In this paper, I investigate how binary framings of women’s identity have influenced struggles for women’s rights and the interpretations of the relationship between Islam and women’s empowerment in Bangladesh. These binary framings position women at opposite ends by dividing them between ‘Muslim/ religious/ moral/ authentic/ traditional’ or ‘Bengali/ secular/ immoral/ Westernised/ modern’. I trace the particular genealogies of these binary constructs which emerged during specific historical junctures and are influenced by the shifts in regional and international politics.
Drawing on primary research with women in religious political parties and women’s movement actors and newspaper reports, I provide an account of how binary framings have been used by the Islamist actors and the counter framings used by the feminists to make claims over the state. I show how these framings have influenced the politics of representation of gender equality concerns, and reflect on what this means for possibilities of women’s empowerment and strategies for resistance.