Bangladesh is a relatively young sovereign state, however, it has an ancient heritage as part of the historic region of Bengal, located in South Asia. The region’s struggles with and the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War have shaped modern Bangladesh. Today, many foreigners continue to view Bangladesh through a lens of ‘development’. However, many Bangladeshis resist depictions of their culture that define it by recent hardships. Rather, longstanding cultural traditions and artistic expressions provide a great source of pride for many Bangladeshis.
Ethnicity and Identity
The vast majority of Bangladeshis (98.0%) are identified as Bengali. The term ‘Bengali’ is used to describe both an and a language. Those who identify as Bengali typically speak Bangla, known as ‘Bengali’ among most non-natives. The government of Bangladesh also recognises 27 other minorities. This figure is contested, with some arguing that there are over 70 groups within the country. Many of those who are not Bengali reside in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the region where most of Bangladesh’s indigenous populations reside.
Citizens of Bangladesh are often engaged in an ongoing discussion over which term – ‘Bangladeshi’ or ‘Bengali’ – is a more accurate descriptor both on an individual and national level. Those who feel strongly attached to Bengal or belong to an minority may have widely differing viewpoints. Some people believe that Bangladeshi and Bengali are synonymous. For others (such as Islamic activists and thinkers), religion is an important factor within these discussions. Bangladesh’s national identity has become increasingly linked to Islam, and many hold the belief that Islam is what distinguishes Bangladesh from Bengal. See the Religion section for more information on this point.
A key historical moment in terms of identity is the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Originally, Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, and was often referred to as ‘East Pakistan’. Eventually, Bangladesh sought independence from Pakistan, largely on the basis of a cultural heritage and religious affiliation that was distinct from both Pakistan and the greater Bengal region respectively. Bangladeshi military units called Mukhti Bahini (‘freedom fighters’) fought Pakistani troops throughout the country. It is unknown exactly how many people were killed during the Bangladesh Liberation War, with estimates ranging from 300,000 to 3 million. Additionally, close to 10 million people fled Bangladesh for West Bengal, located in India. Nearly all Bangladeshi families were affected, as almost every family had members who fought in the liberation struggle. This struggle saw the forging of an identity that correlated Bengali with ‘Muslim’, rather than seeing Bangladesh be subsumed into Pakistan or West Bengal. Many Bangladeshis see the liberation struggle as a source of pride and a symbol of Bangladeshis’ tendency to persevere in the face of difficulties.
Rural Life and the ‘Gram’ (Village)
The majority of Bangladeshis (roughly 65%) live in rural areas. This, coupled with Bangladesh’s very high population density, means securing land tenure and property rights has become critical. Many feel connected to the rural character of Bangladesh, regardless of whether they live at home or abroad. It is common for people to have family residing in their home village (gram). Many of those who move to larger cities for employment will visit their home village during vacations to maintain their relationships and ties. Additionally, much of Bangladeshi literature and artistic expression pays homage to the rural aspect of the culture. For more information about the importance of rural and village life, see the Family section.
Interdependence and Interactions
Bangladesh is a society, which means that many Bangladeshis are community or family oriented. Individuals often understand themselves as members of their village, family or religion rather than an individual and autonomous actor. The interests of the family or community are expected to come before those of the individual. Where strong social connections are created, there is an expectation that they will be long-lasting and reliable. Indeed, Bangladeshis can almost always trust in their social ties for assistance in virtually any activity.
When interacting with others, a calm and serious demeanour is the norm. Many Bangladeshis consider this conduct to be a sign of maturity. One’s behaviour varies based on the other person’s position within the social . Age and social position are key determinants in the level of respect required for an individual. For example, elders often are viewed as wise and are granted a high amount of respect. Hence, one would adopt a slightly more formal attitude and give precedence to an elder.
Communal generally refers to the maintaining of among communities despite possible differences. Often, communal in Bangladesh is associated with the peaceful coexistence of religions. Given the rural character of Bangladesh, maintaining is a common characteristic for those living in rural, community-oriented settings. However, the concept extends into daily life, whereby people seek peaceful interactions with one another. For example, a phrase that parents often tell their children is ‘manush hou’, which roughly translates as ‘be human’. While this translation does not accurately convey the meaning behind the statement, manush hou generally means that one should act in such a way that places the trait of being human above differences in religion, and so on.
Want this profile as a PDF?
Get a downloadable, printable version that you can read later.