The effect of this separation is amazing. To the point where my brother jokes that films of men and women merely dining together are considered racy, pornographic material in Arab countries, where the segregation is even more stringent because of non-Islamic, cultural influences. Imagine Arab teenage boys passing around Samire Does Dubai. One says to the another, “In this one, she sits at a table with two guys! They all share one plate of spaghetti!”
I may make myself unwelcome at many mosques in the United States, but I really think men just want to protect their big prayer rooms where they can line up behind the mosque reli¬gious leader, the imam. Maybe they enjoy knowing we’re sitting somewhere else, a position of shame in the basement as opposed to a position of honor behind the imam. It’s just patriarchy. The reasons to preserve segregation are not good ones. I’m tired of Muslim women having to make concessions, like sitting some¬where else instead of the position of honor, or wearing hijab because men can’t control themselves. We serve the punishment for a man’s insecurity over not acting on temptation. If I’m wrong about this, I would love for a male member of a mosque with a similar division to invite me to sit with the men in the large prayer hall, and all the other sisters too.
My mom says that whenever there is segregation at a party, she inevitably ends up on the men’s side by invitation—debating politics, exchanging jokes. I usually don’t follow her, and I end up peeking over the partition to see what the men are doing. The partition actually raises my curiousity. If we are a community, let’s be one and sit together. There is nothing in the Qur’an that solidly justifies such segregation. There is much in our native cultures that does, and we must move beyond that. We’re Americans now, and Muslims, and must come together as such.
I could tell my life story based on my experiences with pork products. As a Muslim, I do not eat pork. In fact, the Qur’an lists a specific set of prescriptions for food and eating within Islamic guidelines, described by the term halal. These prescriptions are slightly less strict than and quite similar to the ones set down in the Torah, and the terms halal and kosher are practically inter-changeable. The only part of the halal diet that I actually follow is the restriction on eating pork or any by-products produced from a pig. I don’t think I’ll be condemned on Judgment Day for not following a complete halal diet. I could be wrong about that, but, to me, there are other things that are more central to my identity as a Muslim, specifically contributing time and money to charitable causes and fasting during Ramadan.
When you live in a country where the majority of people eat pork freely, the Islamic restriction on pork ends up being really important. Anyone I have ever dined out with knows that I don’t eat pork, and that’s a lot of people! Let’s say that, on the average, I’ve eaten out with various non-Muslims about once a week for the last ten years. Each of those 300 or so people heard me tell my waiter, “I can’t eat pork. Could you make sure there isn’t any in the food I ordered?” So whether I told my dining companion(s) that I don’t eat pork because of religious reasons or if he or she intuited that on their own, many people know that I don’t eat pork. These same people probably don’t know that I fast during Ramadan or that I’m supposed to pray five times a day. What they know about Muslims through me is that we don’t eat pork.
My parents taught me to follow this restriction on pork. To emphasize the point to my young brother, my mother told us that “pig” was a bad word, and we couldn’t say it. As a result, we largely ignored Miss Piggy, focusing on other Muppets, and often spelled “pig” when we needed to use that word, saying, “Mom, is there p-i-g in this?” My brother was too young to know how to spell correctly and created his own innovation by saying, “I saw g-r-p’s at the zoo!” We thought my brother’s attempt at spelling pig was so funny that we adopted it and soon after were saying at restaurants, “We can’t eat any g-r-p’s” and, upon seeing our waiter’s quizzical look added, “I mean, pork.”
My parents continue to emphasize this restriction in all ways possible. One day I called home from boarding school to tell my mother I had a crush on a boy in my class. “Is he Christian?” my mom asked. “I guess,” I responded, thinking that was far less important than that this boy and I were going to live happily ever after once he realized I existed. “Well,” my mom stated in that motherly, matter of fact tone of hers, “I wouldn’t want to kiss someone who’s eaten pork! YUCK!” Clearly my mother’s disap¬proval ended the relationship before it began. Other girls date boys who ride motorcycles to scare their mothers; I just have to date a boy who eats pork!
In the past few years, pork has enjoyed a revival in the culi¬nary world, and I often find myself skipping over menu items that end with “wrapped in pork.” I’ve also been dining out with friends a lot more in recent years. As a result, my dinner or lunch companion is treated to an unsolicited lesson on halal eating! Sometimes I ask the waiter if the item can be prepared without pork, and sometimes I just don’t feel like going to the trouble and order another dish.