Bangladeshi Immigrant Women in the 21st Century


A review of Education as Capital: Educated Bangladeshi Immigrant Women in the 21st Century, by Rifat Mahbub.

This dissertation examines the experiences of educated female migrants from Bangladesh. This group of women are distinct from earlier waves of migrant women on two levels. Firstly, they are all drawn from outside Sylhet whereas the majority of the literature on Bangladeshis in the UK is based on the experiences of people from Sylhet who make up about 95% of Bangladeshis in the UK, and were the largest group of migrants to the UK in the early wave of migration from Bangladesh. Secondly, the author’s respondents are all educated women who hold at least a degree either from Bangladesh or the UK. This is compared to the literature on first generation Bangladeshi women (based largely on early Sylheti migrants) who arrived with little or no formal education in the 1970s. Based on 28 interviews the author positions her thesis within a Bourdieusian framework to explore how the education they bring with them is mobilised as capital by women post migration. The author shows how gender, migration, capital and class intersect in different ways for women pre and post migration.

Chapter 1 sets the scene by presenting existing literature on the Bangladeshi community in the UK. The author rightfully points out that most of the literature focuses on the majority Sylheti community, who have largely been studied within the geographical space of Tower Hamlets. The author suggests substantial differences between the Sylheti and non-Sylheti Bangladeshis (the focus of this thesis) which she suggests are largely down to education and therefore class differences and makes the claim for Sylheti Bangladeshis being a largely homogenous group based on the relatively concentrated wave of migration and the geographical place of outmigration from Sylhet. The author also presents a timeline of UK immigration regulations which have to large degree shaped the type of migrants allowed into the UK. The author then goes on to introduce Bourdieu’s theories of ‘capital’ and apply them to skilled migrants and suggest that education is a form of durable cultural capital. Finally the structure of the thesis is presented.

In Chapter 2 the author situates her methodology to a feminist methodological discourse and describes her journey to finding and appropriating this approach as the most relevant. The author describes the study design – qualitative interviews based on a number of loose topics rather than a structured questionnaire, following a narrative technique. The interviewees were given the choice of language for the interview to be conducted in, and most chose Bangla rather than English. The participants in this research were all sampled through snowballing. Whilst this meant a relatively closed group of connected respondents, it offered the best way for the author to find participants. The sample characteristics are described before the author offers a reflexive account of her experiences in the field, focusing on the balance of holding insider/outsider status and the dynamics of interviewer and interviewee. The author discusses in detail the choices that had to be made in translating the material for transcription and the complexities of interpretation of words and sentences that do not readily translate from one language to another.

Chapter 3 is the first findings chapter exploring education as cultural capital, applying Bourdieu’s theories of education and capital to a Bangladeshi context. The educational system of Bangladesh is discussed and compared to the UK system. The history of the development of the current education system in Bangladesh is charted to help set the context and demonstrate the uneven access to education across the country. The author goes on to relate social class and family to the academic ‘habitus’ by showing the academic qualifications of parents of participants and defining them as middle class. The author applies Bourdieu’s notion of ‘doxa’, which he used to describe societies that strongly abide by the dominant proscriptive rules of the society. This notion can be used to explain the lower educational achievement of mothers where the majority of the mothers of participants had not completed secondary school. The dominant cultural norms of society within that period favoured early marriage of young women, usually in their teens. The author also applies it to the ways in which education and its pursuit are gendered for the participants in her research, showing how gender, education and society intersect, and the ways in which females are positioned as daughters of the community as a whole and thereby responsible for the honour of the community through their choices. Many of the participants came from affluent families and economic capital sometimes overrode other forms of capital in access to education. The author describes how respondents navigated the different stages of their school careers and how for women education can be used to defer marriage. This chapter also looks at migration and education, and found education only featured as part of the migration decision for 4 out of her 28 respondents, arguing that post migration education is less of a pursuit for educated women.  Based on their qualifications and histories, the author presents a classification of her respondents in to three categories of academic capital – elite, standard and general.

