Bangladesh offers a one-of-a-kind experience that I was lucky to have the opportunity to be a part of. Being Muslim in a Muslim-majority country offers many insights into life surrounded by others who have similar religious backgrounds. I have had the chance to reflect on the connections between religion and culture, politics, and society both personally and through the Doyle Global Dialogue program. This has been instrumental in helping me understand more about who I am within such fluid global spaces and an ever-globalizing world, as well as how I see my identity reflected in my surroundings.
Living for a semester in Dhaka in the heart of the country, I was able to interact with many different facets of life that connect to or stem from religious beliefs. It was insightful to compare my previous lived experiences to what I was experiencing in Bangladesh. There were instances when I felt extremely foreign, like having non-Christian religious holidays as days off, yet moments where I felt right at home, such as meat being halal almost everywhere or hearing the call to prayer throughout the day for the five daily obligatory prayers.
Although I have lived in the United States for most of my life, being a minority has led me to try to understand how others live and experience the world around us. Being a minority has also offered me a flexible mentality and understanding of situations like studying abroad in a country where I do not know the language and have to use more universal communication, like hand gestures, to go about my daily life and research.
While Islam is the most widely followed religion in Bangladesh, with almost 90% of the population being Muslim, there are also Bengali Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and Sikhs who are especially prominent in more populous areas like Dhaka. The diversity of religion in Bangladesh was especially seen through government holidays such as Durga Puja, including the decorations and celebrations across the city at the beginning of October. I really appreciated being in Bangladesh then because it allowed me the opportunity to participate in such festivities that I would otherwise not be a part of.
Something that was especially hard on me was the level to which I was able to practice Islam. I enjoy spending time at the masjid (mosque) and praying with others when I am at Georgetown or in my hometown, but my time in Dhaka took a different course than I would have imagined for being surrounded by other Muslims. I was expecting to be able to go to the mosques that were at every corner and on every street, listen to religious lectures, and have thought-provoking conversations on religion. I hoped to connect with others my age who would offer me friendship which I could rely on to grow mentally and spiritually. Unfortunately, I was unable to truly achieve any of this, and I never stepped inside a mosque because of my gender. While I did expect some cultural practices to overlay religion, I did not expect the level that I experienced. It made me appreciate living in the United States, where cultural practices that can sometimes prevent girls and women from being involved in religious practices, such as praying outside of their homes, are stripped from true religious practices because of the heterogeneity of the Muslim communities found across the country.
The period of time that I spent in Bangladesh was shorter than I would have needed to fully integrate and connect more with the religious richness that many aspects of life in Bangladesh had. Although I did struggle with my personal religious connections, I wonder how a traditional study abroad with classes and student interactions would have differed from my research semester where the people I was surrounded by were five or more years older than I am, with many having their own families to take care of. Would a little more time have made any difference, or did I need to have a completely different environment for the desired experience?
Overall, I gained valuable life skills and experiences that I know I will carry into my last semester as an undergraduate student as well as into any graduate studies and work in the future. There were ups and downs, but I believe they are a part of life and make me appreciate some things more as well as aim to improve in other areas.
Doha Maaty (SOH’23) is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University majoring in global health with a minor in justice and peace studies. She is particularly interested in the intersection between health and human rights and hopes to use her education to help as many people as she can. Originally from Egypt but having lived in the United States for most of her life, Doha looks forward to reflecting on her time in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where she will be spending her fall 2022 semester. Her interests include running, reading, mythology, and Egyptology. She is always down to grab a coffee and talk about books and Islam. Doha hopes to go to graduate school for public health and/or public policy after getting her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown.