Dear Saifeena: Thank you for not converting

"Will she or won't she?" was the big question hanging over Saif and Kareena's big fat Bollywood wedding. Convert, that is. From the moment they set the date, the two lovebirds have been subject to repeated grilling from the media.

Kareena played cool, brushing aside all queries with an icy wave: "That's a very wrong question, which I will not be answering." Saif was upfront and unequivocal: "I would never want Kareena to change her religion. That is the trouble with religion, really. It expects conversion. I don't buy or believe that."

And yet the rumours of a nikaah persisted until the very last moment, and even after the couple tied the knot in a simple registered marriage. In the end, neither the nikaah nor the conversion materialised. "They just exchanged vows at the Taj Mahal hotel in Colaba. There were no 'saath pheras'... They did not adhere to any particular style (of wedding)," confirmed designer Manish Malhotra.

In refusing to force Kareena to convert, Saif has finally broken with a dubious family tradition. AP

The omission seems to have sent the Islamic seminary Darul Uloom Deoband into a tizzy. Senior cleric Habibur Rahman declared, “Kareena did not convert to Islam before her marriage with Saif. Islam does not approve of such marriages. According to the Muslim laws, since Kapoor has not converted to Islam, this marriage is anti-Islam.”

Rahman is not the first cleric to harrumph in disapproval. He was pipped to the post by Maharashtra Chief of the Jamiat Ulama Maulana Hafiz Nadeem Siddiqui who issued a dire warning before the couple headed down the aisle:

A statement issued by Malulana Siddiqui said that Saif and Kareena belong to separate religions and that if Saif considered himself as a Muslim, he would marry in accordance with the Shariah laws, adding that if Saif chose not to do so then his marriage could be anything but an Islamic nikkah. The Jamiat Ulama cleric further said that if Kareena wished to marry Saif then she would have to accept Islam first.

But as that old Hindi film song goes, "Jab miya biwi raazi, kya karega kaazi?"

Conversion has never been a big thing in Bollywood.  Asian Age notes the many inter-faith couples who did not switch religions to get hitched, including Javed Akhtar-Honey Irani, Kishore Kumar-Madhubala, Hrithik Roshan-Suzanne Khan, and Arbaaz Khan-Malaika. The most famous, of course, is Shahrukh Khan who told the paper,  “I loved Gauri for who she was. So, the question to convert into Islam didn’t arise… Religion has always been a debatable issue between couples but I valued her above all that. We don’t impose our religion on our children either.”

In fact, the Pataudis are among the few to break with the progressive trend. Sharmila became Ayesha Begum to marry Tiger in deference to the wishes of her future mother-in-law, or so the rumour mills claim. Saif's first marriage was unconventional in every sense, except in this matter. He married Amrita, who was 12 years older than him, in a secret ceremony -- and yet she had to convert, and their two children, Sara and Ibrahim, have been raised as Muslim.

That conversion is still a big question in 2012 for even an uber-westernised Bollywood couple is revealing. While the educated middle class increasingly traverses caste and regional lines to find a mate, religion remains a significant barrier for most couples. Familial opposition is greater, as is the possibility of retaliation. For example: Rizwanur Rahman who was allegedly killed by the family of his wife, Priyanka Todi, daughter of the owner of Lux undergarments.

In other cases, the couple themselves fall out on the thorny issues of faith: "Psychiatrist Dr Avdesh Sharmat says he has seen couples split over issues as trivial as where the partner prays, and whether he/she is willing to accompany the other to his/her place of worship. 'If kids are involved, the conflict is about their names, and which religion the child will follow…'"

But the greatest hurdle may well be legal. Earlier this year, the Union cabinet finally approved a proposal that would no longer require couples to disclose their religion when registering their marriage. This is a huge step in the right direction. The disclosure requirement under the Special Marriages Act often became a significant stumbling block for inter-faith marriages — and often forced such couples to embrace conversion. Since there are no legal hurdles for same-faith marriages, one partner would inevitably convert, or both would convert to a third religion.

All such improvements, however, have little meaning in a country, where marriage remains a parochial institution, defined not by the couple entering the bond,  but the community they were born into. And unless we decide to embrace the 21st century and a uniform civil code, the Saifeenas of the world will be few and far between.

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