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Love Bridges Religious Divides for 2 Desi Dancers

A dancing partnership blooms into a Bollywood romance.

I

 

When Aaliya Islam told her parents that she and her fiancee were buying a house in New Jersey and moving in together, her parents requested that they get married first before making such a move.

Aaliya’s parents are practicing Muslims and for them, marriage was a critical prerequisite to the couple living together. They wanted Aaliya and her Hindu fiancée Rohit Gijare to have a nikah – an Islamic marriage that primarily involves a legal contract between two consenting parties outlining the terms of marriage. Aaliya’s parents anticipated that Rohit would nominally convert for the ceremony and brought it up with Aaliya and Rohit before the nikah.

However, Aaliya and her sister firmly vetoed the idea. For Aaliya, the idea seemed hypocritical and mocked the very tenets of Islam she believes in.

She remembers telling her parents, “It’s not only a phrase. In the eyes of the imam, he is converting to Islam. We’re not comfortable with that. And in the eyes of everyone there, he would have converted to Islam. He’s not comfortable with that. He’s not comfortable with lying to a figure of respect and an imam who’s so holy to us at such an important moment for us. We shouldn’t be comfortable with him lying to God.”

Aaliya’s older sister, who had both an interfaith and interracial marriage more than a decade before, supported her sister’s decision and her parents did not bring it up again. Aaliya believes her family fallout from her sister’s marriage to an African American Christian man paved the way for her parent’s acceptance of her own interreligious marriage.

While interfaith marriages between Muslims and Hindus have taken place for hundreds of years, the partition of Pakistan and India 73 years ago – which resulted in the deaths of up to two million people and the displacement of more than 15 million people – is seen as a key factor in the stigmatization of interfaith marriages between the two faith groups [in India and the diaspora in North America.]

Aaliya recalled, “She [her sister] married him without my parents’ approval or support. They ended up disowning her as soon as she got married to him. My parents are the matriarch and patriarch of the Bangladeshi community in Arizona. My older sister was a role model for many daughters in the community and for her to suddenly do something like this was a big thing for my parent’s reputation. They were like, ‘lokhi kya kayinge (What will people say)?’

“My mum was very distraught during those few years. They’ll never admit it in a million years, but Robert being African American was a problem for them. People have said it before, but I believe South Asians are racist.

“My dad would tell my sister, ‘I don’t know what to do. I will always support your mum. If she doesn’t support this, I won’t support this.’

“That very much holds true to how he acts now too. My mum is the one who runs this whole family. He always says, “If your mum doesn’t agree to it, I won’t agree to it.”

Eventually, Aaliya’s parents reconciled with her sister and her brother-in-law, and consequently took a more cautious approach when Aaliya was dating Rohit. They asked her to consider the couple’s religious differences but did not push anything on to her.

“That is why when I told my parents that things were getting serious with Rohit,” Aaliya said. “They did not want to repeat what happened in the past with me. They were still iffy about it, but they were like, ‘Let’s see. Let’s get to know his family better before we make any rash decisions.’”

One of her parent’s additional concerns was the fact that Rohit did not have a traditional career and they were worried about how he would support Aaliya.

 “The full-time dancer thing for any parent, whether they are desi or not, is a concern. I think it’s a little scary when someone says, “I’m a full-time dancer and I want to marry your daughter. However, when they saw Rohit’s work, his videos, and what he’s done to this point, they really stopped saying anything,” Aaliya said.     

 

II

 
Aaliya and Rohit and their mothers celebrate their nikkah. Photo courtesy of Aaliya Islam
 

After successfully navigating parental approval on both ends, Aaliya and Rohit had to navigate other minefields. For Aaliya, finding an interfaith minister willing to conduct an interfaith nikah was challenging and it took her a while to find one. In the meantime, Rohit had to contend with how his mother’s brother would react to him marrying a Muslim. His parents were concerned about what his uncle would say because he is reputed to “hate Muslims.” However, once his uncle did find out and saw a photo of Aaliya, Rohit said he didn’t say anything.

Another challenge that the couple had to navigate was Aaliya meeting Rohit’s family in Pune, India and them lending support to their interfaith marriage.  Rohit said he was concerned about the meeting despite his parent’s assurances that ‘Everybody loves her already. They are very happy for you guys.’

 “I wasn’t sure if my grandmother was going to say anything about this interfaith stuff. But nothing really ever came up. Everything went smoothly,” Rohit admitted.

Rohit had also been concerned about travelling to India in February 2020 with Hindu-Muslim tensions at a historical high after Hindu mobs lynched Muslims in Delhi earlier in the month – sending shockwaves across the Indian subcontinent and the world.

“In the back of my head, I remember thinking I hope this doesn’t cause issues. With both of us being an interfaith couple, I was nervous,” Rohit said.

