Book Review: Immigration and identity negotiation within Bangladeshi immigrant community in Toronto, Canada

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This thesis explains that globalization processes caused Bangladeshi Bengali migration to Canada and it is a strategy to respond with the post-independent social, political and economic insecurities in the homeland. A good factor is the Canadian immigration policy and the Multicultural Act that the government adjusted to meet labour demands in local job markets. This is how Bangladeshi Bengali immigrant community is growing in Canada. This research is aimed to explore how Bangladeshi immigrants’ national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender, and class identities that were shaped within historical and political contexts in Bangladesh are negotiated in new immigrant and multicultural contexts in Toronto or in other words, to determine whether transnational migration to Canada as a global process creates homogeneity, disjuncture, hybridity, or inequality in Bangladeshi immigrants’ lives in Toronto, and how Bangladeshi Bengalis as an ethnic and cultural group relocate their identity within Canadian multiculturalism. The research explores by looking at many various identity negotiation processes.

The researcher conducted in-depth anthropological research for one year with the Bangladeshi immigrants in Danforth and Victoria Park area in Toronto from 2007 to 2008. For class diversity, the researcher also includes Bangladeshi immigrants living in Dufferin and Bloor Streets, Regent Park, and Mississauga areas. Snowball and purposive sampling techniques were employed to find key informants. Bangladeshi immigrant families were from three religious groups – Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. In-depth personal interviews, case studies and focus group discussions were employed among these three groups of key informants. This research states that Bangladeshi Bengali immigrants negotiate and re-define their “proper” ethnic, cultural, nationalist, and religious identities by imagining, memorizing, simulating, and celebrating local traditions while on the other hand, they define “authentic” identity by creating “separations” and “differences” based on colonial and nationalist histories. However, what play important roles in shaping identity among them are also religious differences, the ideology of “majority and minority”, and social classes.

The findings of this research are that space of multicultural diasporic immigrant is neither a disjointed, nor an in-between space, nor a place where ethnic cultures are only “consumed”. Their space is a battleground to resist and challenge religious and gender inequalities in a globalized location. The identity of Bangladeshi Bengali is both fixed and contextually variable; the identity is shaped depending on political contexts of both global and local. 

Research Themes

Impacts of globalization and transnational migration on pre-colonial markers of Bengali identity

Globalization literature often claims and indicates that ‘local’ cultures, social patterns, and practices have been reshaped, changed, and re-rooted in the processes of global migration and in transnational contexts. This work has given attention to the significance of the pre-colonial, colonial, local, and cultural markers of identities within the Bangladeshi immigrant communities in shaping and negotiating their identities in transnational global contexts.

Creation and invention of ‘local’ and ‘regional’ identities within a multicultural immigrant setting

The idea of ‘local’, ‘location of culture’, and construction of nation within a particular geographic location, language, and ethnic group, are contested subjects in the global and transnational world (Appadurai 1996). He try to understand complexities of reinventing processes of “local” and “regional” in defining core ethnic, cultural and religious identities among the Bangladeshi immigrants in relation to globalization and transnational migration.

Negotiations of religious identity within an immigrant context

Scholars also have argued that religious globalization has created transnational religious structures and transnational civil societies, has challenged nation states is homogenizing social class, racial differences and offering a uniform access over the globe. Bourdieu noticed immigrants’ religious practices as ‘structural nostalgia’ of re-rooting ‘home’ in a foreign land (Bourdieu 1977). In contrast to these scholars, Gardner (2003) argued that in the post-9/11 global world, religion has become a dominant categorization of identification and a mechanism of power of the western states explained that transnational religious culture is “part of a second global culture – lying in the shadow of the first”. Asad (1983) defined religion as a mechanism of power to produce social inequality, and Marx analyzed religion as “false consciousness” (Marx in Asad 1983: 247). By connecting literature on globalization, transnational migration and religion, this study gives major attention to exploration of local forms of religious practices, symbols, rituals, and ideologies that are practiced in new locations as key markers of inventing “authentic and proper” identities among the Bangladeshi Muslim, Hindu, and Christian immigrants in Canada. This research also aims to bring forward some scholarly contributions in analyzing micro-perspectives of religious practices in the context of globalization and transnational migration.

Ideologies of religious “minority” and “majority” within the multiculturalism project in Canada

The British colonial administration invented the political and religious ideology and identity of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ and established a communal and antagonistic relationship between Hindus and Muslims in colonial India. Religious identity and ideology of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ have been reemployed in post-Independence Bangladeshi national politics, and by inventing Bangladeshi nationalism in opposition to Bengali nationalism. By connecting colonial and post-colonial contexts of shaping divided and separated religious identities among the Bangladeshi Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, significant attention is given to explore ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ ideologies and identities in the context of globalization and transnational migration to Canada.

