Young Bangladeshis more conservative than their elders, survey finds

Many of my Bangladeshi friends and relatives frenetically deny that their compatriots have sex before marriage. Amusingly, about as many unmarried friends in Bangladesh tell me that they are sexually active. I imagine that, partly due to the lack of comprehensive sex education in Bangladeshi schools, a non-negligible number of unmarried women conceive during their adolescent years. If, a few months ago, a friend in that situation had called me, and asked me whom she should talk to about her pregnancy, I would have advised her to talk to people of her age first. I would have argued that adolescents and young adults are more accepting of premarital sex, abortion and having a baby outside of marriage, and that she will more likely find support in her siblings or same-aged friends than in her parents. I would have been wrong.


A few weeks ago, I invited readers to participate in what was likely the first moral beliefs survey in Bangladesh. More than 1,500 readers responded to my call and rated the morality of 37 behaviors and social policies.

Birth control, love marriage, and the consumption of meat enjoy approval ratings over 80 percent, making them virtually non-issues. Respondents also broadly approve of arranged marriage (75 percent) and divorce (71 percent).

Child marriage, bribery of government officials, incest, and littering are taboo, with none of them considered acceptable by more than five percent of respondents. Only one in ten respondents approves of having extramarital affairs, employing child domestic workers, committing suicide, or using corporal punishment in school. However, UNICEF reports that there are hundreds of thousands of child domestic workers in Bangladesh, suggesting that the qualms about having children below the age of 12 working in one’s household are overcome all too easily. Unfortunately, the moral stigma attached to bribing and littering seems similarly ineffective.

Dowry has been prohibited in Bangladesh for more than 30 years and is the least acceptable practice respondents were quizzed on. 97 percent say dowry is morally wrong, a number that may well reflect the overwhelming success of government and NGO campaigns to change public opinion regarding this issue. However, this laudable achievement should neither be seen as an end in itself, nor should it distract from the fact that dowry-related violence continues to be a serious and urgent problem. Amnesty International reports that each year several thousand complaints are made to the police concerning dowry-related violence, and hundreds of girls and women are murdered when their families fail to fulfill dowry demands.

The moral significance of animal welfare proved to be the most controversial issue. Four in ten disagree with the prevailing view that wearing fur is immoral. The testing of cosmetics on animals is considered unacceptable by a 45-to-35 percent majority. Animal issues also account for the sharpest differences between the sexes. Whereas only a minority of women in this survey finds medical testing on animals moral (47 percent), 68 percent of men attach more value to the potential benefits for humans than to the suffering of laboratory animals. Women are also less likely to approve of fur-wearing (25 percent; men: 42 percent), pornography (12 percent; men: 27 percent), arranged marriage (67 percent; men: 77 percent), and extramarital affairs (four percent; men: eleven percent). While about as many men as women consider it acceptable for parents to use corporal punishment, they disagree about the use of corporal punishment in school. Only one out of 25 women in this survey says it is okay for teachers to slap or spank their students. Among male respondents the rate is three times higher. Women are more supportive of women wearing revealing clothes in public than men, at least by a slight margin (30 percent vs. 28 percent).

Respondents significantly disagreed about the moral acceptability of apostasy, the death penalty, dating, and premarital sex. A solid majority agrees that each of these, except premarital sex, is acceptable, yet about a third disagrees. 56 percent believe that sex should occur only within marriage, 36 percent are open to the idea of sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman.

Surprisingly, the survey showed few differences across age groups. One might imagine attitudes about sex and drugs to be more relaxed among the young, yet the opposite is the case. Maybe feeling more compelled to respond in accordance with the perceived status quo, drinking alcohol is considered acceptable by only 23 percent of those respondents aged 25 and younger, smoking by 29 percent, consuming cannabis by 10 percent, dating by 54 percent, consuming pornography by 21 percent, and homosexuality by 23 percent. The percentages in other age groups are consistently higher. The young also differ significantly in their views of the moral acceptability of abortion. 37 percent of those aged 36 and older say abortion is morally acceptable, compared to just twenty percent of those aged 25 and younger.

The poll shows a wide religious gap, in particular between Muslims who tend to be socially conservative and the non-religious who generally subscribe to more liberal views. Whereas a large majority of those respondents who do not adhere to any religion approve of premarital sex, unwed pregnancies, revealing clothing, and homosexuality, less than one in three Muslims considers these morally okay. Hindus stand in between. Unsurprisingly, Muslims most strongly oppose the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, with only 20 percent approving of alcohol (Hindus: 46 percent; non-religious people: 72 percent) and 29 percent being okay with smoking (Hindus: 32 percent; non-religious people: 56 percent). Considerably more Muslims approve of corporal punishment at school (12 percent) and at home (29 percent) than Hindus (4/15 percent) and non-religious people (3/12 percent). Even though religious exclusivism is generally thought to be more prevalent in Islam and other Abrahamic religions than in Dharmic religions, Hindus are less tolerant with regard to apostasy than Muslims. Forty percent of Hindus and 45 percent of Muslims in this survey believe that it is morally permissible for a person to abandon or renounce his or her religion (non-religious people: 93 percent).

Expatriates more widely share Western attitudes in matters of sexuality and romance as well as with regard to the consumption of alcohol and tobacco than those living in Bangladesh. For example, about seven in ten Bangladeshi respondents living outside their native country say dating is morally acceptable – in contrast to only 55 percent at home. 38 percent of expatriates as compared to 27 percent of non-expatriates approve of alcohol. With just two percent approving of child marriage and four percent approving of child labour, expatriates are seemingly more conscious of the rights of children than their fellow countrymen in their native land (6/6 percent).

Americans and Bangladeshis are most divided over gambling. The 2012 Gallup poll on American values and beliefs found that 64 percent of Americans consider gambling morally acceptable, compared to only 12 percent of Bangladeshis in this survey who have no qualms with gambling. The two peoples also have opposing reactions to homosexuality and premarital sex. While most Americans approve of gay and lesbian relations as well as sex between a man and a woman who are not married to each other (54/59 percent), only a minority of Bangladeshis in this survey is okay with these behaviours (25/36 percent). Bangladeshis in this survey, however, are more acceptable of cloning than Americans. With slightly less than 60 percent of both country’s respondents approving, Americans and Bangladeshis agree that states may put people to death for certain crimes.

For the full survey results, please click here.

The online survey, conducted from June 12 to 17, 2012, was only accessible to the estimated five percent of the Bangladeshi population who use the Internet. Further, women were underrepresented, the highly educated vastly overrepresented, and no demographic weights were applied. The results hence are likely not representative of the Bangladeshi citizenry as a whole. If you are a Bangladeshi researcher and if you think your institution might be interested in cooperating with me to build upon this survey and conduct an in-depth investigation into Bangladeshi morality, I would be happy to hear from you.

Versions of this article were published under the following titles:
“Young Bangladeshis more conservative than their elders, survey finds,” English (Bangladesh, 5 July 2012)
“জরিপ বিশ্লেষণ বাংলাদেশের যুবসমাজ বয়স্কদের থেকে বেশী রক্ষণশীল,” Bangla (Bangladesh, 8 June 2012)
They summarize the results of a survey that was announced in the following articles:
“The examined life: Surveying moral beliefs in Bangladesh,” English (Bangladesh, 12 June 2012)
“পরীক্ষিত জীবনঃ বাংলাদেশে নৈতিক বিশ্বাসের উপর একটি জরিপ,” Bangla (Bangladesh, 12 June 2012)