Hanifa Deen is an Australian of Bangladeshi descent who returned to her
ancestral home in 1995 with the idea of writing a book about women’s lives.
She wanted to explore beyond the usual accounts of women in Islamic
societies. To her it seemed that most people’s perceptions of the Muslim
woman were “centred on the Middle East, yet there are more Muslims in South
Asia and Southeast Asia than anywhere else in the world.” She points out that
“religion is just one of the many building blocks that shape women’s lives:
colonialism, history, nationalism, economics, gender, culture, and
patriarchal values make up a litany of influences embedded in the psyche of
The result is a cinegraphic tale of real people and events. The first half of
Broken Bangles takes place in Bangladesh; the second half in Pakistan. The
first half is perhaps the more interesting for most readers, partly because
Bangladesh is an exotic terra incognita even for people who spend a fair
amount of time in the Subcontinent.
Like many who study the women of a culture from afar, she did not anticipate
the complex, self-concealing, nuanced, diverse reality she met. From her home
base in the Kiplingesque Mona Lisa Hotel in a rumpled-shirt neighborhood of
Dhaka, she met women from all corners and byways of Bangladeshi society, from
her survival-clutching masseuse Mrs. Nargis to Dhaka’s most wealthy and
influential. Ms. Deen found the myth of Taslima Nasreen—the putative grand
champion of women’s liberty in a Muslim land—to have mainly been fabricated
abroad by the Indian and British press based on overstatements by Taslima
herself. To Taslima’s horror, she found that media demons, once unleashed,
rage all over the electronic aether.
Ms. Deen found urban Bangladesh to be a very different place than the image
most people conjure when they think of the phrase “developing country.” She
describes the side of the story told by middle of the road and liberal
Muslims—parts of society most Westerners are unaware of unless they have
lived in an Asian Muslim country for some time.
This book is an antidote to the perception of Islam as monolithic, backward,
and violent. Islamic developing countries are not mere forges of
fundamentalists. Fundamentalists, conservatives, middle-of-the-roaders,
liberals, and a far left exist in any Muslim society in about the same
proportion as they exist in non-Muslim societies. The main difference is what
one identifies as middle-of-the-road. Ms. Deen portrays how feminist
utopianism can survive in a land where liberal is what middle of the road is
anywhere else, middle of the road is conservative, and the religious right is
Mussolini without the brown.
Ms. Deen jousts aside no end of myths. For example, In Bangladesh (and many
non-Arab countries) the burqa that so outrages many Westerners is a largely
middle class garment. There is a class component to purdah. Village Muslim
women are workers first and foremost; they often wear only the simplest of
head covering because drapy cloth gets in the way as they labor. The
upper-class women of the cities can wear stylish headgear because they have
the wealth and power to not be bound by Qur’anic face- and hair-covering
Ms. Deen paints Goyesque you-are-there portraits of her trips into the
Bangladesh and Pakistan hinterlands, some regions of which are bastions of
fundamentalist misogyny. She finds that religious fundamentalists are every
bit as cruel towards women as portrayed abroad, but for reasons less related
to contempt for women than for the economic gains to be had by frightening
women into giving up their money and land. The nexus of local mullah,
politico, and moneylender put together for mutual financial gain plays a far
larger role in the issuance of religious fatwas than blasphemous behavior by
woman—a practice Ms. Deen describes as “The Fatwa Industry.” One result is a
litany of widow horror stories; another is a myriad of tiny one-woman revolts
that Ms. Deen describes with delicious piquancy.
Suppressing women for financial gain is not a uniquely Muslim phenomenon: it
happens in Buddhist Sri Lanka, Hindu India, and post-Maoist secular China.
Children are no better off, being exploited for labor, sex, and marriages of
alliance all over the region. The common thread throughout is economic
inadequacy resulting from the refusal of power holders to encourage strong
middle classes. Almost everywhere in Asia one looks in some detail, there is
a clear correlation between the size of the middle class and the rate of
There is also an unseen cultural component to fundamentalism. Fundamentalists
want to impose their version of purity on a very old and peculiarly Asian
version of Islam, which blends legalistic Arab Islam with pre-existing Hindu,
Buddhist, and animist traditions. The ghosts of Hindu gods and Buddhist devas
(almost-a-gods) inhabit a world of spirits both good and malign, animal
totems, divinations, dreams, and visions. These ancient feudal institutions
exploit Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism to hold on to power. Indeed, one must
grant Islamic fundamentalists a certain respect for their relatively
temperate handling of this mix: Christianity burned thousands at the stake
trying to stamp out the ghosts of Cathars, Druids, and forest spirits.
Ms. Deen ably demonstrates how fundamentalists tend to come out the worse for
their stridency. To the pragmatic city-dwellers who hold a country’s economic
purse-strings, bigoted shock tactics do not introduce any lasting change.