Chapter 4 discusses women’s employment in Britain, the author presents them as ‘adaptive earners’ drawn from Catherine Hakim’s categorisation of working women. The chapter discusses the different types of employment from full and part time employment to the economically inactive status of respondents. The author contrasts the respondents’ employability and recognition of their academic qualifications in Bangladesh to the struggles they face in the labour market in the UK. In Bangladesh a system of social capital and networks often facilitated employment. Whilst some of the respondents, notably doctors, had been able to transfer their skills, this was assisted by processes in place to enable health professionals to gain recognition of qualifications they brought with them. Whilst a medical degree was not immediately transferable, it could be built upon, respondents with other degrees found it more frustrating. The difficulties of procuring employment were sometimes experienced in tandem with the demands of a family thus adding a gendered dimension on to the migrant labour experience. Many chose jobs that could accommodate the needs of their children. The structural and cultural barriers faced by respondents in their quest for employment  when degrees are devalued to the extent that reinvesting in education cannot offer a return that is worth the costs both financial and emotional are discussed. The job sectors that women were employed in pre-and post-migration are discussed with many moving in to non-professional sectors.

Chapter 5 discusses the ways in which respondents used their education as part of their social capital and how they invest their education in to their mothering. The chapter starts by revisiting the women in their middle class lives in urban Bangladesh and the social networks that they were encouraged to form as well as abstain from. These networks were of importance beyond education as potential marriage partners could be sourced through them. In this chapter the author returns to the distinction between Sylheti and non-Sylheti migrants, positioning non-Sylhetis as skilled and educated and middle class and arguing that the appropriation of the ethno-identity of Bangladeshi by Sylhetis was problematic for the non-Sylheti migrants who wished to distance themselves from the Sylhetis on the one hand, yet found themselves inexorably dependent on the established Sylheti community at least in the early days after arrival to help with sourcing accommodation and immediate employment. The author uses Floya Anthias’ work in mobilising social ties to progress, arguing that the respondents were keen to distance themselves from the Sylheti Bangladeshi community in the UK as they saw no resonance with themselves. Drawing on Bev Skeggs’ work on social class and respectability, the author states that for middle class, non-Sylheti Bangladeshi women, it was important for them that they be respected for their middle class identity and  not judged by existing notions of Bangladeshi women. Sometimes it was difficult to attain or maintain their middle class identity due to cultural incompatibilities – the workplace interactions were less stratified than the respondents were used to in Bangladesh and many found themselves working in jobs that were not identified with the middle classes and lamented their situation working with the working classes.

In addition to this many respondents found themselves trapped in neighbourhoods out of economic necessity rather than choice, they were keen to stress the temporary nature of their current living areas indicating the highly mobile nature of the respondents. The author argues that education was central to the differences that the respondents highlighted between themselves and the others. They sought to strengthen bonds with members from their own educated Bangladeshi community as that was where they found reinforcement, recognition and importantly, respect for their preferred status – that which they held in Bangladesh rather than the one they were forced to hold in the UK. The author draws on the work of Miriam David who argues that educated mothers are more likely to put effort in to the educational attainment of their children and develops this drawing on other authors in relation to class and tradition.  The author argues that within a context of much uncertainty post-migration, education was the one form of capital mothers could utilise for their children, if not themselves, by attempting to maximise their children’s educational potential. The author returns to Bourdieusian notions of the transfer of capital through its reproduction and the investment of economic capital in to education to ensure children receive the best education. The educational achievements of children validated the education of the respondents.

Chapter 6 is the concluding chapter and reiterates the key findings as well as posturing further avenues for research. The author reminds us that in the literature Bangladeshi women is synonymous with Sylheti women and their experiences do not reflect that of educated non-Sylheti women who migrated post-2000. This dissertation widens the lens on Bangladeshi women and charts their maintenance of a middle class social identity across different contexts and spaces. The methodological details contribute to feminist writings about the position of the researcher and the responsibilities they hold and the author returns to an in depth reflexive account of the process of writing the dissertation. The author weaves together the threads of the dissertation mapping path from Chapter 1 to Chapter 5 and persuasively shows how Bourdieu’s theories of class and education have been extended and applied to a group it has not been applied to before and how the dissertation contributes to the feminist literature by highlighting the ways in which social class, culture and gender intersect across fields. The chapter concludes by posing important questions that have arisen from the study, including commentary on the current immigration system with a recognition that the economic and educational capital are not always enough to ensure a transfer of skills, as these can become devalued with migration.

Dr Nilufar Ahmed
College of Human and Health Sciences
Swansea University, UK

Primary Sources
Key informants (interviews)

Dissertation Information
University of York, UK. 2014. 262 pp. Primary Advisor: Gabriele Griffin.

Image: Included with permission.

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