Bangladeshi Women in London


A review of Navigating Histories: An Exploration of Second Generation High-Achieving British Bangladeshi Muslim Young Women Living in North-East London, by Shamea Yasmin Mia

This thesis examines the narratives of highly educated second-generation British women of Bangladeshi origin living in various parts of north-east London (within M 25), England. The research data is gathered from semi-structured, in-depth interviews with twenty women carried in 2006 and 2012. Mia’s theoretical framework draws on South Asian cultural psychologist Sudhir Kakar’s (1981) and American development psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson’s (1997) analysis of a child’s psychological development as a continuous social process culturally inculcated by (biological) family, which are often used in accordance with certain postcolonial theories of identity and diaspora.

Mia’s subject group is unique and important in two main ways. First, the participants are between the ages of 20-30 years, as opposed to young-adults (16-20 years) who are often the focus of research on second or subsequent generations of Bangladeshis. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the author has chosen participants with parents of non-Sylheti Bangladeshi backgrounds. This is significant because Bangladeshi with Sylheti backgrounds comprise almost 90 % of its current population. Because of this region-centrism, until very recently, all academic or policy-oriented works on Bangladeshis in general and Bangladeshi women in particular have concentrated on Sylheti-Bangladeshis, especially on the biggest Bangladeshi diasporic community living in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Mia takes on a significant point of departure to represent a social group who has never been represented before.

Chapter 1 lays out the background of the research. Here, the author summarises the arguments covered in the thesis. They are: 1) Intergenerational shared language of the immigrants, in this case, Bengali often plays a key role to hybridise the identity of the subsequent generations of the immigrants. 2) Using Bhaba’s concept of “heritage of transformative” (p.11), the author explores how her participants create their own spaces of possibilities of meanings through living between cultures and languages. 3) One of the key aims of this research, as the author notes, is to represent the voices of diversity within Bangladeshi and Muslim communities, as she states “there are different ways in which Muslim young women portray themselves and their beliefs” (p.11). 4) The author’s effort to create an intergenerational tales through the reported narratives of affluent second-generation Bangladeshi women finds its completion as she situates her participants’ “individual self” within their known domains of family and the community, creating dialogues between the generations.

Chapter 2 reviews literature relevant to the thesis. They are: 1) the changing emphasis in the literature on South Asian, and also Bangladeshi, women from being passive and “victim” to “hybrid, strong and articulate” (p. 24); 2) the migration histories of South Asian women to Britain; 3) the notion of diaspora as a lived experience; 4) the issue of culture and language in relation to diasporic identities of the second-generation young women who are the main focus of the thesis; 5) Certain literatures on Bangladeshis in other countries such as the USA and Malaysia; and 6) the relationships between immigrant parents and children, and the ways in which their diasporic subjectivities are worked out through dialogues  in the families. Feminist criticisms are used both to critique the early skewed representation of South Asian women in Britain and to define the key terms of the thesis such as identity and diaspora. Following Bhavnani and Phonex’s argument of immigrant women’s identity as “fluid” and Brah’s notion of diaspora as a journey (pp. 25-27), the author reemphasises the significance of the term “navigate” that she uses to describe the changing process of history and identities for settled diasporic populations. Eric Erikson’s psychoanalysis of identity formation, which sees identity formation as a life-long and interactive process, is central to the analysis (p. 32). Sudhir Kakar’s theory helps the author to contextualise the South Asian dimension of individual’s psychic development in relation to her family, cultures and history, first implanted in a child by her mother.  Second or subsequent generations of immigrants, like the author’s participants, grow up, develop and perform their identities negotiating different cultural realms.

Chapter 3 discusses the methodology of the research. The author used in-depth interviews to collect the primary data of the analysis. The “narratological method” (p. 60) within an ethnographic structure has enabled the author to develop an emphatic and reflective knowledge about a group of women of her own community. The demographic details of the twenty interviewees have pointed towards the diversities of sampling in terms of the participants’ academic qualifications and professions within a limited group. The participants’ professional degrees have ranged from medicine, dentistry, accountancy to law. A number of them had graduate/postgraduate qualifications in subjects such as sociology. Sixteen out of twenty women were employed mainly in the fields of their academic expertise, and four were full-time students at the universities when the interviews were taken. The researcher has mainly used “snowballing” technique to find her participants within her select community in London.  The author discusses the possibilities and limitations of being an “insider” researcher, thus bringing the question of confidentiality and disclosure at its fore.

In chapter 4, the first of the four analysis chapter, the author discusses her participants’ intra-family communications as the main platform of creating their diasporic selfhood. Based on one of her participants’ observation of “English” being a “harsh” and “authoritative” (pp. 96-97) language compared to Bengali, the author argues that colonial histories can determine the ‘paternalistic’ and ‘materialistic’ positions of English and Bengali languages. The author uses the metaphor “door” to describe her participants’ (and her own) simultaneous movements between Bengali as their “private” and English as their “public” languages (p. 97). Just as diasporic identities involve cross-cultural amalgamation, immigrant community’s language can be similarly hybridised.  She uses the term “Benglish” to define the continuous code switching between English and Bengali in her participants’ intra-family communications. The author concludes the chapter by highlighting the second generation young women’s perception to maintain the heritage and language of their parents. The young women have resisted to be identified in a culturally assimilative term, emphasising the necessity to pass down the shared “community identity” to their subsequent generations.

