Q & A with Sr. Violet Rodrigues: Educating girls in Muslim Bangladesh

Sr. Violet Rodrigues teaches English at Holy Cross College in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

Sr. Violet Rodrigues teaches English at Holy Cross College in Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of several roles she has held as an educator, including serving as a teacher and headmistress in a village school in northeast Bangladesh. She grew up in the village of Noakhali, near Chittagong, Bangladesh's "second city."

The former area coordinator for the Sisters of the Holy Cross has ties to the United States, having spent part of 2015 at the order's motherhouse at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana.

In late 2015, Rodrigues talked to Global Sisters Report about education in Bangladesh, the role of religious education, and the future of the country.

GSR: Most of the students at Holy Cross are Muslim, as are most people in Bangladesh. How do you and the other sisters approach education as members of a religious minority?

Rodrigues: I may start out a lesson using a Gospel story, but what we emphasize throughout is the idea of girls and young women 'using your talents.' Learning values and having something to hold on to — that is what we are stressing. We don't discuss our religion much, but we do emphasize humanity and moral values so that our students can help contribute to a good nation and serve others. They learn from us, and we hope some of those values will be passed on when they enter the work world, so they go out from our school with their mind, heart and good habits.

Are there challenges in an environment in which conservative Islam is being felt more and more?

Our constitution speaks of secularism as the foundation for our society, and I think that's a good thing, definitely. As for the environment at the school, we still think it is important for us, as educators, to emphasize the importance of respect for all religions — Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. That has not changed for us. As for the students, we do see a conservative element more, as in more girls wearing the hijab when they come to school.

However, all the students are required to wear a school uniform, right?

Yes. Once at school, on the campus, all of the students have to wear the same type of school uniform inside. We know some parents are becoming conservative, but they understand our policy on uniforms and respect it — they still want the type of education we offer. And we shouldn't forget that are also girls who, when not in class, wear T-shirts, jeans, pants. Many have boyfriends. So there is a kind of liberal road and conservative road, and yet they are all, or nearly all, Muslims.

Tell me about your own experiences growing up as a woman and as a Catholic in Bangladesh.

My father, a government employee, made sure all of the children — I have four brothers and two sisters — had an equal education. Maybe my sisters and I didn't have quite the same freedom the boys had, but we had the same education. My sisters, my sisters-in-law are all working. All are teachers. It's important to empower women. How else can the country develop? How else can you do that if you're not educated? It's certainly positive that the rate of education for girls and women is growing. More and more, girls of the younger generation are getting educated. It's a good thing.

One of the dominant figures of this past year has been Pope Francis. How is he viewed in Bangladesh?

I think people take him as a spiritual leader who speaks out on justice issues — for looking for what is right. He is an example to other leaders of the world. He is asking, 'What are today's problems?' He may be 79, but he seems to have a youthful attitude and approach, and that is appreciated by younger people. It is simple and heartfelt. It touches people in this sophisticated world.

[Chris Herlinger is GSR's international correspondent. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]