It’s the same scene over and over: men and women dressed in their brand-name best, shimmering and besuited, men’s hair gelled and women’s highlighted and curled, tumbling to their waists. They walk in the party together and then separate. The men enter the den of sin—living room or garage—and women enter the holy quarters, the kitchen area and dining room. The only time the two sexes interact is when the food is served.
The men drink alcohol, talk politics, smoke, tell dirty jokes and play live music. The women, if their children are absent, prepare the food, talk about their children and dance to pop music on another sound system. If the children are around, they run after them. The women rarely touch alcohol but tea is abundant.
This scene has been a part of my weekend social life among members of my Afghan-American community in the San Francisco Bay Area since I was 10 years old. But New Year’s Eve 2014, I made a resolution as I sat at yet another party separated from my husband: boycott all sex-segregated parties. I saw something deeply flawed in our gender segregated interactions. And I wasn’t having any fun.
We’re the largest Afghan enclave in the U.S. and an increasing unit of the Muslim-American-American community. Some in the community believe that Islam dictates gender segregation: funerals are segregated, women are discouraged from attending burials, the mosque is divided in rooms of men and women. But other Muslims argue that it’s more a cultural tradition even prevalent with other Americans. I’ve attended plenty of parties outside my own community where men are barbecuing and watching a football game while women cook and care for the children.
The much-discussed May 16 New York Times op-ed “Poor Little Rich Women” by an anthropologist showed how New York’s elitist banker husbands and stay-at-home-mom and wives split during their social hours to be with the same sex. The author of the op-ed, Wednesday Martin—whose upcoming book Primates of Park Avenue explores these women’s lives—had a poignant line that captured my motives for ending my social life with many Afghans and Muslims who cling to sex segregation.
“The worldwide ethnographic data is clear: The more stratified and hierarchical the society, and the more sex segregated, the lower the status of women.”
When I lived in the Muslim world for the first seven years of the millennium, I expected the segregation and tolerated it. I was there as a journalist to observe—it wasn’t my place to confront cultural taboos. But in the U.S., I put my foot down because this is my community. The people I interact with aren’t as wealthy as Martin’s subjects, but they all “choose” to spend more time with the same gender. Muslims have now adopted bridal and baby showers too, adding more gender-divided traditions to their social lives.
Not all Muslims or Afghan-Americans segregate at social events, but around me, it’s rampant. There are even born-again Muslims in families who insist on segregating our weddings as well.
Some of these Muslim women work and consider themselves equal to their men. But there’s a belief that they can only let their guard down and feel safe away from the ogling eyes of nonkin men in the room. They can make dirty jokes too and complain about their lives openly. I’m all for sisterhood and a few girls nights out once in a while. But when nearly every social event is divided, how can we learn to interact with the opposite sex?
Normal becomes equal but separate, which is an oxymoron to me, and women and men who cross the line are talked about with disdain. I’ve entered the men’s domain at these parties, and the men become uncomfortable. They stop telling their misogynistic jokes, hide their vodka-filled glasses and give each other that knowing glance which says: doesn’t she know her place?
In the U.S., it’s not the lack of exposure to women that causes men to ogle—it’s the dearth of meaningful dialogue and social interaction between the sexes in my community.
The Afghan refugee community I was raised in was desperate to hold onto its moral character. Preserving that morality discouraged male-female friendships and dating. Our elders and now even among my own generation believe gender mixing is a prelude to sinful sexual activity. What they don’t understand is that the less the genders mix, the more enticing the opposite sex becomes. Unfortunately, once in the accepted bond of marriage, husbands and wives have little to say to each other. They much prefer to hang out with their pals than their spouse because they cannot connect on a social level.
Studies show that gender segregation not only lowers the status of women—it’s the women serving the men at these parties I attended—but it has obvious adverse effects on their work and romantic relationships.
“Segregation reinforces gender stereotypes and when these men and women enter the work field, they don’t know how to co-exist. The women may be perceived as less competent and sociable,” said Nahid Aziz, associate professor of psychology at the American School of Professional Psychology in Washington D.C.
Aziz, an Afghan-American who has observed Afghans and other Muslims in different American cities, said co-gender socializing leads to better communication and more marital satisfaction.
When men and women do mingle, they have more respect for each others’ ideas, and they can learn to control their sexual impulses better and engage in activities they both enjoy.
If I can’t convince members of my community to mingle, the only other option is to continue my one-woman boycott. The response to my boycott has been mixed. My sister-in-law was supportive and had a mixed-gender gathering last week to prove her support. But some of my family members are upset. My actions are seen as selfish and snobby.
“Why can’t you just have fun? Why does everything have to be an issue for you?” one relative asked. “You’re breaking up the family when you do this.”
Another friend sneered at my decision to boycott. “You think you’re going to change our people by refusing to attend? They’re just going to backbite against you. Your principled stance is lost on them. Most of them are happy in their gendered world.”
Perhaps she’s right, but refusing to participate in these parties frees up my time to attend events where couples sit together and learn from each other’s company. Then at least I can say I went to a party and had fun.