“During the first couple of days, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to expect. When you watch TV, it looks far worse. It is bad, but it didn’t seem to affect the areas we visited. It didn’t directly affect us, or even me personally as much as I thought it would. Hearing the stuff without experiencing it while being there felt surreal. We didn’t get the brunt of it while we were there.”

Rohit attributed the escalating tensions to President, Narendra Modi, who leads right-wing Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for stoking historical divisions. “I think a lot of it has to do with colonialism and divisions that happened between Muslims and Hindus during partition. For people who experienced that time, there’s a lot they can’t get over.”

Rohit believes that older generations have become more “entrenched” in their inter-religious prejudices and have passed them down to subsequent generations. “I think whether it’s here, India, or Europe, there’s a significant portion of people who are unwavering in their beliefs.

He added that leaders like Modi and Trump know such prejudices exist and have exploited them. “For a long time, it wasn’t acceptable to say these things out loud, but now, for some reason we are going backwards.”

However, he is hopeful that his generation can surmount these differences, saying that his generation are becoming “more educated and learning more about different cultures and are exposed to people of different backgrounds on a daily basis.”

Tahseen Shams, assistant sociology professor at the University of Toronto who is currently writing a book examining South Asian Muslim immigrants’ interracial and interfaith marriages in Canada and the U.S., also believes that second and third generation South Asians are moving beyond their parents’ cultural baggage.

Shams said: “When talking about interfaith marriages in the South Asian Diaspora, we have to consider the immigrant generation in question. Like all immigrants, when people from South Asia immigrate to the West, they bring with them the cleavages, histories, beliefs, and traditions from their homeland to the hostland.

“However, over time and across generations, many of these homeland-oriented boundaries lose their salience or gain new meanings as immigrants become exposed to a more diversified and expanded overview through their interactions with their new society—exposures that would not have happened had they remained back in their respective countries.

“While homeland boundaries, such as religion, sect, and caste, remain bright for the first generation, for the subsequent second and third immigrant generations, who are born and raised in the West, many of the historical-political boundaries of the sending countries lose their salience, becoming symbolic attachments. While adhering to the religious, national, caste, and class boundaries is generally the norm within the diaspora, the degree of acceptance of Hindu-Muslim marriages may vary across generations.

“The parents’ generation may be strict about marrying within the same religion or caste, the younger, more Westernized generations may be more open to interfaith marriages. For these younger U.S.-born cohorts, race may be far more salient than religion. In other words, they are more likely to want a partner who can understand their racialized experiences being “brown” rather than whether they are marrying someone of the same religious background.”

 

III

 
Muslim refugees clamber aboard an overcrowded train near New Delhi in an attempt to flee India. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
 

August marked 73 years since the arbitrary and messy partitioning of the Indian subcontinent by the British in 1947 after 300 years of colonial rule. The partition sparked intercommunal and interreligious violence creating more than 15 million refugees and leading to the death of up to two million people.

Such atrocities have left a legacy – relationships between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs were adversely affected – particularly in the areas that border Pakistan and India, and India and Bangladesh. Grievances against other religious groups were internalized and nurtured despite the fact that Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs share common languages, culture, dress, and food among other things, and for the main part coexisted peacefully before the advent of British colonialism with its ‘divide and rule’ tactics which created ruptures in relationships between different religious and regional groups.

Such atrocities have left a legacy: while the physical scars have faded, emotional scars remain.

It is these emotional scars that current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of exploiting during his current tenure, as well as when he was Chief Minister of Gujrat. When Modi was Chief Minister of Gujrat between 2001 and 2014, he was accused of initiating and presiding over the Gujrat massacres of 2002 where between 1,000 to 2000 people – mainly Muslims – were murdered by their Hindu neighbors in addition to mass rapes of Muslim women and girls. It was some of the worst religious violence seen since partition.

Modi’s culpability was seen as so clear cut he was barred entry to the USA in 2005 based on a U.S. law that makes foreign officials responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for visas.

India, a secular republic, has also become an increasingly more difficult place for couples from different religions and castes. In October, a television advertisement by a jewelry company owned by one of the oldest and largest industrial groups in India (the Tata Group) featuring a Hindu-Muslim couple was withdrawn after it faced a backlash by extremist Hindu groups.

More recently Modi’s party, the BJP, are making interreligious love between Hindus and Muslims increasingly taboo in India. In November, India’s most populous state Utter Pradesh, passed a law called ‘Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance’ to prevent forced conversions in marriage. However, the law has targeted interfaith Muslim and Hindu marriages in the BJP-controlled state so far.

The law was brought about after a campaign by extremist Hindu groups promoting an unproven conspiracy theory that Muslims are marrying Hindu women and asking them to convert in order to alter the religious demographics of the country. Since then, police have arrested more than 30 Muslim men in the state. The BJP-controlled state of Mahdya Pradesh also approved legislation making forced religious conversion a crime in December and at least three other Indian states said they plan to bring in similar laws.