From the “home” environment, in Chapter 5 the author moves her attention towards the theme of her participants’ friendships.  This theme has been addressed by taking into account the participants’ friendships both within and outside of their communities. Friendship, as the author argues, plays a fundamental role in creating a sense of subjectivity among these young women. The chapter begins with the respondents’ reflection to their adolescent when partly based on their gender identity and partly based on their cultural differences, many of them encountered considerable family (often from their mothers’) resistance in building friendships with young-adult men of any ethnic background. Given the fact that all the participants grew up and were schooled in a densely multicultural context of London, all had friends outside of their family/community acquaintances. Interestingly, although the respondents have talked about the inevitability of  their having culturally/racially different friend circles in a multicultural context, almost all of them have suggested that over time (and with maturity) their friend circles were dominated by people “like them” – second-generation immigrants and most notably of South Asian, Muslim backgrounds. The tendency of Bangladeshis, regardless of their time of migration, sharing stronger social networks with South Asian communities (mainly Pakistanis and Indians) than with the members of the host society (white, British) is well documented in literature (Tariq Modood, Richard Berthoud, Jane Lakey, James Nazroo, et al., eds., 1997, Ethnic Minorities in Britain: Diversity and Disadvantage. London: Policy Studies Institute). This particular study further complicates this trend by highlighting that while many young women may have “white” friends during their adolescent, over time their preference may shift to develop friendship based on the norm of “similarity” to balance out their British-Bangladeshi (or Asian) identities in Britain.

Chapter 6 looks into the participants’ romantic relationships within the context of their diasporic life experiences. The narratives of these young women have highlighted the cultural, familial and interpersonal repertories around their romantic choices. Through romantic choices, young British-Bangladeshi women can potentially transgress their cultural boundaries, though their “choices” may often be rationally negotiated. Participants’ age and maturity are crucial in developing women’s own agencies in choosing their partners.  Although the author gives ample examples of how her respondents have negotiated and compromised when their romantic attractions have contradicted the expectations of their families, yet their narratives also strongly suggest the cultural shifts towards accommodating young women’s choices of their own partners in affluent, well-educated Bangladeshi families in London, even when that choice may involve transgressing their ethnic boundary. Contemporary young women, as the research suggests, can use a variety of cultural references to articulate their preferences of personal choices. Some may prefer white (perhaps British) men based on their anticipated sense of freedom in such relationship, while others may prefer to prioritise their Muslim and/or Asian/Bangladeshi identities while choosing partners for as culturally significant a relationship such as marriage. The study strongly shows that young Bangladeshi women often take into account parental preferences, family opinions and community judgments while they choose their romantic partners.

Chapter 7 addresses the question of young women’s diasporic identity in close relation to the thesis’s key metaphor of “travelling” and navigating through spatial and cultural boundaries. Cultural navigation of identity involves how some young women have embraced Islam to articulate their global identity – an identity surpassing cultural, ethnic and minority boundaries.   A number of her participants have talked about their renewed appreciation of Islam. It is imperative, though, to bear in mind that like other key issues such as family, culture, marriage and careers, about Islam and religion there cannot be any mono voice about how young women perceive and practice their notion of Islam The voices of the young women with which the chapter concludes strongly indicate the practice of “new” lives in the Bangladeshi diaspora in Britain, where young women are in positions to integrate with the wider society both economically, culturally and socially, yet perhaps they will be the celebrators of their “own” intergenerational cultures and heritages.

Chapter 8 concludes the thesis, indicating “new” pathways for knowing Bangladeshi diaspora and its highly-educated young women in London.  The author notes the three main ways this thesis contributes to the scholarship of migration, diaspora community, intergenerational studies and ethnicity; they are: firstly, the complex emotional spaces from which the young women develop their voices about relationships that matter to them – family, friends and love; secondly, using an interdisciplinary theoretical framework based on psychoanalysis, postcolonial studies and narrative methods contributes to the nuanced contextual understanding of the narratives; and finally, the central roles families and parents can play not only to  pass on their own histories and cultures to their children, but also in developing immigrant children’s capacity to integrate with the wider society. The author concludes the thesis indicating the key emerging areas of the thesis where further research can be done. The topics include research on first-generation “professional” Bangladeshis of the 1970s who have been absent from the British academic landscape about Bangladeshis. She emphasises the necessity and possibility of creating diverse and complex knowledge on young men and women of Bangladeshi diaspora in Britain, who comprise the majority of the populations of this diasporic community.

The dissertation and its findings will come useful to students and academics working in wide ranges of fields within the terrains of South Asian immigrant communities and second-generation immigrants, issues of identity and languages in diasporic contexts, Bangladeshi second generation women in  any contemporary diaspora within and outside Britain. It is also a significant read for researchers interested to use psychoanalytical theories to understand the family dynamics and the parent-child relationship within highly-educated immigrant families. General readers interested in the histories and current conditions of Bangladeshi communities in Britain will find the thesis informative.

Dr. Rifat Mahbub
Assistant Professor
Department of English and Humanities,
BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Primary Sources
Key informants (interviews)

Dissertation Information
Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2014. pp. 223. Thesis Supervisor: Emeritus Professor Vic Seidler.

Image: Street logo sign of Brick Lane in English and Bengali in London. Wikimedia Commons.

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