Danita Topcagic

Danita Topcagic (Blind Education and Rehabilitation Development Organization - BERDO): Danita was raised in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but moved to the United States with her family at the age of fourteen as a refugee. She is passionate about humanitarian work and earned her BA in international relations from University of Missouri – Columbia. Danita received her MA in global finance, trade and economic integration with a focus in international development from University of Denver.

It’s not a world of differences, just a different culture

29 Jun

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Reading about Bangladeshi culture and their way of life definitively prepares one for the experiences awaiting, but in no way can it train a person to develop patience when annoyances occur and it doesn’t get rid of old perceptions and expectations about professional and personal life. Not that I have any intention of tossing out my habits and previous expectations, but I am eager to develop another mindset to be able to fully understand the issues at stake and also to stop reaching for my Bosno-American solutions which only seem to complicate things.

When it comes to my professional life here, I am scrambling to find a medium as many of my coworkers are eager to know all details about my private life. Being raise in United States – the country of individualism – which is something I strongly detested, I still feel uneasy when questions are posed about who I go out with, male or female, when did I come back home, and what did I do. Maybe it bothers me because in my mind I already decided that I will be judged even before they have a chance to say anything, but then that feeling seems justified
by all the advice and comments that I have received about appropriate behavior for a woman. So after searching for my patience and for ways to deal with such questions, I discovered that it helps to be just as nosy and hit them back with same questions, which then diminishes the interrogation.

On a happier note, I feel that my coworkers treat me with respect and value my input even though all of the management positions are held by male employees. Aside from the interruptions when speaking and the times I have to argue my point repeatedly, I feel no difference in the treatment because I am a woman. I wish that I could say the same about how the local women are treated here and so I feel that I am given this treatment just because I am educated and from
a country where women’s rights are protected. It is embarrassing to experience this firsthand, meaning to be treated differently than a fellow female employee or a female family member right before my eyes, and there isn’t anything that I could do or say about it without offending the people involved.

I also feel limited about being able to go places and especially constrained by the time as it is inappropriate and unsafe for a woman to be out of the house at night, but women here face additional restraints because of so many cultural expectations placed on them. It is true that women’s rights have been getting more attention from government and development organizations, and there are signs of women breaking the cultural constraints. This can be seen in a more relaxed way women dress, increasing employment participation in parliament, and by an increase in the rate of enrollment in primary and secondary education for girls. With that said, there is more to be done, and especially much more for the poor women as they are in the worst position in the

So here is this cultural difference for which I am learning to find my patience and hope that sometime in near future the situation will improve, and women will have more rights and better access to opportunities. I have heard people in Bangladesh argue that women need more opportunities and some feel that there is a constraint due to religion and the way many people interpret it. I would say that I agree to a point because on numerous occasions on a visit to the mosque I was escorted to the back entrance, not for foreigners and non-religious persons, but for women. Definitively there are other reasons beside religion why the adult female literacy is only 30.8 percent compared to 49.9 percent for adult males, and why poor women are at higher risk for illness due to malnutrition, numerous pregnancies and hard work. Is it culture, religion, or something else? I don’t know; I am puzzled!!!

Posted By Danita Topcagic

Posted Jun 29th, 2008


  • blair

    June 29, 2008


    Actually, Islamically men and women should not be separated in the mosque as you were. Women are supposed to sit/stand behind the men for prayers. But there doesn’t need to be a barrier between them. In fact, in many countries women refuse to let a barrier be put up. And actually during the time of the Prophet – they were at war and the men didn’t have even clothing to cover themselves completely properly when they would go into sujud (prostration) or ruku( when hands are on the knees) so rather than put up a barrier; the Prophet (saws) just asked that the women stay down for a little bit longer so they didn’t see anything. Another fact is that if you aren’t in direct line of sight of the person leading the prayer (i.e. if he turned around and couldn’t see you not because there were people standing in front of you but because something was blocking you) then you are technically not praying that prayer with him or in that group.

    Anyway, the point is that that isn’t religion. It’s actually culture. Please don’t mix the two up and give Islam a bad name.

  • Danita

    June 30, 2008


    Dear Blair, thank you for your input and I appreciate your comment and I think you are right because men and women should not be separated in the mosque. I have visited several mosques, and I have asked Bangladeshi people about women’s participation at the mosque and it seems to be rare. So as I said in my previous blog the problem is not a RELIGION but the problem is the way people interpret it here. And to people in Bangladesh, this is their religion and this is their way. Do you dare tell them their religion is wrong?! I don’t think so. Because Islam religion and culture is different in Bosnia and Herzegovina than Bangladesh, than Saudi Arabia, and what’s right and what’s wrong seems to be interpreted by individuals and the cultures they live in.
    In no way was and is my intention to give Islam a bad name; I grew up in Muslim family and culture.

  • Blair V

    June 30, 2008


    You don’t tell anyone that their religion is wrong. But it is quite easy to point out different hadith by accepted people such as Bukhari and Muslim that refute the idea of such a stringent segregation in the masjid as well as verses in the Qur’an. Growing up in a Muslim household, I am sure you are familiar with these.

  • Danita

    June 30, 2008


    Dear Blair,
    I am glad you pointed this out because it is important to note different hadith, especially since I am experiencing it here in Bangladesh.
    Please continue to post your comments whenever I have spoken unclearly or if you feel that it is necessary to shed some light on relevant issues.
    I value your input. Many thanks.

