A question I am asked rather often as an ex-Muslim is whether or not I continue to participate in Islamic rituals, holidays, and celebrations as a cultural sort of thing, just as many former and never-Christians celebrate holidays like Easter and Christmas. The one “holiday” of which never-Muslims tend to be aware is Ramadan, which isn’t actually a holiday at all and has no appeal to me as a non-believer. Dehydration is bad, period, but especially in these long, dry, Southern Californian summer days.
There are other aspects of my cultural and religious background that I continue to honor or at least acknowledge for a variety of reasons: Filial duty, unchecked expectations, checked associations, the die-hard nature of old habits, and even, when it comes to a few specific things, a tinge of fond nostalgia.
All those play a role in how I feel about my two recent birthdays, just two months apart from each other, as well as my family wedding reception.
Weddings and birthdays are quite commonly celebrated across cultures and time periods. At the same time, the ways by which those significant events are marked indicate a lot about the priorities and realities of any given culture at any given moment. In the case of weddings, I’d dare say that some cultures are practically defined by them, including the one from which my family hails.
Muhammad not only didn’t condemn but very much condoned celebrating a wedding. That, combined with my Desi background, means that nuptials are A Very Big Deal in my family. Before you think this means music and dancing and partying Bollywood style, keep in mind that no shaadi involving neoconservative Muslim relatives would be complete without explicit rejection of “Hindu-oh ki rasam” as well as Islamically forbidden or dubious practices. On the more conservative end, wedding parties are held in two separate halls, one for men and one for women, with small pre-pubescent children serving as go-betweens. The main activities are eating, talking, and staring at the bride or groom. Some less conservative Muslims might have music and even dancing as part of the activities, but will reserve them for the end of the night, after the main events, leaving ample time for their conservative relatives to bid their farewells and depart.
My wedding reception was somewhere in between, partially because of the way that my family is and partially because it was much smaller and planned much more quickly than the typical family wedding.
In September of 2013, my partner Danny and I eloped at our then-local courthouse. Though our decision to legally wed sooner rather than later was due to practical rather than romantic reasons, we might have been the only people happy to be there that Friday afternoon. We were certainly the only ones who made an effort to dress nicely for the occasion and were smiling. Afterwards, we treated ourselves to a nice lunch. We mostly kept the news to ourselves since we weren’t able to live together yet and didn’t want people to think it meant anything other than what it did for us. We figured that we would tell everyone, including my family, when we moved in together, and that’s exactly what happened this April and May.
In a gesture of acceptance that makes me choke up whenever I think about it, my mother arranged for a wedding reception (and we arranged for a not-100%-halal registry we didn’t share with the family) that was held about a week and half ago. Danny and I were both fully decked out in traditional garb and adornments. One of my good friends did my hair and makeup, and a family friend I’ve known since kindergarten did my mehndi. There was no music or dancing (and of course no alcohol), and it had to be held just 5 weeks after my mom decided it was happening because Ramadan is a bad time to put together a big party, but the event wasn’t gender-segregated and there was plenty of delicious food, laughter, and love.
In a huge way, the reception represents a lot of how I feel about being and operate as an ex-Muslim. There was compromise but also a lot of genuine happiness all around. Next spring will mark ten years of apostasy for me; there has been enough time for myself and those around me to get our respective heads around what it means for me to be a non-Muslim of Muslim background.
My hands still bear the fading henna stains and I can’t help but smile every time I notice them for the millionth time.