My sister likes to tell a story about a Columbia University Muslim student group iftaar (the meal to open the fast after a day of fasting during Ramadaan) she attended when she was a student at Barnard College. She had stunned the conservative, young Muslim crowd by breaking the norm of gender segregation and sitting at the same table as a Moroccan boy she knew. The rest of the group gaped at her as the two chatted. She says now that she wished she had been even bolder and placed her hand on his shoulder — what horror that would have caused!

They stared at them because normally, in gatherings, Muslims divide up by gender. Some argue there is a Qur’anic basis for this — partially to preserve women’s modesty. However, from my perspective, such interpretations are quite literal, to a fault even, and do not take into account that we live in America, where men and women freely wander amongst each other. So my sister did it — she just sat and ate her food with him. “We might as well have been having sex for the looks we got!” Aliya says. They just stared with their mouths hanging open — they looked like the test audience for Sharon Stone’s sexually explicit movie Basic Instinct, according to Aliya. When Aliya shared a bagel with her friend, the rest of the group may have suffered cardiac problems.

Such segregation is usually the result of carrying over cultural traditions from one’s native country. In Pakistan and other Islamic countries, the local mosque is merely a place to pray, particulary at the time when today’s immigrants to America lived there. Women stayed home to watch the kids. The Qur’an excuses women from praying at a mosque for that reason — to watch her children and the house. The mosque in these countries though is different from an American mosque in an important way that behooves the equal inclusion of women. Mosques in America have created themselves in response to the model of American churches and synagogues: a place of worship as a community center for the group as well, where members of the faith can socialize and meet each other. Since my mosque is a community center and not merely a place to pray, I want to feel respected not resentful. I want to feel that I am a part of the community. Many American mosques point to the fact that they have a women’s board of directors which assists the usually all-male board of directors that oversees all the mosque activities. To me it is yet another separation.

The absurdity of carrying over this mostly cultural tradition to the US is evident in the friction Muslims like me and my sister grew up here feel with this segregation. We’re Americans, and Brown v. Board of Education might as well be stamped on our foreheads: separate is inherently unequal and confers a badge of inferiority on the group that is separated. Women in Islam are not inferior (unless you literally follow a few Qur’anic interpretations that are limited in their outlook and unadapted to our times). To separate them implies so. I’m tired of going to mosques and being shifted about like cattle: “Sisters pray upstairs/in the basement/in the side rooms,” areas that are inevitably inferior in some respect, either no heating or too far away from the main prayer room actually to hear the imam’s khutba. Mothers are usually expected to take their children, both boys and girls with them, to the sisters’ area. As a result, the sisters’ prayer area usually resembles an out-of-control day center. It’s not easy to concentrate on praying. The balconies eerily remind me of the segregation the African-American community suffered through, as they were required by law to sit in crowded balconies in courtrooms and movie theaters, though the African-American community suffered much more than American Muslim women do.

I don’t see why we can’t pray in the same room, split by gender down the middle of the room. If we are to be judged God on Judgment Day with no distinction considered other than our piety, why can’t we pray in the same room? If men and women pray alongside each other in Mecca, why can’t we in our local mosque? If we are split down the middle, women and men don’t have to worry about prostrating in front of a person of the opposite sex, a potentially embarassing situation. Yet we can enjoy sharing prayer to God together, in one unified group, in one room. This is how Muslims shall stand before God on Judgment Day.

When I tell this to men who defend separating women they think I’m only trying to cause trouble. But this is really about respect. I want to know that I’m respected in my mosque and received as a peer, an equal. I do see the benefits of separation in some situations, but at the mosque, our community center, I want to feel included, not excluded. Special protections are sometimes tantamount to the protectors’ saying, “You need to be protected because you’re weak and can’t do it yourself.” Well let me watch out for myself, and you worry about yourself.

My uncle Adnan says that having women alongside while he prays would be distracting. He just wants to concentrate on God at this time, but he says, instead, he would be thinking about that girl near him praying. As with hijab, I feel that women are expected to modify their behavior because men say they have inadequacies and cannot control themselves. I can respect wanting to concentrate on God, but it’s hard for the women to concentrate if we’re freezing or if our kids are running around hitting each other. There is no Qur’anic basis for this distraction theory, and, no disrespect to my uncle, it sounds too much like men making excuses to preserve their space.

