Newfoundland Bangladeshi Women's Increased Religious Practice in Post-Migration Life
By Nasrin Akter, MA Student, Department of Women's Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland
This article reflects research I have conducted as part
of a Master's thesis in the Department of Women's Studies
at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Examining the lived
experiences of six Bangladeshi female immigrants, in this
short article I suggest that immigration to St. John's offers
many of these women "religious capital", or religious knowledge
and empowerment, in their new context. While in Bangladesh, most
of these six women were already active in their religious observances
such as praying, fasting, and reciting the Quran, but, now in
St. John's, they practice these traditions more rigorously.
As I conducted this qualitative research from 2008-2009, I discovered that although there is less social pressure to observe religious practices in St. John's, Bangladeshi female migrants in St. John's claim that they tend to uphold their religious practices to a greater extent. In fact, many women become more regular practitioners post-migration, reporting that the practices provide them with peace of mind and discipline. I will suggest in this short article that searching for peace of mind and imparting Islam to their children largely contribute to this shift towards increasing practice in Newfoundland.
All six of the Bangladeshi immigrant women with whom I came into contact explained that going to the mosque in St. John's on Logy Bay Road was a new experience for them. As one woman explained, "praying with many women in the mosque make[s] me feel good." Two other participants stated:
Mosque participation and lectures increase my religious understanding. At the mosque, I can socialize myself with transnational Muslim women and learn how they practice Islam (Personal Interview, October 2008).
In Bangladesh, we women learned to pray in a different way than men. However, in the MSA iftar1 parties1 and at the mosque in St. John's, I noticed that women offer their prayer the same way men do. Seeing them helps me to say prayer the way they do (Personal Interview, October 2008).
The participants are aware that according to some prevalent understandings of religious practice and obligation, in their home country of Bangladesh, unlike men, they do not have a religious duty to go to the mosque. For this reason, they feel empowered because of their post-migration access to the mosque. In St. John's they attend the local mosque whenever they want to listen to the imam's explanations of the Quran, as well as attend various religious lectures.
Furthermore, in St. John's, MANAL (the Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador) together with MSA-MUN (Muslim Student Association of Memorial University of Newfoundland) hold public lectures on Islam, sometimes inviting guest speakers. These events take place either at the mosque or at the university campus and are organized in order to educate Muslims as well as curious non-Muslims about the teachings and values of Islam. Those people who attended the talks become more knowledgeable about Islam. With regards to attending lectures, one of my Bangladeshi participants stated:
In Bangladesh, I never went to Islamic lectures. But in St. John's, I regularly go to lectures on Islam in the local university campus and at the mosque because many Muslim women come up to these lectures. I have learned more about Islam from these lectures (Personal Interview, October 2008).
Socialization with Muslim women at the mosque motivated their participation. Although women have some access to the public lectures in Bangladesh, participants felt more comfortable and encouraged to go to the Islamic talks in St. John's. Furthermore, having access to the mosque allows those participants who want to offer their prayer in a jamat (congregation).
My participants also said that they modified some of their practices following their migration. This shift occurred for a number of reasons. First, participants found that there is tremendous ethnic diversity among Muslims in St. John's, and that as a group, they tend to emphasize certain attributes of Islam like the recitation of the Quran, prayers, and Ashura fasting. Second, they observed that some of the rituals that carried considerable social weight in Bangladesh (such as shab-e-barat2), are not universally practiced by all Muslims. As a result, four out of the six participants in this study abandoned the practice in St. John's. This shift does not imply that they felt social pressure to observe universally-practiced rituals; rather, immigration offered them the freedom to uphold their personal beliefs and practices, and the other Muslims with whom they come into contact in their new environments can help inform them about certain debates surrounding their own rituals and practices. This new freedom has a number of important consequences for these women, which amount, most importantly, to a significant increase in the religious capital and opportunities they enjoy.
The MSA is the Muslim Student's Association at Memorial University. Iftar parties are communal meals shared at the end of each day of Ramadan, the month of sunrise to sunset fasting in Islam.↩
Shab-e-barat is the night in which it is assumed that one's fate is written for the approaching year. It occurs on the fourteenth night of the Arabic Shaban month. In order to be rewarded, observers usually fast during the daytime, make ruti and halua (pita bread and sweet foods made with semolina), and other kinds of food, distribute these among poor people and neighbors, and pray throughout the night.↩