  • Tait Robinson

    July 2, 2008


    this is an interesting string of comments. i’ll add a few of my own. i’ll also say right off the bat that i’m not the most theologically informed person in the world, rather I’m a very well-traveled and culturally aware atheist.

    i don’t believe religion and culture is entirely mutually exclusive as your comment, Blair, seems to suggest if i have understood it correctly. i believe that culture can give religion a bad name, just as religion can give culture a bad name….likewise, each can give the other a good name, as well. i see neither religion nor culture as unassailably virtuous, good, bad, impervious to change, right, wrong, etc. I don’t think culture or religion can ever be characterized as wrong or right. So I’m glad djanita clarified it as an issue of “interpretation” which I totally agree with.

    But maybe we can bring this back to djanita’s work and experience. I know from my own experience that cultural, religious, social, etc challenges can be an unimaginable burden to the reason why you’re in a place and the work you’re doing which, all too often, has NOTHING to do with religion, culture, society….like blind education and rehab. And that’s the real issue I’m sensing here….its like the red tape and bureaucracy you’ve always gotta deal with wherever you are and whatever you’re working on….only this time, the red tape and bureaucracy takes the shape of religion and culture (this is just an analogy for comparison’s sake, nothing more!) and social norms. Ultimately, you’ve gotta find or develop a comfort level at which you can balance everything out in order to stay and carry out your work….reconciling the positives with the negatives may seem too objective a way to justify your continued commitment to something like disability-rights activism, education, etc., but at the same time you’ve gotta go through – and constantly reevaluate – what I’ve found is essentially an ever-evolving, subjective, internal exercise. Love the work you do, be open to being changed by the experience, but don’t let it scar you or pass a breaking point where you learn to hate the place you are or the people you’re with or resent that your work keeps you there….then you’ve definitely stayed too long!

    And it’ll be cool to see if in the coming weeks your perception on the reasons for people’s questions changes….and your answers or attitude towards the questions changes. I know mine did in india, and they have in Ghana as well….i used to think one question was always totally uncalled for and nosy, and then there’s greeting that Ghanaians use that just baffled me at first until I understood that I was reading way too much into it. even concepts, like love and girl/boyfriends that I thought (in my ignorance) were universals have totally different frames of reference. and see if you come up with “blanket answers”….like great answers that are short and sweet that you can whip out to oft-asked questions and that leave the person asking the question with no response – ah, the first time I succeeded in this it was a great feeling! Sure, it’s a defense of sorts, but whatever….

    Okay, I’ve gone on way too long, and none of this is really earth shattering news anyway!

    I look forward to more comments from both of you and keeping tabs on the blog….keep on truckin’, stay well!


  • Dunja

    July 3, 2008


    I agree with Tait. This is an interesting blog because it describes experiences of a girl, who spent a half of her life in a predominantly Muslim area of Bosnia, and the other half in culture-rich United States. She is an individual that can look at the culture in Bangladesh through a unique set of eyes. She has only been in Bangladesh for a few weeks and is respectfully trying to understand the differences between that country and the other two she grew up in. These differences is what makes our planet so great!

    She poses a question to all of us, and to herself as well – to which extent is the lifestyle in Bangladesh influenced by religion. And we all can agree that religion plays a big role in a society.

    In no way is she disrespecting her hosts.

    Danita, keep sharing your experiences with us! Good luck in your noble mission 🙂

  • Danita

    July 3, 2008


    Response to Dunja – Hi dear friend and thanks for jumping to the rescue and giving a brief introduction of factors that played important role in my current perspective. Maybe I should have done that in the beginning, but I just didn’t think that it would be necessary to talk about my upbringing because I am hoping that my entries are written with minimal bias and that they alone should draw readers, not the fact that I am from a Muslim culture.

    In any case, it is good to hear your support.

  • Brian

    July 4, 2008


    It is upsetting to me whenever an individual or group is mistreated due to characteristics that cannot be changed (gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.). I find it sad. To the extent any religion believes that one group is superior to another (both Christianity and Islam have reputations for believing that the man is more important than the woman), I believe that particular religion’s teachings are devalued and diminished.

    As the focal point of many religions concerns the love and tolerance God has for all, it blinds logic to understand why people do not practice their religion and lives the same manner. It is extremely disappointing. The important point is to stress change toward people’s prejudices until the foundational element of religion, love and tolerance, are assimilated into society on an everyday occurrence. I believe Djanita’s and Tait’s interactions in places that appear to have more prejudices than her ein America and elsewhere, provides a step toward change in the right direction.

    I am not giving America a bypass either. We have many problems in these same areas ourselves, but I am comfortable in believing that we are also working toward change for the better.

    Keep up the good work Djanita and keep questioning…

  • Danita

    July 5, 2008


    Brian, I feel the same frustration when people are mistreated because of some generalizations.
    Before coming to Bangladesh someone asked me “Why don’t you find some similar projects in United States? Why go so far away to help people when there is plenty of need for volunteers here with homeless, domestic abuse, immigrants, etc.?” The reason is I share the same feeling with you, Brian…I believe that many people are working on social progress in the US and that things will improve in near future. Furthermore, I believe that there is less of activism in some of the developing countries and there is a need to unite human rights activist to raise awareness of the need to change, the need to empower minorities and groups that have accepted the sufferings for so long.
    With that said, I will gladly continue to work in places where the prejudices are stronger and will advocate on behalf of those who are left voiceless.

  • sabina besic

    August 15, 2008


    love you and very proud of you sis

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