The first ever dinner invitation we received as a couple had been from The Maulana - the most religious, longest bearded, always shalwar-kameezed guy. He was so kind. He made so much food and even though I was the only female in attendance, he made sure I felt comfortable and enjoyed the food. (He never once made eye contact with me, though.)
After falling into a pattern of joining M in his social visits with that and other Pakistani friends, I began to feel more comfortable. Then, one day, we were invited to a dinner that was to be a large dinner party - almost all of the Pakistani students and their families (as a few were married as well.) I thought nothing of it - I'd been to a few Pakistani student dinner parties already, I'd had a nice time, this would be no different. I was wrong.
When we got there, a few people had already arrived. There were several men there that I'd never met, and I wasn't introduced to. Soon after The Maulana also arrived, and M told me that the men were going to join together in a congregational evening prayer, and that dinner would be served afterward. One of the women there - a wife of a grad student - signaled for me to come into the other room (a bedroom). Inside there were two other wives of grad students (one was also a graduate student herself.) I had thought I would wait somewhere while they also made their evening prayer, but none of the women prayed. Instead we all sat on the bed.
It was an uncomfortable silence most of the time. The three wives were all very different. One was from India, had only been in America a few months, and barely spoke to me all night. Another was Pakistani and had known my husband back in Pakistan as well and spoke to me more than the first, but still not that much. The third (the graduate student) was the only woman besides me to wear jeans. She spoke the most to me, asking me not only the usual questions about how much I knew about Pakistani culture or whether I could cook, but also fairly atypical (in my experience, anyway) questions about my own American life and my studies.
Eventually we'd been in the room for a long time. I had seen prayers performed before, and I knew they didn't last that long. I wondered when we'd all get back in the same room and start the party already! Just then, one of their husbands came to the room and told us to come eat. I was so relieved to be out of that cramped room where I'd been set aside for the past 20 minutes. I was so relieved I'd be back with my M instead of having to make forced small talk with these strangers who I thought I had so little in common with!
But I was not going to be reunited with M. What I saw when I walked out of the room was that all the men had already filled their plates with food and arranged themselves in a circle on the floor around a large sheet serving as a kind of floor tablecloth. They had already begun eating without us. Even my M. There was no room in the circle for anyone else. The women were to eat at the dining table in the next room.
So I ate. I didn't even look over at M. I was pissed off. What was he thinking? Why would he think I wanted to spend my whole evening with these other women instead of him? Why was he allowing this? Why didn't he come and rescue me, take me with him to the "Men's section" or just leave alltogether? The more time that passed, the more upset I got. After eating we women again went into the bedroom and again made as much forced small talk as we could.
At one point M did come to the doorway of the room, smile on his face, and asked how I was doing. I was so upset at that point I couldn't speak, so I just did a curt head nod. What else could I have said, anyway? "Why the hell have you left me to rot in here with these people I don't know?" I think he must have known there was more to my head nod, though, because not long thereafter he came back to retrieve me from the this room, asking if I was ready to leave. I was ready all right.
We left, got in the car, and started driving away. It took me sometime before I could compose myself enough to speak. When I did I was all accusation and confrontation. How could he leave me like that? What did he think he was doing? Who the hell leaves their girlfriend in the company of strangers for hours? What was up with this boy's club business? It was a very heated tirade.
Eventually he calmed me down with protestations of apology, carelessness and thoughtlessness as well as promises that it would never happen again. He asked how my evening had been and I told him exactly what I thought about having dinner holed up in a room with three women, two of whom I had never previously met and one I knew only superficially. I told him just what I thought he could do with his segregated dinner parties.
Unfortunately, the gender segregation did not end that day.