Bangladesh and is a chemist here. She simply said, "I have never worked. I have never wanted to."
The respondents found different challenges in the process of building lives for themselves and their families. For some improving their language was an issue. "It wasn't that I didn't know English, but my accent was such that people didn't understand me. So I watched TV, the Price is Right, the Bob Baker Show to understand and to learn the accent." Another describes her relation with a co-worker:
So for two years I worked in this sewing factory. And there was this American girl there, and I asked her, "You are an American, how come you are working here?" And she said to me, "You were a teacher in your country, how come you are working here?" So then both of us supported each other and looked in the newspaper for jobs. We found this advertisement for working in hospitals. We had to go to the World Trade Center to apply. So we took the day off and went together. Although I did not think anything would come of it, I got called and got a job with the Nutrition Service at the hospital.
The workplace became the place were women made friends and connections and learned how to manuever within the dominant culture. That it was not always pleasant is apparent In the woman's additional comments regarding the pain and hurt caused by some encouters at work.
I felt bad at the hospital because my co-workers teased me. . . about my language, how I spoke, they would say that all immigrants take our jobs. . . I felt hurt. I cried every day. They were African Americans (who said these things). But then I felt a bit better when I realized that they said such things not only to me, but also to other immigrants--like black people from, say Brazil.
Here in an example of interracial tension we hear a woman expressing the personal pain caused by teasing and negative interaction. There is only minimal solace to be gained in her realization that the comments of co-workers directed at her were applied to all immigrants. We can speculate as well that it is in experiences like this that the notion of creating a distinctive Bangladeshi identity and community finds reinforcement.
Another opinion about interacting with Americans was expressed by a professional woman who said, "When talking with American people, one can't be open. Although we speak the language, we can't always understand, since we have not been educated here."
About teachers and schooling, some women expressed a certain reluctance to involve teachers or administrators in their family affairs. Some women saw the issue as a manifestation of the subtle racism in the country, others defined it as cultural difference. Regarding race, one woman thought that part of the problem of her daughter making friends was because "race and color were the issue." She goes on,
As a mother in school, they talk about being equal, about everyone being equal but not in the treatment they gave us. Not the teachers, the administrators. They would say one thing but treat you differently so you know.
The idea of cultural difference was expressed by a mother who felt that problems such as their fears about the openness of sex and the "mixing of boys and girls" should not be discussed with teachers.
This openness about sex is the culture of this country. I feel it won't work to speak to the teachers, since in this country each and every people (sic) have girlfriend-boyfriend. Immigrants have different cultures, and it is our responsibility to maintain our culture. Not the teachers.
Whether working or not, most women felt a tension between the demands on them here as wives and mothers and other options such as working or their own development.
At the beginning of my life here, I would get home, the children would have made a mess, I would have to clean it up, then eat, then get to bed around 2 or 3 at night. Now my kids are grown up and can cook and clean, so I can be free to work.
It is hard with three kids, but I prefer to work outside than just being in the kitchen and around the house. Because that way it is just duties. You are always around the home. Mother, wife. Belongs to the house. That way can't make no one (sic) happy.
My husband don't (sic) want me to work. Stay home and take care of the children. But I don't want it. Earlier he wanted me to work when he needed the help. Now I don't want to go back to the kitchen.
The process of engagement provided first hand experience with racism, the vagaries of employment, and the openness of society in its contradictory presence of openness and sexual freedom. While most of the women were excited or in favor of coming to the US none of them anticipated the difficulty of getting established. While they may have adjusted to work and various aspects of family management, their own mixed experiences adapting to American life and the advent of children created tensions which encouraged the recognition of the need to be distinctive.
Issues of Children and Community
The concern with having to be distinct stems from the recognition of the degree to which these Bangladeshis are already "westernized" as part of the tradition of urban, middle class life from home, and partially this derives from their success in acquiring, over time, the accoutrements of an American life style: American homes and furnishings, a reliance on American automobiles, appliances and pace of life; a change in taste and diet to include pizzas, hamburgers, and fast foods; American English, and clothing reflective of American styles in keeping with Bangladeshi notions of propriety. "English is our language now." "I'm happy with America, I have no intention of going back." "It's hard for us. Now we can't adjust or belong here and we can't adjust or belong in Bangladesh." "Bangladesh is changed too, what we won't let our kids wear, kids there are wearing: pants, tight jeans, dresses."
