Coffee House Confessions

Anthropologist Melendy Krantz ’09 unveils a social revolution among Muslim women in Bangladesh.

By Lorraine Berry

How does a young woman who grew up in Vermont wind up in a coffee house 7,800 miles away, asking other young women about their social and sexual lives?

“On my dorm floor at IC, I met a Bengali student from Kolkata, and we spent a lot of time talking about political engagement and Bengali poetry,” says Melendy, who graduated with a double major in anthropology and politics. “After my freshman year, I spent two months in Bangladesh for language study.”

On this first trip to Bangladesh, Melendy frequented coffee houses, where it was air-conditioned and she could find safe food to eat. What she heard and observed there, however, surprised her: women were talking openly to their friends about their sexual experiences and young couples were “making out.” It got her thinking about a potential anthropological study.

The idea led to her being awarded a 13-month Fulbright fellowship in 2009–10 to do research in the capital city of Dhaka. She wanted to investigate how upper-middle-class women — primarily Muslim — negotiate the pressures of religion, Westernization, and national identity through sexuality.

“I chose this topic in part because the world of upper-class women is rarely studied,” says Melendy, who returned to the coffee houses in the part of Dhaka that is becoming Westernized, where she was more likely to meet these women.

The coffee houses, Melendy says, are “protected spaces.” The women who frequent them are driven by chauffeurs, and, thus, can wear clothes such as jeans and T-shirts that might not be acceptable on the street. These women are freer than middle-class women, who Melendy describes as “the most conservative because they work and can’t get away from the public eye because they’re riding the local buses.”

Ten years ago in Bangladesh, she says, women did not wear Western clothing, love marriages were rare, and there were no coffee shops, hookah bars, or parties at hotels — locations that have now become meeting centers for young couples. Today, many upper-class women are actively engaging in romantic relationships and thinking about sexual intimacy as something they can control.

On the question of whether or not Islamic society would frown on such behaviors, Melendy is careful to point out some mitigating factors.

“Islam in Bangladesh is more liberal than it is in other countries,” she says. “It’s rare to see women with their heads covered, although you do see them wearing every variation of tunics and pants, or even burqas — except the burqas would be bright pink.”

This was one indication of the disjunct Melendy observed between family values and individual values in Muslim Bangladesh. For example, Melendy recounts, “I saw a woman in a full burqa who was holding hands with her boyfriend. When I asked about it, I was told, ‘Well, the dress is for her parents, but the boyfriend is for her. ’ What was really clear to me was that these women feel tension between their flamboyant selves and the expectations of obeying their parents, and they attempt to balance it. They want to hold onto traditional values, but they also are expected by their peers to speak fluent English and know pop culture.”

Back in the States now, Melendy is employed as a case manager for immigration services with Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement in Long Island City, New York. She uses her fluency in Bengali and Spanish to connect immigrants living in Western Queens to resources they may need and to serve as an advocate for them.

She has completed a collection of short stories about the women she interviewed in Bangladesh and is working on a scholarly article on the major issues she observed. She hopes to return to Bangladesh to continue her research.