Instead, they introduce alienation. Even in the parts of Bangladesh
considered their power bases, fundamentalists consistently do poorly at the
The Bangladesh Ms. Deen found was not the Bangladesh she expected. She pens a
paragraph on page 60 that distills just about everybody’s perception of a
place with the name “developing country” attached to it:
“Reading about poverty, illiteracy, and malnutrition from academic texts
never prepares anyone. You sit watching television documentaries from
comfortable armchairs—Chardonnay in one hand, pizza in the other, and you
delude yourself. Everything is at arm’s length and poverty, disease, and
death become sanitised. You know nothing -- you realise that later. Nothing
prepares you—how can it? Your cocoon is shed soon after you and the distance
between you and a world crowded with pain is instantly reduced. You develop a
protective veneer just to get through the day, and you hate yourself for
The picture she paints of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations, a fancier
term for not-for-profit charities) is an eye-opener to anyone who has ever
seen the ads placed by organizations trolling for donations with pictures of
pathetic waifs. In all too many cases the first thing the money goes into is
a huge Pajero with fat tires. The second investment is a luxury office in the
capital (leaving just enough for properly mediagenic poorly furnished
outposts in the countryside). The third set of cheques hires all the family
members the local manager can get away. Only then does money go into the
mouths of waifs.
On the plus side of NGOs, though, they do bring international attention to
things governments should be doing, even if the end result is the NGOs taking
over a government’s tasks for it. The politicians are delighted: it
translates into more of the country’s economy going into their own pockets.
Ms. Deen’s ability to elevate the particular to the level of the general
without directly saying so raises Broken Bangles to the quality of a good
novel. Readers acquire insights into developing country thinking and customs
that do not appear in any travel literature, and rather little of it even in
mainstream Subcontinent literature.
For example, she describes the hidden nuances behind passion in Subcontinent
Islam: “In Bangladesh, little is what it seems. People do not express
themselves as much as enact their feelings. Stage-drama behavioral
expectations find their way into religious and political culture.” Just about
every high-sounding ideal is an admission of low self-esteem. Men say they are
protecting their women, but in fact they are protecting themselves against
their own insecurities.
Asian and Middle Eastern thinking processes are very different. To the
Islamic mind there are conclusionary mechanisms more powerful than reason.
Westerners tend to think in networks, with linkages and threads in many
directions. East Asians tend to think in the silo or vertically integrated
clan-based model first codified by Confucius. Most Indians’ context is
three-layered: a specific caste level communicates one level up or down from
itself, but rarely much higher or lower. Also, Islam is a prophetic system:
knowledge is revealed and received rather than arrived at. Muslim thinking
can be visualized as a single, vast, flat, sheet of equality and unity based
on the principles of umma (the brotherhood of believers) and tawhid (unity
Underlying these is a view of one’s place in the world that explains why
forcing democracy and the market economy on people without those traditions
results in the kind of rejection whose extreme is Osama bin Laden.
Surprisingly, Islam has no significant economic argument with the West. The
Qur’an is pro-capitalist—Mohammed was a merchant. And like the West, Islam
urges uplifting one’s own moral character through vigorous self-effort. It is
salutory to visit a bookstore in Dubai, India, Malaysia, or Indonesia and see
Muslim self-improvement guides addressing the same concerns as the “Seven
Best Habits” types of books.
The big difference is that most Asians, and Muslims in particular, see the
world not as a market but as a courtyard. Courtyard culture arose from the
use of worshipping places as common grounds. The courtyard is a social
cohesion unit founded on religious identity. A courtyard is bound on one side
by market stalls, on another by the prayer hall, on the third by the codes of
class and station, and on the fourth by secular power in the form of police,
army, and tax. The focus is on leaders, not institutions; function, not
reason. The governing principles of decision are muafakat (collective
council) and masyarakat (concordance).
Imagine for a moment what would happen if Asian and Arabic proselytizers from
a country where these notions predominate were suddenly to arrive on our
shores informing us that our society is hogwash, theirs is better, and while
we’re at it, we should switch to their food and fashions, too.
Welcome to Broken Bangles.
A woman’s bangles are given to her by her in-laws on her wedding day.
Occasion by occasion she adds them, sometimes for pleasure, others for
obligation. Over the years her bangles acquire social baggage: symbol of
marriage, protection of husband, dependency, adornment of self. And then
slowly, inexorably, they become symbol made real: encirclement, fear of the
whisper, the prison of the hearth. Romantic feelings are a privilege of the
privileged, and guilt is a gift enjoyed by the middle classes. For most,
marriage is desperation packaged as property. The glittery bangle binds.
A woman breaks her bangles when her husband dies. Islam does not impose on
widows the banishment that rural Hinduism does, but a woman without a
protector (the husband’s role as seen in Islam) is not much better off than a
woman without a god (the husband as seen in Hinduism). Bangladeshi wives
become excellent misers, hoarding every taka coin for the day when their
protector is gone. Unless she is rich, self-deprivation links hands with
Ms. Deen’s etchings of these women are the writer’s version of Goya’s “Los
Caprichos”. The broken bangles alluded to in her title are something far
worse than Goyesque grotesqueries. You must endure them yourself. With Ms.
Deen, you do.