This increasingly westernized life style is identified as a problem as the women see their children becoming too American in the normal course of their lives with no grounding in Bangladeshi culture and ways. "American life is good for Americans, it is just not suitable for us" said one respondent. "There are so many good things about America," said another, "We need to learn the good things, and ignore the bad." Another woman said "Bangladeshis are not perfect, there are problems. What it is, is different from the American culture."
With the advent of children another set of challenges emerge, as there is a clear and unanimous intent among the families in maintaining the Bengali cultural heritage and imparting it to their children. It is the women's responsibility to see that it occurs.
It is only the women who take the children. The men are too busy. I worked five days and on Saturday took the girls first to singing (there was no good singing teacher at that time in the school), then to school. From eleven to six. That meant we had to get up and leave by ten. I packed a lunch and we ate in the car. It was a long day. But if I wanted to the girls to go to the school I had to take them. The men are not so interested.
What the women want the children to know includes language, food, song and dance, history, and religion. "So it became a concern for us, how will our children know about Bangladeshi culture and language?" "It is important for the children to know of their culture in order to preserve a sense of originality" said another; so the children would know "where they came from," and could "understand what it meant to be Bangladeshi" were other responses women made. "So they won't forget they are Bangladeshi," said another.
To provide a more concentrated awareness of Bangladeshi culture to the children, the women have been instrumental in organizing and running a Bangladeshi school to teach children the Bengali language, singing and dance. It has been running for five years, and currently is being held on Saturday mornings in the gym of a public grammar school. There are three teachers and roughly 20-30 children, girls more than boys, attend. "The school board is very strict, the parents have to make sure there is no mess. (We) can only meet 'til twelve." Said a father of two daughters, "I'm from Brooklyn, but come all the way here because the mothers have really organized this class." In addition, a religious school was established to teach children how to read the Koran and say their prayers. The school is held in the basement of a private home, and a couple comes to teach boys and girls separately. "Religion comes first. If they don't study they will feel lost because here everything is western."
The women's role in organizing these activities is described in this way:
Bangladeshi women try to keep the traditions, it's very important for us. Our children need to know about their culture and society. But we don't know how much we will achieve.
Particularly striking is the awareness among Bangladeshi women of the difficulties present in attempting to transmit a sense of Bengali culture and tradition to children who are quite American in their cultural identification, food habits, and interests in sports, dating, clothes and so on. A central preoccupation is how to give children, especially girls, a different set of values and different ways of behaving from that of the majority culture.
For my daughter. . . I try to show her things so in this way she'll know what to choose when she's older. Who knows how long she'll listen to me, but I try. It's important to explain things to them so they'll understand, but you can't tell them or pressure them, they have to make up their own mind. However, I hope that by showing and explaining they'll follow our ways.
Another woman indicated her concern in this way:
We are taking a tree from one place and put(ting) it in a different place to grow; a place where everything is different. There is different food, culture. What she gets from home is entirely different from what's outside. In Bangladesh we knew how life went on. There was a little bit of difference inside the families and outside, but basically we knew, there was a fit. It is totally opposite here.
The conscious instruction and imparting of Bangladeshi culture and values to children is a full time job for mothers, and it brings women together as the children progress through the education system. It is particularly as children approach adolescence that the distinctions between cultures become more sharply delineated, as well as the degree to which parents and children have become differentially "Americanized."
For example, women draw on, yet are very conscious of the differences between their own upbringing, and that of their mothers, and grandmothers, and their own ability to direct their daughters' lives. Most women grew up in families where formal purdah[xi] (seclusion) was not observed, yet their mobility and degree of social engagement existed within the context established by the socio-economic status of their father's family. Their childhood most often incorporated both privilege and a sheltered existence. The women noted that where their mothers could tell them no; these women realize compromise is required as children are American, ascribe to American values and behavior, and have grown up in this culture. As one woman said,
Now the time changes. My mother told me "don't fall in love." Now I tell my girls, "tell me who the boy is and I'll tell you if he's good for you or not". . .My mother could say no to me. But I say maybe to my daughters. What to do, it's a matter of compromise. The situation is different here. Right now she'll listen to me, but who knows what will happen when she is older?
