Theses Doctoral

Coming of Age on Bangladesh Avenue: The Remaking of Love, Kinship and Property in Detroit

Samaddar, Sunanda

Encompassing transnational practices of marriage and kinship within the scope of domestic research provides a critical vantage point by which to examine how families are able to access, value and use education. Exploring arranged marriage as a register for larger social formations, this 2 year study shadowed the lives of Bangladeshi ESL students attending high school in Detroit’s inner city. As a ‘Coming of Age’ ethnography, this study examined the life trajectories of working class Muslim students navigating between the institutions of transnational kinship and the Detroit Public Schools.
The competing and often contradictory agenda of multiculturalism and racial integration reveal the dysplasia of ethnic working class subjects living within the interstices of biracial America. This paper describes how multicultural discourse’s myopic engagement with the feminine served to mute the systematic disenfranchisement of working class Bangladeshi men while constructing feminine narratives of discontent. As a ‘coming of age’ ethnography, this 2 year study examines the life trajectories of young Bangladeshi men and women navigating between the institutions of transnational kinship and American urban education.
Whereas the bodies of working class Muslim school girls became the sites for inscribing competing ideals of modernity, self-realization and womanhood, boys were condescended toward as enjoying chauvinistic privilege by the family. The lack of academic achievement for boys was oftentimes rationalized as the general chauvinism of the family’s patriarch. However, boys also bore the balance of family finances without the authority to dictate their own life trajectories.
For Bangladeshi students in Queens, Segarajasinghe-Ernest explained “the school experience is the single most important factor in reconfiguring female students’ aspirations” (Segarajasinghe-Ernest 2004: 73). In describing the reshaping of desires, Segarajasinghe-Ernest was confronted by ontological narratives of hopes, dreams and eventual disappointment. The desire to academically achieve in an attempt to transcend the restraints of class and kinship was described against the dramatic trend of arranging marriage for girls at younger ages.
Similarly, Sarroub (2005) explored the dichotomous world of Yemeni girls attending high school in Dearborn, Michigan. She argued that public schools served as a space for exploring and contesting competing religious and cultural pressures. By documenting the dogged eagerness with which girls pursued formal education, Sarroub demonstrated how girls negotiated their obedience to their families, in their efforts to stave off marriage. However, the binary construction of education versus marriage in recent ethnography may only recapitulate Orientalist assumptions of ethnic cultures as patriarchal.
The research asks: How do Bengali students adapt practices of kinship, or purdah to the racial politics that animate Detroit’s urban school reform? Purdah, literally meaning veil or curtain, is a highly gendered, poly cultural and syncretic set of practices separating spaces of purity from defilement. By separating or shielding one’s kinswomen from the public eye, families are able to uphold particular practices of discernment regarding religious purity and social stature.
The reduction of transnational working class strategies for survival, which often depend on both children and adults as well as men and women and extended family contributing to a common household income, to a reified issue of women’s equality framed arranged marriage as unchanging, dogmatic and dehumanizing to women, implicitly blaming the cultural “conservatism” of family for the abrupt eclipse of many young women who were once academic hopefuls. Examining the role of extended family may contribute toward an ethnological dialectic between the traditions of Comparative and International Education (CIE) and American Educational Anthropology by problematizing various sorts of domestic norms, sociological measurements, humanist discourses and cultural biases embedded in national level research (Ogbu 1981).
Though Bangladeshis students were initially inspired by the prospect of transcending cultural and class boundaries, they were confronted by an educational apparatus which was not necessarily egalitarian, nor merit-based. Within the various socio-cultural constraints of the inner-city public school, Bangladeshi students had to contend with either ending their education in order to work, or to prepare to struggle upstream against a steep, expensive and oftentimes bleak academic learning curve, if they decide to enroll at a university.



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More About This Work

Academic Units
Comparative and International Education
Thesis Advisors
Varenne, Herve H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 15, 2015