My family and I walk up the steps to a family friend’s house for their annual Eid get together. Taped to the door is a piece of paper. Scrawled in marker, a message advising guests that men will be sitting in the upstairs, and asking that ladies and children keep their shoes on and go straight to the basement. “Thank you for understanding,” it reads.
We’re no strangers to gender-segregated parties, but the overt message makes us feel odd nonetheless.
As we enter the house, I suddenly feel increasingly hyper-aware of my movements. Is my churidar too bright? Too attention-grabbing? Should I go into the room and shake the hands of the men or should I just go straight downstairs?
I opt for an awkward wave and quiet “as-salamu alaykum,” and then go straight downstairs.
Gender-segregated parties and weddings have, to some extent, always been a part of my life and part of the lives of my parents. But over time, both of us have seen the segregation become more extreme and overt.
What began as a sort of natural gravitation of the women to one another and the men to one another has now become a prescribed set of rules. There’s an expectation on how we’re supposed to socialize, and an archaic assumption of what’s appropriate and inappropriate.
According to my parents, it wasn’t always like this. My family is so massive, that I’ve often seen them as a microcosm of sorts. The shifts in their customs and attitudes seem to reflect dominant shifts in our specific cultural and religious group. As one particular brand of Islam has spread out of Saudi Arabia and into surrounding countries, I see conservative religious practices with no real historical roots influence cultural groups. I see a contemporary form of Wahhabism attach itself to my community and infuse it with practices that some claim have always been there, but with little to no evidence surrounding those claims.
And when I say contemporary, I mean very recent.
Rewind to my parent’s wedding in 1989. Both of them describe it as partially segregated, something not uncommon to the time or to my culture. What they mean, is that the wedding reception begins segregated, but as the night goes on, men begin to come in and eventually everyone mingles together. The divide fades away naturally.
Nowadays gender segregation has become overt. My cousins and aunts regularly attend weddings where you may never actually see any men during the course of the night. Towards the end, immediate family members of the newlyweds may enter, but won’t stay for a prolonged period.
The shift in attitudes towards gender segregation is most obvious in the change in what is considered “close family.” My parents recall a point where extended family was still considered close family, and therefore segregation—plus hijab and other more modest clothing—was considered unnecessary around them. Now, even this is considered taboo.
My father’s first cousins and aunts insist on wearing their hijab in front of him, despite them being immediate blood relatives and even growing up with each other. These divides simply did not exist in my community prior to the late 90s and 2000s—they were only meant for men who were not directly related to you.
The underlying sense of tension seems to be routed in some ultra-conservative notion that there is an inherent sexualization to male-female interaction, regardless of whether you’re a blood relative or not. There is no cultural and religious reasoning to this. There are several current Muslim communities that have not adopted the Salafi mindset, which places such an over-politicized and sexual emphasis on men and women socializing. These concepts are as foreign and new to my own people as they are to me, no matter how hard some community members will argue—(based on their selective amnesia)—that we have always been like this.
Such practices are not only exclusive to weddings, but several social occasions.
It’s reached the point that relatives of mine in Dubai are having entire homes designed to feature separate entrances and seating areas for men and women. No doubt this is a huge indicator of class status—while some see rigid religious practices as characteristics of the poor, I’ve seen the opposite. Rich Middle Eastern families seem to adopt these forms of conservatism even more than their less wealthy counterparts as a way to boost social standing. They see less conservative practices as exclusive to poor folks, and therefore, to be looked down upon.
Everything about it feels alien to me. As I look through old photographs and recall memories of my cousins and I in my childhood, I know, it wasn’t always like this.
Of course, gender segregation, to many, has its benefits. For women who wear hijab, or more modest clothing, women-only environments provides a chance to wear whatever you want free from judgment and the inevitable risk of intra-community gossip. And some natural gravitation for women towards other women makes sense—often times when we sit with men and attempt to engage conversation, we get talked over and ignored.
Or, worse, we are subjected to some humiliating microaggression. I’ve experienced this first hand, not just in the presence of men in my community, but around men in general—Western men, white men, are guilty of this too. Girl groups provide an immense sense of comfort, and belonging. In these groups, our voices tend to feel more heard, instead of in constant competition with the voices and overbearing egos of the men around us. These spaces can feel safer, and are therefore precious to so many. In many ways, they are precious to me too.
For me, it’s not the existence of women-only environments that is troubling, but the fact that in many of these social settings, it’s not my choice to sit with the women, but it is what is expected of me. It’s ceased to become a natural gravitation and is now an actual rule. And if I break this rule, and decide to go interact with the men, it now paints a certain picture of me.
Immodest, unruly, un-ladylike, un-Islamic.
Growing up, I was always closer to my male cousins, mainly because we were in a similar age group. I remember us spending summers lounging in their pool all day, playing video games, and lighting firecrackers on the front lawn.
Now I go back there, and the cousins I spent hours with just relaxing in my swimsuit are all confined to another room. I walk in, they don’t even say hello. I feel the distance between us and feel too awkward to go up to them, to say salam and hug them. God forbid I even bring up that we ever spent that much time together in such immodest clothing. My first cousins, all pooled together in a sea of white, their khanduras identical to each other and me in my fuschia jellabiya. Even the stark visual contrast serves as a reminder—they are men, you are a woman, go back to where the women and children are.
Sitting in the basement of my family friend’s home, interacting with girls I’ve never even met before, I feel the weight of our regression. I remember Eid parties at their home 10 years go, all of us together celebrating the end of a month of fasting. Music, dancing, talking. Now it’s quiet. The girls are speaking softly to one another. A baby cries in the corner. My mother looks devastatingly bored.
And I hear, looping over and over in the back of my head, the echoes of the same question: since when were we ever like this?