Globalization and transnational migration, and formation of class identity and ideology of social class

On one hand, globalization processes have removed ‘old hegemonic local classes’ and has re-established them in multiple locations as “global elites”, or “transnational bourgeoisies”, and invented a new professional class with fetish consciousness. On the other hand, scholars have also argued that globalization has created an “under class”, “redundant” labour force, a “de-unionized global proletariat”, “racialized subjects”, “flexible bodies” and “ethnic subjects” in multiple locations. These studies give major emphasis to understanding Bangladeshi immigrants’ class identities and ideologies of class by connecting both globalization processes and colonial and post-colonial constructions in Bangladesh.

Immigrants’ gender identities, roles, and patriarchy in the context of globalization and transnational migration

Women’s active involvements in the global capitalist economy have essentialized gender inequality, patriarchal and religious norms, and male dominancy. In contrast to these arguments, it is also commonly argued that immigrant women’s involvement in the wage-labour market has given them economic power, agency, and freedom, and they are able to go ‘out of place’. This research gives significant attention to understanding gender dynamisms and division of labour within Bangladeshi immigrant households, and attention to patriarchy by connecting scholarly arguments of globalization and capitalist labour market opportunities in the context of transnational migration to Canada.

Factionalism, division, and separation of ethic culture within multiculturalism

The popular perceptions of multiculturalism is that immigrants from all over the world will bring diversified cultures and traditions, and that they practice, celebrate and share their cultures within the multicultural neutral spaces in Canada. The key question that was address in this research is how the complexity, multiplicity and flexibility of Bengali culture are addressed in the context of globalization and multiculturalism. The question arises whether the common goals and objectives of establishing multiculturalism, such as celebration of ethnic culture and sharing cultures with other ethnic groups, are being achieved by focusing on practices of Bengali cultural traditions in Canada.

Multiculturalism creates “contested spaces” for challenging identity

Transnational scholars suggest that transnationalism threatens existing cultural and ideological structures of the society has created “unfiltered communication “areas of argument”, and everyday forms of resistance (Scott 1985). In opposition to this argument. Scholars also have argued that social and economic spaces are controlled by traditional patriarchal ideologies, and local religious norms. In looking at ethnic, religious, class, and gender identities brought from Bangladesh, this study explores whether multicultural diasporic space in Canada has created a ‘contested space’ to challenge and resist cultural and local markers of Bangladeshi Bengali identity., or whether immigrants are creating local markers of identity and structures of society by practicing and performing traditional norms.

Bangla Town – an iconic image of diaspora identity, or a space of multiple factions?

Transnational immigrants and diaspora groups all over the world simulate an ethnic, cultural, religious, and bound space outside of their homelands that is based on their ‘local’ (homeland) imaginaries (Appadurai 2001: 61). These are iconic images of their imagined homeland, and a mechanism of defining and claiming their “authentic” identity. Little Italy, China Town, and Indian markets are examples of diasporic icons in this world. In explaining South Asian diasporas, scholars have argued that colonial and postcolonial political histories, along with local class, caste, religion and ethnic conflicts, have offered fragmented and disjoined perceptions of nation and nationhood in South Asia which is different from Jewish (religion based) and Black (slave trade) diasporas in the world. This study has focused on understanding the complex images of “Bangla Town” established by the Bangladeshi immigrants in Danforth and Victoria Park areas in Toronto as a diasporic, ethnic, iconic, image of Bangladesh outside of their homeland.

Globalization and Identity negotiation

Bangladeshi Bengali immigrants’ ethnic, national, religious, social and cultural markers of identity which was constructed within colonial and post-colonial political contexts in Bangladesh were re-territorialized, re-rooted, and contested by globalization-led migration to Canada. This research shows that

In response to flows of globalization, “Bangladeshi Bengali” as ethnic, national, cultural and religious identity has not become totally a homogenous, disjoined, and hybrid subject that globalization scholars commonly have argued (Harvey 1989; Gilroy 1993; Bhaba 1994; Gardner 1995; Kearney 1995; Appaduari 1996, 2002).

It is also suggested in this research that Bangladeshi as a nationality and nationhood as a political identity could disjoint or be turned into a simultaneous subject among religious minorities, working classes, and women immigrants.

The lower strata of the society – women, working classes and religious and political minorities – never had their entitlements recognized in the anti-colonial movements within India or in post-colonial independent Bangladesh (see Chatterjee 1993; Hasmi 2000 in Ainoon 1995: 53).

