To many outsiders, Bangladesh is best known for its poverty and the natural disasters that hit it with depressing regularity.
When it comes to the position of women, however, this country has made progress that would be unthinkable in many other Muslim societies. Bangladeshi women have served in UN peacekeeping missions. There are women ambassadors, doctors, engineers and pilots. Two powerful women – the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, and her political rival, Khaleda Zia – have been alternating at the country's helm for years. The proportion of parliamentary seats held by women is 19.7 per cent, not much lower than the 22.3 per cent in the British House of Commons.
Such efforts by successive governments and development organisations have led to major improvements in the lives of women across the country, with expanded access to health care and basic education in rural and urban areas. Decades of microlending and, more recently, the burgeoning garment sector have underpinned the progress by turning millions of women into breadwinners for their families.
Nur Jahan, who lives in Someshpur, a ramshackle village of about 1,000 people, illustrates how tough life remains for many Bangladeshi women, but also how many women's lives are transforming. Jahan's husband abandoned her, penniless and in rags, on the main square of Someshpur when she was pregnant with her second child about 10 years ago. A compact and vivacious woman who is about 26 years old, Jahan spent years doing odd jobs for other households to keep herself and her children above water. In a country that ranks as one of the poorest in the world, she was about as low as it is possible to get.
Then, two years ago, luck finally arrived, in the form of a development project that arranged for women who had been widowed or left by their husbands to get jobs maintaining roads in the vicinity. The project, funded by the European Union and the UN Development Programme, and implemented with the assistance of local governments, helped about 24,400 women like Jahan across Bangladesh.
For two years, they cleared shrubs and smoothed surfaces. They were paid 100 taka, or about $1.20, a day. But the savings they accumulated allowed many of them to buy a plot of land or a humble dwelling. In addition, they were taught to start tiny businesses that should allow them to make a living going forward.
Jahan now makes and sells compost, and trades dried fish. Others in the village sell wood, cookies or stationery for a slim profit. One became the proud owner of a hand loom. Instead of being destitute, these women are now merely poor. They can afford to eat and to send their children to school.
Jahan hopes to run for a local government position in a few years. Already, people come to her for help, she explained proudly. Before, they would have hardly looked at her.
Statistics, too, underline the improvement in women's lives. The number of births by teenage mothers, for example, plummeted to 78.9 per 1,000 in 2010 from 130.5 in 2000. That is still high by Western standards (the figure for the United States is 41.2), but it is below the 86.3 recorded in India.
Fewer babies die in Bangladesh than in India: 52 out of 1,000, compared with 66 in India and 87 in Pakistan. And population growth has been stemmed.
The progress comes despite the toughest of backdrops. Over all, Bangladesh ranks 146th of 187 countries on an index measuring human development compiled by the UNDP – ahead of Myanmar and many African countries but behind Iraq. Nearly one-third of the population lives in poverty. Corruption, red tape and poor infrastructure mar everyday life. Access to clean water and electricity is scarce in the villages that dot the flat landscape of the country, whose 160 million inhabitants squeeze into an area smaller than Florida and larger than Greece.
Conservative traditions are deeply enshrined in this country, where about 70 per cent of the population lives in the countryside. There are frequent reports of domestic violence, often related to demands for dowry payments. And many women who have achieved top leadership positions owe their prominence in part to powerful male relatives.
But while women in many other Muslim nations are seeing their rights eroded by the rise of conservative Islamism, this is not the case in Bangladesh. Extremism is a fringe phenomenon, and women's development projects encounter little religious opposition.
The country is predominantly Muslim, but moderate; Buddhist and Hindu traditions are widely respected, and there is a widespread acceptance of the concept that women can work outside the home. Microlending, which took off in the 1980s, has allowed many women to start tiny businesses over the years.
On the education front, men still outnumber women in universities. But the number of women enrolling has risen steadily.