In a context of globalisation and the rapid expansion of low-paid ‘global’ jobs, formal schooling is no longer perceived as contributing to the acquisition of skills that are appropriate or even relevant to active engagement with the new opportunities. Based on empirical material from a village in Bangladesh, this paper explores the role of madrasa education in challenging the dominant paradigm of learning embedded in formal secular schooling. Despite charges of low quality and traditionalism, local narratives reveal how madrasa learning is used to negotiate and transform inequalities, both in material and social terms. Madrasa education is cheaper, and addresses issues of poverty, but the narratives also emphasise learning the Arabic language, seen to facilitate male overseas migration to the Gulf countries, a channel for upward social and economic mobility. In a context of global competition that supports individualism, a focus on character and morality as represented through an Islamic identity, alongside communitarian values, is seen as important for maintaining a degree of social cohesion and is hence socially valued. Reading and reciting the Quran are also viewed as essential traits for a woman, enabling her to appropriately socialise her children in the absence of her migrant husband. One finds here a simultaneous process of contestation and resistance, seeking successful occupational trajectories and social recognition for men, while at the same time contributing to the reproduction of gendered inequalities.