The emphasis 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 Samira 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’m going to go out on a limb here, and, in doing so, I will probably be unwelcome at many mosques in the US. I really think men just want to protect their space, their big prayer rooms where they can line up behind the mosque religious 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. They are typical male responses. I’m tired of Muslim women having to make concessions, like sitting somewhere else besides 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 — 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 do, 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 interchangeable. 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 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 Ramadaan.

But, 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, since I was 13. That’s 520 meals out with, I would say, at least 300 different people. Each of those 300 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, about 300 plus people know that I don’t eat pork. These same people probably don’t know that I fast during Ramadaan or that I’m supposed to pray five times a day. But they do know I don’t eat pork, and they probably know it’s because I’m a Muslim. As a result, what my dinner and lunch companions know about Muslims through me is that we don’t eat pork.

Until recently, I never thought twice about instructing my waiter that I don’t eat pork, as described above. For the first thirteen years of my life, I naturally only dined out with my family. Obviously, none of us ate pork so it didn’t seem like a big deal when we instructed the waiter. When I was younger, most menus did not seem to have a great deal of pork items either, especially in the 80s as Americans were becoming more health-conscious and avoiding fatty foods like 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 in our “p-i-g” dialogues 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, “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 the fact that this boy and I were going to live happily ever after together forever once he realized I existed. “Well,” my mom stated in that mother-ly, matter of fact tone of hers, “I wouldn’t want to kiss someone who’s eaten pork! YUCK!” Clearly my mother’s disapproval 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 culinary world, and I often find myself skipping over menu items that end with “wrapped in pork” and so on. 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.

Not to be self-piteous, but I have to say that we Muslims and Jews who don’t eat pork and vegetarians have it tough on this one. I’m assuming here that you, the reader, does not have religious conflicts with eating certain foods, is not a vegetarian and does not have allergies to particular foods. Now imagine going to a restaurant and scanning the menu for items you can’t eat first. No, you don’t look at the menu and say, “What am I in the mood for tonight?” You look at the menu and say, “What can I eat here?” Sometimes the choices are few, and, most of the time, it’s not a problem. But I can honestly say that I’ve never had the luxury of ordering anything off the menu casually — I’ve always analyzed menus.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t know I had it “worse off” until it was pointed out to me by a non-Muslim. The summer after my First-Year in college, I worked as intern for U S WEST, the baby bell company in the Western and mid-Western United States, in Denver in the employee communications division of the Public Relations Department. I really loved my job because my boss, a woman named Lisa Best, is a great person — funny, smart, motivating and optimistic, she is everything you would want in a first boss. She gave me responsibility and expected me to perform, which I did happily.

One day, Ms. Best took the employee communications gang to lunch across the street at “Le Peep,” a restaurant that serves breakfast food all day. In those days, I didn’t care about my weight and was really looking forward to a short stack of buttermilk pancakes with butter smeared all over them and moist brown syrup flowing down the sides like Niagara Falls. My family and I had eaten at Le Peep often so I wasn’t worried about eating pork by mistake so long as I let our server know I didn’t eat pork.

Once we ordered, I noticed that several others in our group were ordering pancakes with a side of bacon. So I specifically pointed out in my order that I absolutely could not have bacon anywhere in my order, just pancakes. The waitress seemed not to understand what I was saying, and Ms. Best emphasized the point. A few minutes later, the waitress brings out an order of pancakes with long brown and red strips of bacon, oozing grease and juice, laying at the pancake’s side and places it in front of me.

Similar incidents had happened to me before, and they are always awkward. I always wonder, as I see my server heading for me with a dish that has bacon in it, should I say something before he or she puts the plate down, saving them the effort, or would that be rude? Usually I wait till they put the plate down, as I did at Le Peep, and I check the food to make sure I’m not seeing things. In the case of the pancakes, though they looked innocent enough themselves, that was definitely bacon there, lounging at the stack’s side.

“Oh, you know, I can’t eat these,” I said nicely. As I had learned from before, it was best to act surprised and sweet rather than shocked and disgusted. “I can’t eat pork.” Then recalling an associate who did order bacon on the side, I asked the server if she wanted to give this order to her.

“Well, hers is already being prepared. Why don’t I just take the bacon off this one?” The waitress’s hands moved towards my plate. “Well, you see, I can’t eat these pancakes because the juices of the pancakes and bacon have already mixed, and I can’t eat anything that’s touched the bacon.” The waitress held the plate in her hand now. I offered, “Why don’t you just leave this plate here, and I’ll just order another stack of pancakes?” That way I would know I was getting a new set of pancakes and not the same set with the bacon removed.

