Khabar Lahariya’s Meera and Nazni speak to three women in relationships from across rural UP & MP, on what it really means to change for your partner and yet retain your own identity.
‘Love Jihad’ has become the lens through which the Indian state, and increasingly, Indian society, now view inter-faith love. What should be a celebration of India’s religious diversity is now often shrouded in the suspicion surrounding religious conversion. The states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, especially, with newly passed anti-religious conversion ordinances — passed under the guise of ‘protecting’ women from coercion — endanger interfaith couples’ freedom, dignity and lives. In this highly politicised discussion, we often hold the inter-faith and love aspects of such relationships as if in tension, antithetical to each other. This narrative ignores some of the basic tenets of long-term companionship — adjustment and welcome change.
On Valentine’s Day this year, Khabar Lahariya’s Meera and Nazni instead spoke to interfaith couples in the states of U.P. and M.P. to draw focus back to the love, to the relationship, of interfaith couples, in an attempt to remember how they have always happily accommodated their religious differences, regardless of whether they decided to convert to each other’s faith or not.
“When we fell in love we didn’t think about our religion. And I don’t think I changed anything especially for him,” Soorajkali, a Hindu woman in her mid-40s, and married to a Muslim man in Chitrakoot, says. “I accept him for who he is and he accepts me for who I am.” Having been together for two decades, the couple has found their own unique partnership within their respective religions, embracing aspects of the other they love, while staying true to their own individual personalities. The only grouse she has, Soorajkali says, is that “He keeps asking me to put on makeup if we go out at night. But why should I? If I want to do it, I will do it whenever I want. I tell him I am not going to do anything just because you want me to.” They have built their relationship on mutual understanding and respect, and of course, the usual disagreements. ‘There are times when we don’t see eye to eye. We will give each other the silent treatment for a few days but then we always make up.”, Soorajkali says matter-of-factly. There are things that she has done, like read the Quran, and not done, like wear sindoor, but all because she wanted to do these things. “I have read Ramayana and Gita. And I never really liked wearing sindoor. I am my own person and want to stay true to myself.”
However, some relationships demand more of us. Seema* and her husband belong to different castes and had to face many obstacles to get married. And after marriage, they both have changed to fit each other better. As is often wont to happen, sometimes one has to change more than the other. In this case it is the 28-year-old Seema. When before marriage her partner loved and appreciated her dressing up, after marriage it’s that very thing that he gets irritated with. “Now, I do what he likes. Earlier I used to wear salwar suits, now I only wear sarees. I don’t go to my relatives’ place. If we go together and someone says something to us, he might not take it in the right spirit. Then what’s the point?” She does it for the sake of her relationship and for her partner whose happiness matters most to her.
Zoya’s* love story is larger than the small adjustments that she and her partner make for each other because of their religion. “We both are intelligent enough to realise that we are free to follow our religion our way. We have adjusted to accommodate each other’s needs,” Zoya* says, adding her partner will often send her iftaar online if he is far away or cook it for her at home. “I will make sure that I cook his vrat food without any non-vegetarian food around,” Zoya* adds. Having been in a committed relationship in Banda since the last eight years, she says they’ve reached a mutual understanding that they don’t need to interfere with one another’s religious beliefs. Zoya* says building a relationship that is built on acceptance of each other’s religious beliefs allows them to focus on each other as people, to make changes for each other for the good of the relationship and to “make sure that we have the other’s best interest at heart.” The golden rule that they follow, Zoya* says, is to ask of the other only what they themselves would be comfortable doing. “I will never measure my love and relationship against religion. They are separate and equal.”
These women’s experiences in their relationships — of having agency, of willingly embracing their partners’ faith in small and big ways — are also borne out by the data. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, within a month of the law being passed, 14 cases had been booked under the ordinance that attacks inter-faith love. In 12 of the 14 cases, relatives of the couples had filed a complaint, not the women in those relationships. The data shows how a majority of these cases arise out of an outside, third-party taking issue with an inter-faith partnership, possibly emboldened by the intolerance being normalized by the government in states such as M.P. and U.P. Arguably, it’s this external interference that risks women’s agency than the relationship it seeks to protect them from.
For Zoya* and her partner, the relationship they have built is what helps them cope with the stress of the current political environment and how relationships such as theirs are being put under the microscope by law enforcement. “If we come across some news or posts on social media that has all these incendiary articles, we immediately distance ourselves from it. We change the channel or scroll faster,” Zoya* says. “We will not engage with this, we will not read all this and we will never let ourselves or anybody else view our relationship from this lens.”
Love is what makes us human. And these three stories show us the many different ways in which we’re capable of understanding, changing and accepting each other. Consent, respect and mutual understanding have built strong foundations for these love stories and we hope that they will continue to thrive and grow despite political will to control who and how we love.
*Some names have been changed on request.
Written by Khabar Lahariya based on field reporting by Meera Devi and Nazni Rizvi.
An edited excerpt of this report was earlier published on Swaddle.