This paper addresses the common question, ‘Does Islam empower women?’ in the context of contemporary Bangladesh. Its aim is not to offer a substantive answer, but to bring out the politics of the question, and to suggest some new criteria by which specific cases might be assessed. The paper begins by exploring the complexity of question, given the longstanding use of gender as key signifier of both modernity and Islam, which is intensified in the current ‘war on terror.’ It then outlines briefly the situation in Bangladesh, characterised by narrowing indicators of gender inequality on the one hand and increased visibility of Islam in society and politics on the other. Tracing how religion figures in the gender literature reveals shifts from absence, to masculine (and oppressive) presence, to stressing women's (oppositional) agency, and to seeing women themselves as religious subjects. Two individual religious women in Bangladesh are then introduced, and the commonalities and contrasts between them analysed. The paper concludes that the gender politics of Islam cannot be assumed, since there is diversity by broader political perspective, experience, and social location. Affirming the moves of recent scholarship to understand religious narratives in their own terms, it nevertheless argues that this is not sufficient. There is need to explore two further basic questions: how others are positioned through the exterior constructed by the constitution of the self; and whether one domain may be co-opted by another, to serve very different political ends.