Life in the US provides little of the shelter or selective social engagement that class and family provided in Bangladesh. This is particularly the case regarding women working once children arrive, as six of the women quit work or abandoned careers to remain in the home and care for their children. "Bangladeshis are reluctant to turn child care over to outsiders", the women say, and it is rare that family members are present in the US to assist in child care. "This is the agreement we have; my husband does the outside work and I do the inside."
Interpretations of Islam and community
A striking example of the constructed nature of Bangladeshi life is Islam and its place within the community being fashioned by professional families. Women consciously use the teachings of the Koran to justify the rules of deportment and clothing which their children are to follow. The reliance on Islam as a factor in creating a distinct Bangladeshi community is not without its detractors among the Bangladeshis, however. There is long standing disagreement over religion and the state, and the role of Islam in the culture of Bangladesh. Male respondents, in general, appear more concerned about these issue than females.
Female respondents, by and large, dissociate themselves from politics, and perceive religion as being an integral part of their culture. However, their interpretation of culture is not only Islamic. At the same time that they provide religious teachings and model more conservative modes of dress and social behavior for their daughters, Bangladeshi women are also adamant in their support of the Bangladeshi school which provides instruction in language, literature, song and dance to the children. The songs and stories draw heavily on the works of Tagore, for example, and other authors, poets, musicians and literary figures who are Bengali, and often Hindu and not Muslim. Yet these art forms are considered part of the culture that is to be transmitted to children who are politically Bangladeshi, but who share a cultural heritage with West Bengal in India.
In seeing themselves as models to their daughters and to the larger society, many women adopt the more conservative accoutrements of Islam such as covering their heads, and wearing shalwar and kemiz (flowing clothes), as a sign of Bangladeshi life being different from that of America. As one woman explained:
In Bangladesh growing up we could be open, there was no purdah, we were average in our observance, it was not a big, big deal. Since 1990 when I went to Mecca I am trying to change--clothes, wearing long blouse, covering body, being a little more religious, thinking about my kids and what they will learn from me. I think of my mother and how she taught me, and I must do (that) for them.
The use of Islam in establishing community is problematic, and relates to differences in religious orientation as well as politics. There is a range of religiosity and observance among the Bangladeshis; some are secular and non-observing Muslims, others are conservative, and many fall somewhere in between. The men in particular, divide over issues of religious expression, and as a recent New York Times article indicated (January 22, 1995) there is division among the community over the role of the fundamentalists within it.
Nevertheless, the women mediate religion and society in interesting and innovative ways. On the one hand, their own upbringing in Bangladesh was a liberal, open one where the observance of purdah was minimal, and they enjoyed both education and structured mobility. Islam, in other words, provided religious guidance and was mediated by class and family in influencing social relations and social practice. On the other hand, while these women have managed to navigate the hurly-burly of life in the States, their response to it is quite different when it comes to their children. The sexual freedom and individualism of the dominant culture now appears overwhelming, or threatening to family honor and childrens' well being. In an attempt to counteract the impact of the dominant culture, the women consciously adopt the head coverings, long flowing clothes, and more regular prayers as a means of establishing the distinctiveness of the Bangladeshi community as well as providing a justification for the rules and norms they are using in the rearing of their children.
In terms of Bangladesh itself, even with frequent visits from family and relatives and occasional trips of the families to Bangladesh, the country is a "vacation land", not a place where the younger generation want to live.[xii] Bangladesh remains real and a draw for some parents; it has no such appeal to their children. The challenge is to impart the values and culture of that place to their children and use it in guiding their lives as Bangladeshi-Americans. This is difficult for parents and for children, yet the overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis actively plan on staying in the US;, only a few stay by default. Among the women only one or two would prefer to return; one because she would be more independent and freer there than here; the other because the US is too fast, free and overwhelming. She is fearful living here; insecure about her husband, her children, her future. Bangladesh is known. They are established there and could have good lives. They are here, however, for the children and because of them will undoubtedly remain.
