A few days ago, Kozhikode-based architect couple Brijesh Shaijal and Nimisha went to attend their colleague’s wedding. Everyone was jovial, laughing, cracking jokes and celebrating the big day. There was a sermon by a cleric who presided over the wedding ceremony; he was talking about the sanctity of marriage and the importance of love and respect in the relationship.
And then came the moment for the customary wedding feast. Women were directed to an enclosure and men to a farther area – to dine. Brijesh and Nimisha insisted that they would have food together, but the caterer found it ‘improper’ and told them that men were not supposed to eat with women as they had their respective designated dining spaces. Appalled and hurt, the couple left the wedding venue immediately. On reaching home, Brijesh wrote a note on social media: “Please don’t invite us to weddings where there is gender difference, and where people believe that having food together with one’s own wife in a public gathering is a sin!”
Separate dining areas for men and women is not uncommon in Kerala. In many orthodox Muslim weddings in North Kerala, the practice has been there for a long time. The intent behind the idea, many say, is to prevent women from interacting with men outside their family at such social events. As time passed and people of all genders became more educated and informed, many segregation practices disappeared, but dining areas are still restricted for celebrating togetherness in many families.
VP Zuhra, activist and president of Nisa Progressive Muslim Women’s forum, says that gender discrimination has been an unwritten norm in the Muslim community and that it is practised more religiously than religion. She points out, “Discrimination against women in the Muslim community is practised not just before food, but in case of prayers and lifestyle, too. The men wield patriarchy and religious power to suppress women. The sight of people from different genders interacting insults their morality. That’s why a few years ago, a few boys and girls in a college in Kozhikode had to speak up against the suspension they faced for sitting together on a bench and irking the moral police.”
Whichever wedding she goes to, Zuhra makes sure that she doesn’t sit in the demarcated space for women. “I sit with whoever I want and ask women to join me. No one dares to ask them, what if I don’t want to sit separately. Start asking questions; they will have to lift the veil,” she asserts.
However, some Muslim couples don’t see it this way. Mohammed Rahees and Muhsina, a couple from Malappuram who got married recently, are educated youngsters. At their wedding venue too, there were separate dining areas for men and women. They say they didn’t find it as a discriminatory practice.
Rahees says, “In fact, I hadn’t given it a thought. Everyone does that in my family. I too did the same. Separate dining areas for women is arranged for their own convenience so that they can have food together without any discomfort. But if any couple or group of friends wanted to sit together, they could. Nobody would prevent them. This is a practice that’s been happening over the years, but there’s no religious connotation or gender discrimination to it. It’s all done as a matter of convenience. At our wedding reception, there was no separation and women were served food first. If it is disrespect on the basis of gender, would we do that?”
Begging to differ, Brijesh finds it strange that a couple who’d been invited to celebrate the union of another couple is being split on the basis of gender, citing religious reasons.
"And they say it’s a sin! Having food with the person with whom you live is a sin? And what has religion got to do with food? This is nothing about religion or culture. It’s sheer gender bias, embracing conservative ideas and politicising matters in the name of religion,” he fumes.
Born and brought up in Malabar areas and having travelled across the globe, Brijesh has seen the separate dining practice observed in orthodox Muslim families in Karnataka, Mumbai and even in the national capital of Delhi. But, he has so far ignored it and eaten with his wife at these events.
“No one used to object to it. Here too, the person who had an issue was not from the bride’s or groom’s family; he was citing tradition and custom. The family later called us up and apologised,” he says. But, that was a moment of realisation for Brijesh. It was time to raise his voice against an issue that had been right before his eyes all the time, which he had been ignoring.
Asked why such a system is still in practice in the 21st century, Professor AK Abdul Hameed of Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama (AP faction) stresses that it’s due to religious reasons.
“According to the law of our religion, men and women who are strangers shouldn’t mix with each other. Even though a couple comes from the same home, they are not supposed to see or mingle with people from outside the family. Among the caterers and guests are strangers; they are not supposed to mingle in a public space which is directly under our control. Many are breaking the rules these days, but according to religious law, separate dining is the right practice,” he says.
“They keep claiming that it’s all for the safety and convenience of women. But no one asks women what they really want,” quips activist Jazla Madasseri, an atheist who has been vocal about gender inequality in the Muslim community. “At any function, everybody would want to sit together with friends or cousins and have food. But, if they object to the discriminatory practices, which are termed as ‘custom’ or ‘tradition’, they will be ostracised. So devoted are some people to these practices that they assign persons at a wedding venue to direct men and women to their respective dining areas. So, they go with the flow, considering it as a part of the system,” she points out.
As someone who fights the malpractices in the religion by staying inside the system, Zuhra sees this gender discrimination at public spaces as a practice that evolved over time.
“During the Prophet’s era, women had a say in public discussions. They could air their opinions and suggestions, and those were valued. Just look at the Muslim organisations which claim that they work for the welfare of women. How many of them have women leaders who attend a meeting, deliver a speech, get a chair on the dais or can even be spotted in a photograph? Men use women for their gains and after that, women are pushed back to their houses, to slave for them,” she claims.
“What are they trying to prove with these restrictions? My grandmother, who is over 90, recalls Muslim weddings from her younger days when there was no partition between men and women. Everyone used to dine together with family and neighbours, singing songs, smoking beedi and chewing paan. With each decade, men started shutting away the women in their family. Men, who went to work in the Middle East, started making decisions for the women, claiming that this was what the women want and this is how ‘our’ women are. They conditioned the women to believe that their priority is their husband and children, and not having fun, again shunning them away from celebrations, pushing them to partitioned spaces,” Brijesh adds.
Jazla notes, “According to the primitive law, men and women who talk to each other are to rot in hell. The intolerance stoops to such a low that there are even college buses with screens or curtains separating girls and boys, ‘protecting’ the girls from the gaze of males. Some practices are slowly changing. Those have to change.”
Brijesh knows that there’s no point in arguing with the older generation, which has mixed up religion, gender and politics.
“I’m pained by the reaction of the youngsters who still let this happen. What prevents them from taking a stance against discrimination? Educated youngsters, businessmen, doctors, all of them let this happen at their weddings. These are the people who say that they are ‘giving enough freedom’ to their wives to become entrepreneurs and mingle with people. Who are they to ‘give’ freedom?” he asks. Freedom. Wasn’t that something we fought for, for two centuries, and seized from the British in 1947? Then why is it still being rationed?
Though Rahees feels that the segregation is not an intentional act of intolerance, he is open to changes: “Nobody has questioned this so far, considering it as a matter of privacy for women who attend weddings. But if it is perceived as gender discrimination, and if women are uncomfortable about it, I can ensure you this – there won’t be separate dining areas for the wedding of my child or the next generation in my family. I will mend my ways.”
Vandana is a movie-maniac, an unapologetic feminist, a believer of human rights, and admits it if she is wrong or ignorant, or both.