 

IV

 
Rohit: "It doesn’t feel we are two people from different faiths marrying each other because we hold the same values and principles overall. " Photo courtesy of Aaliya Islam
 

Aaliya and Rohit – who are second-generation Bangladeshi and Indian respectively – met through their mutual love of Indian dance. Aaliya trained in the Bharatanatyam dance tradition from a young age and loves both classical and modern Indian dance forms, while Rohit’s passion for Indian dance lead to set up his own company and dedicate his life to the art form.

Aaliya recalls she had heard of Rohit from the Indian dance circuit before they actually met. After she moved to New York City from Arizona in the fall of 2016 to take up a job in marketing at Universal Pictures, she successfully auditioned for Rohit’s dance company, Exodus Artistry.

There were no initial sparks when they first met. In fact, neither of them thought they would actually be friends. Rohit said: “When we first met, I guess neither of us really thought we would be the closest of friends because our personalities are fairly different overall.”

It was only after Rohit invited members of the dance company to watch the Brooklyn Nets one night in October 2016 that their perspectives changed.

Aaliya recalled the night, saying: “I ended up going to the game. I didn’t know anyone. I was the only one that was new. I went out after the game and that’s when Rohit and I started to talk a little more. We talked about our favorite Bollywood movies and songs. We ended up really gelling and getting to know each other.

“The very next day he asked me what my favorite food was. I told him it was a Pizookie. It’s a pizza cookie but you can only find it in a place called BJ’s, which happened to be near Secaucus in New Jersey, an hour from where Rohit lives.”

After finding out, Rohit told Aaliya her to board a train for Secaucus and he would pick her up and take her there. However, Aaliya admits that while she suspected Rohit wanted to get know her better, she was not looking for a relationship at the time.

She said, “I ended up paying for myself. He ended up paying for himself. I was like, ‘This is good, it’s not a date.’ I had just come out of a really shaky liking situation. I was not looking for anything.”

However, after dinner, when Rohit asked Aaliya what she would like to do next, she panicked and gave him the first plausible excuse she could think of to bring the evening to a close. She told him she needed to go home before Target closed so she could buy a toaster so she could make breakfast the next morning.

However, her plan drastically failed. Rohit offered to take her to a nearby Walmart store so she could buy a toaster. After she bought one, he warned her it would be unsafe to take public transport home so late and drove her home to Brooklyn.

The day after that, he started texting her and a friendship began to blossom, enabled by the fact they were spending every weekend together doing dance practice. She and the other Exodus Artistry dancers would all stay over at Rohit’s house in New Brunswick and rehearse for the entire weekend in his basement. The pair quickly became inseparable and Rohit asked Aaliya to be his girlfriend in January 2017.

The pair spent so much time together, Rohit’s father suggested they move in together – something they did in September 2017. Aaliya decided not to tell her parents about the move because she knew they would pressure her to make a formal commitment with Rohit, something she didn’t want to do until she was certain. Aaliya and Rohit’s relationship continued to deepen leading Rohit to propose to her during a dance performance in June 2019 in front of colleagues, members of the public and their families.

The couple went on to have a nikkah with only their immediate families present in October 2020 but have postponed formal cultural wedding events because of the pandemic.

 

V

 

Rohit said he chose to be with Aaliya because he wanted to be with someone who understood his cultural heritage, especially since it is such an intrinsic part of his daily life. “Aaliya likes traditional things so we have the same taste,” he said. “I think in one way or another, we are second generation, but part of us is stuck in first generation. For the two of us if we were given the choice, we’d want to hang out in the 1990s because we’re true to Indian culture.”

While the pair have faced some challenges, such as Aaliya’s parents expecting Rohit to nominally convert, finding an imam to conduct an interfaith ceremony, and Rohit having an uncle who hates Muslims, the couple have remained true to their individual beliefs and accepting of each other’s.

Both Rohit and Aaliya believe that what South Asian Muslims and Hindus have in common is more than what divides them. Aaliya, who spent several years studying classical Indian dance tradition Bharatanatyam – which has its roots in Hinduism – said, “There’s a lot in Hindu scriptures that are very similar to what you find in Muslim scriptures. The general idea of every religion is to be a good person, be thankful, be humble, be kind, be generous, and be charitable. These are basic rules of every faith.”

Rohit added, “All of the cultural values South Asians have overall, are overlapping. There doesn’t necessarily feel like there’s a difference. It doesn’t feel we are two people from different faiths marrying each other because we hold the same values and principles overall. Being married isn’t so different because what we truly believe in is the same.”

The couple’s harmonious synergy suffuses the dances and show they have choreographed together. This summer they choreographed a dance from Bollywood film Kalank – a love story about two people bridging caste differences. They say they were inspired to choreograph a dance from the show to show that caste, religious, and cultural background should not come between people.

Rohit added: “If the two of us were able to come together and overcome those differences. I think anything’s possible in terms of people coming together, even just for friendship.”