What this article illustrates are the ways Bangladeshi women contribute to the construction of community among one segment of the Bangladeshi immigrant population in the United States. It is argued that women's concerns with matching their own accommodation to the dominant American culture with their concerns for family and the socialization of their children, contributes to the definition of Bangladeshis being a distinct community within the cultural milieux of New York City. The women's contributions are found in the refashioning of family dynamics such as patterns of work, socializing with extended family and friends, and creating informal schools focused on teaching children of their Bangladeshi cultural heritage, and providing them religious training. Also important is the conscious effort of the women to provide children with different models of behavior, rules and norms to guide their everyday activities. The content for this comes from a conscious selection of aspects of Bangladeshi culture particularly Islam in creating among children an appreciation of being Bangladeshi in the attempt to mitigate and add variation to the influence of the dominant culture of the United States.
Constructing community, in this case, involves the selective reliance on and use of cultural and social aspects of life in Bangladesh in concert with the accommodations Bangladeshis have made to life in the United States. The process of arriving at new community definitions, patterns of family dynamics, and child rearing practices are arenas within the women's domain which illustrates how forms of social and cultural reproduction are essential in the construction of immigrant lives in the United States. As mentioned, this is not a uniform, heterogeneous or uncontested process. Expected variation would occur among different segments of the Bangladeshi immigrant population. The point, however, is that the activities and social relations involving women become critical factors in the shaping of community among immigrants in the United States.
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[i]. We are grateful for funding of this project from a grant from Teachers College, Columbia University. We appreciate as well the suggestions of colleagues and the helpful comments by reviewers.
[ii]. A notable example of this is depicted in the film "Bhajhi on the Beach" where the most "modern" or "westernized" woman was the woman visiting England from Bombay.
[iii]. The study being done by Hanna Orna of Surinamese women in the United States indicates that insufficient numbers of Surinamese exist to provide the basis for establishing a "community" separate and apart from the majority culture. The study finds that feeling isolated is a major response of Surinamese women to living in the States.
[iv]. We are indebted to Moses Seenerine for this insight.
[v]. This is not to say men are not involved in fashioning communities. However, limitations of space prevent their inclusion in this article. It is also important to note that women's contributions to community are not limited to family only, as many of them work and the effects of work on husband and family relations has been well documented in the work of Zavella (1987); Moro-torn, (1995), Kibria (1990; 1995). The emphasis here is on the particular ways the "women's domain" is instrumental in influencing community definition and dynamics.
[vi]. A notable exception is the work of Toro-morn (1995) who looks at strategies of family migration and the effects of gender and class on migration and ensuing social relations among Puerto Ricans in Chicago.
[vii]. Many Bangladeshi men, holding professional degrees or advanced positions in Bangladesh, were unable to practice in the States or found that their educational qualifications had little value here. In both instances, the men were forced to undergo the training and licensing procedures prescribed by various professions in the States before they could resume their professional activities.
[viii]. Our sample of domestic workers to date is too small to provide much insight into the circumstances which surround women working in this occupation. One case indicates that a woman fled an abusive husband in Bangladesh with the help of friends and became a domestic helper in other South Asian families in the United States to support herself and to compensate for her lack of English language skills.
[ix]. Race may also be an issue, as employers may have used the criteria of typing to discourage Mrs. Q., as a person of color, from applying for a job. However, this is difficult to determine for a number of reasons. One, our data seem to suggest that an awareness of racism grows over time among the women, and is not just assumed to be operating. Moreover, the experience of racism was difficult to elicit. This may be that as Orna (1996) discusses regarding Surinamese women, women deny racism as affecting them, as it is too painful to admit, and don't readily discuss it. Also coming from non-white dominated societies, race becomes differently configured along lines of "color" and is interwined with religion, ethnic, and class issues. This suggests a different sensitivity to issues of race among the Bangladeshis. This will be discussed later in the article. (See also Dupuy (1987) for a further discussion of this issue).
[x]. In some cases a profession of equal status is used in place of a woman's actual profession in order to mask her identity.
[xi]. Purdah refers to the series of behavioral prescriptions and proscriptions governing the social relations among men and women. However, purdah is usually discussed in terms of the norms, values and behaviors by which women's social participation is governed as well as correct religious deportment and dress. The observance of purdah varies by social class, rural and urban settings, and the identification of families with particular forms of Islam.
[xii]. The only exception is a daughter who was sent back to Bangladesh for her entire secondary education, who says she wants to return to Bangladesh after finishing her higher education in the States. Other families think about this option, but few think it possible or realistic.