Consequently, to this group of immigrant, their imaginations and nostalgias of Bangladeshi national identity are different from those of privileged religious and social classes. But, when they want to create personal and community identity in multicultural Canada, they would usually define their Bengali ethnic and cultural traditions. The main argument of this research is that identity is constantly shaped and reshaped in relation to local and global social, political and economic contexts, as Stuart Hall (1997) said that “identification” is a continuous process. Similarly to other groups of immigrant, Bangladeshi immigrants also negotiate their ethnic, religious and cultural identity in response to various forces of “opposition” and “difference” both in and outside of the immigrant community in Toronto. Their identity is not only shaped by forming ‘sameness’ but also by making ‘differences’. Bangladeshi Bengali Muslims, Hindus and Christian have their own core religious norms, customs and rituals to maintain their distinct identity within multi-religion Canada, and they also sometimes take their religion as a tool to challenge the local differences and global religious flows.

It can be concluded that all three religious groups are creating opposition and defensiveness among their own ethnic community and also with outsiders based on colonial and pre-colonial “minority and majority” religious identity. Those Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants who maintained status as the religious majority as well as the most politically powerful group in Bangladesh have incorporated core religious values, and “scripturalist” ideologies (Hopkins & Westergard 1988: 5; Ahmed 2005) because they want to resist majority Christian cultural and political dominancy in Canada. After 9/11 incident,  Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant also have incorporated core Islamic norms, beliefs, symbols, and rituals to challenge the Western discourse of “Islamophobia”. Meanwhile, Bangladeshi Hindu and Christian immigrants who were minority religious groups in Bangladesh have incorporated their own core religious values and norms also to resist and challenge Bangladeshi ethnic Muslim dominancy in their immigrant lives in Toronto. In order to connect to dominant Christian culture and institutions in Canada, Bangladeshi Christian became the group who tries to challenge their minority religious identity in Canada. This research also mainly suggests that Bangladeshi immigrants have used religious practices and rituals as key components to negotiate their ethnic and cultural identity in Canada.

However, all three religious groups in this research have maintained the key features of Bengali culture, Bengali language, Bangladeshi dress and food because they would like to separate themselves from other ethnic and cultural groups in Canada. They would like to also challenge the ethnic and class inequalities and differences in comparison to other dominant ethnic groups by showing these elements. The conclusion can be drawn that Bangladeshi immigrants always negotiate and construct their identity depending on opposite forces, differences, “situational” and appropriate in particular contexts.

Findings

Globalization, Transnational Migration and Pre-Colonial Markers of Identity

Pre-colonial markers of Bengali identity have not been uprooted, disjointed or hybridized by the global economic and cultural networks, faster communication technology, and print and electronic media. Their individual and group identities have been reconstructed, and they have organized diasporic social organizations and boundaries by reemploying ideologies of the caste system (varnas), Jati-oriented occupation (pasha) identity, lineage status (bangsha morjada) and gender (lingo).

Although, immigrants communicate that these issues are not relevant to their lives in Canada anymore, but this study shows that these ideologies are still important for Bangladeshi immigrants to maintain and relocate their lost identities.

Globalization and Colonial and Post-Colonial Markers of Identity

The research documents that separate religious identities based on “minority and majority” ideologies, and English-educated social class that was introduced in the colonial and post-colonial political and economic contexts in Bengal are still active in shaping Bangladeshi immigrants’ class identity in Canada. They found that globalization is a process that has re-rooted colonialism and colonial nostalgia in immigrant settings but have not up-rooted it.

Globalization and Bengali and Bangladeshi Identity

In Canada, Bangladeshi Bengali immigrants in celebrate all national days in Toronto to define their national identity. In politics, they have created transnational Bengali political party offices in Toronto in order to gain social recognition. All of these are examples of identity negotiation processes of Bangladeshi immigrants. However, this study also shows that class, gender, political affiliation, and religious positions have caused fragmented imaginations, memories, and nostalgias about their national identity. Some religious minority groups and women immigrants disregard Bangladeshi nationalist identity in diaspora in order to resist religious and gender-oriented discrimination and inequalities in Islamist and patriarchal Bangladesh. Some want to embrace Canadian citizenship to mark their global identity and to avoid any more discrimination. To conclude, transnational migration as a global force disjoins the modernized bounded entity and common imagination of Bangladeshi nationality and nationalism.


 

Halder, Rumel. (2012).Immigration and identity negotiation within Bangladeshi immigrant community in Toronto, Canada” Ph.D. Thesis, University of Manitoba.

 

Cover photo credit: Toronto.com

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