And then an argument ensued. The waitress defiantly shifted the plate of the illicit pancakes and bacon to her palm and moved it closer to her head: “I don’t see why you can’t eat it. It’s all cooked on the same griddle!” I was speechless for a moment with this point. It is true that cooks can do whatever they want in the restaurant kitchen. For all I know they’re washing their hands with lard. I replied, with enough meekness to keep a fight from breaking out, “I know that, but I’d just prefer to eat fresh pancakes.”

Throughout this meal, I could feel Ms. Best’s body temperature rise as she became more annoyed. No one appreciated the waitress’s attitude, but I was used to it. This had happened to me before, and I was prepared to deal with it. In fact, I never really knew that it was different for people who did eat pork. It had never occurred to me that you could eat at a restaurant and not have to give the server special instructions or be on the lookout for errant bacon.

Ms. Best was horrified that my original instructions had been ignored and had tried to interject before, but I had managed to hold my own. My co-workers sat quietly with their eyes peeled on me and the waitress, as if we were a soap opera. The waitress started to say something, and Ms. Best burst out, “Just leave that plate here with me, and go to the kitchen and get plain pancakes!” The waitress started up again but before she could get past, “But. . .,” Ms. Best ordered, “Just do it! Now!”

A silence came over the table. I don’t think any of us had seen Ms. Best that angry before. I remembered my manners immediately and said, “Thank you.” I was surprised at how dramatic the event had become. Ms. Best replied to my thank you saying how ridiculous it was that the waitress didn’t understand my initial request, that my needs as a customer were ignored and that the waitress must have a problem with people who follow dietary restrictions or have a hearing problem or something. As the rest of the group envisioned the waitress’s tip diminishing and floating away before them like a ghost or apparition, I suddenly realized what I had been taking for granted: I had always accepted being mistreated at restaurants because of my special request of no bacon. It took Ms. Best, a non-Muslim, to make me realize that I deserved to have my religious beliefs respected.

Ms. Best calmed down, after complaining that we shouldn’t be charged for my dish due to the server’s mishandling, and we all ate well. But after that lunch, I knew that I would never order at restaurants apologetically again. I am a Muslim after all, and there’s nothing wrong with my requesting no pork. That’s what being an American is all about — being able to say, I don’t want to do this because it compromises my religious beliefs. Who would have thought empowerment can come from ordering lunch at a breakfast-theme restaurant?

I still think it’s much easier to eat everything. And I admit that, in today’s world, especially in first-world countries, there is no good reason not to eat pork. According to historical sources, Muhammad instructed his followers not to eat pork because pork was often cooked improperly, and many died from consequent bacterial complications. Today, we rarely encounter that problem, but practically all Muslims continue to follow the restriction on pork regardless of whether they follow the rest of the halal diet. When I tell my server at a restaurant that I can’t eat pork, I’m sometimes tempted to say I’m allergic to it, and sometimes I do. Servers instantly understand and become vigilant. It’s unfortunate that we can’t understand religious beliefs in the same way. While there is no scientific reason not to eat pork, other than to cut down on fatty foods and calories, observing the restriction keeps me close to the Prophet Muhammad and reminds that I am a Muslim. It is a tradition that ties me to the Muslims of the world and the Muslims of past history.

This may seem silly to you, that I feel a cultural and historical bond when I refrain from eating pork. I admit that it does sound a little funny. But all cultures have their ways of remembering their past and bringing the community together. Suppose the US Congress were to create a commission whose sole task was to regulate and issue laws that would make Americans’ lives easier. Sounds good, right? And one of the laws they issue is a ban of the observance of Thanksgiving. In their opinion of the commission’s chairman, “Thanksgiving compels Americans to spend more money and effort on food, food preparation and travel in order to commemorate an event that by most historical accounts did not happen. In addition, the Thanksgiving holiday takes one more working-day out of our already short work year, a day during which women spend more time in their kitchens than they do all year and men without fail fall asleep on their recliners watching televised professional football games.”

Wait a second though! As an American, I love the idea of Thanksgiving. It’s one of my favorite holidays. It’s a day set aside to be thankful for our blessings, as free persons living in the United States, and to honor the pioneering spirit of the Pilgrims, whether they actually had a Thanksgiving dinner or not, and the American spirit of cooperation, as perceived to have occurred between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. It may seem silly to a person from France or Syria, but they’re not American, and I wouldn’t expect them to celebrate Thanksgiving, but I do expect them to accept it and even try to understand it a little. I feel the same about eating halal . I don’t expect nor want every American to give up pork tomorrow, but I do expect them to respect my beliefs.