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Wedding Ceremony

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The traditional Afghan society has made life difficult for a number of Afghan women who are still living at their father’s house and are not married yet. “Girls who remain single at their parents’ house for a longer time find it shameful to face the people. It is painful for them seeing women of their age that are already married and are a mother. Families should not demand a lot of money from the suitors.” “Some families refuse to give their daughter’s hand, because the boy’s family cannot afford to pay the Toyana. Some families do not find the suitor right for their daughter. In some cases, some girls have higher expectations.” Toyana is an x amount of money the groom is required to pay to the bride’s family before the marriage. It is practiced in some parts of Afghanistan. Depriving women of the right to marry is also a form of violence against women, hailed the Afghan Ministry of Women Affairs. Deputy Minister Sayeda Muzhgan Mustafwi said the Ministry has emphasized on the practices of true Islamic teachings in this regard.

“We should follow what Islam says in order to allow women to marry at the right age.” Meanwhile, the Cabinet’s Health and Youth Commission said their efforts in reducing marriage costs have been in vain. “We drafted a law in this regard and submitted to the Cabinet two years ago, but we have not heard back from them,” said Dr. Naqibullah Fayeq, Head of the Commission. A number of religious scholars also criticized those parents for their negligence towards the future of their daughters and regarded marriage as Sunnah (the practice of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) that he taught and practically instituted). High cost of weddings, unacceptable traditional practices and envy (one family demanding to have a more lavish wedding ceremony than the other) are cited as the main reasons why many Afghan boys and girls have remained single.

In Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, bridegrooms are expected to pay not only for their weddings, but also all the related expenses, including several huge prewedding parties and money for the bride’s family, a kind of reverse dowry. Hamid, a midlevel bureaucrat in the Afghan government who supports his six-member family on a salary of $7,200 per year, said his bill was going to top $12,000. And by Afghan standards, that would be considered normal, or even a bargain. “Sometimes it’s difficult to think about it,” said Hamid, 30, who requested that his full name not be published because his employer forbids him to speak to the news media. “It’s a lot of responsibility.” Extravagant weddings, a mainstay of modern Afghan life and an important measure of social status, were banned by the Taliban, which also outlawed beauty parlors and the instrumental music that is traditional at wedding parties. But since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, the Afghan wedding industry has rebounded and is now bigger than ever.

The growth is reflected in the proliferation of wedding halls, garish palaces of mirrored blue glass and blinking neon lights that glow incongruously among the country’s dusty streets and mud-and-cinder-block homes. The number in Kabul alone has risen to more than 80 today from four in 2001. This freedom has been a mixed blessing. While bridegrooms and their families are free to have the huge weddings that tradition demands, they are once again left with bills that plunge them into crushing debt. Moderate guest lists can top 600 people; the biggest exceed 2,000. The bridegroom is also responsible for jewelry, flowers, two gowns for the bride, two suits for himself, a visit to the beauty salon for the bride and her closest female relatives, as well as a sound system for the wedding, a photographer and a videography team with a pair of cameramen. All that, plus the dowry, known as the bride price, can run a middle-class Afghan man on average $20,000, dozens of Afghans said in interviews .

Even the poor do not scrimp. A laborer, for instance, making about the average per capita income of $350 per year, may well spend more than $2,000 for his wedding, Afghans say. Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh Province in the north, became so concerned about the spiraling cost of weddings that early last year he issued a nonbinding decree recommending that the province’s wedding halls be used only for the wedding ceremony. All the other wedding-related parties should be held in private homes, he said. Afghan bridegrooms say tradition and societal pressure leave them with no alternative but expensive weddings in spite of their poverty. Marriage is arguably the most important rite of passage for a young Afghan man, and the luxuriousness of the ceremony reaffirms his family’s status. “It’s a way to solidify your position in the tribal network,” explained Nasrullah Stanikzai, a lecturer of law and political science at Kabul University. The growth of the wedding industry has been enabled in part by the fact that more money than ever is in circulation in Afghanistan.

Lavish weddings have even made a comeback in the south, where security concerns are greatest, though in areas where the Taliban have returned, the weddings have been moved back into private homes and have been toned down. For Hamid, like most Afghans, a small wedding at home was not an option. Afghan custom dictates that all relatives, even distant cousins, be invited, and his house would not have been big enough. Furthermore, Hamid said, his fiancée and her family had expectations. As with all Afghan weddings, the style and size of Hamid’s wedding was established in consultation between the families.

But also following custom, the consultation was mostly a one-way declaration, with the bride’s family setting the terms. Fortunately, Hamid said, his fiancée’s family has known his family for many years and had a sense of its finances, so her family did not push for everything to be top-of-the-line. Still, like most Afghan bridegrooms, Hamid had to empty his savings, borrow money and rely on the largess of an uncle. They had all saved in anticipation of the event, much like an American family might prepare years in advance for college tuitions. “It’s a joint effort,” Hamid said.

After the wedding, he was going to be left with $2,000 in debt, which he expected to pay off within five months. But it is not so easy for many other young Afghan men. Said Sharif, a 27-year-old taxi driver who makes about $200 per month, had to borrow $4,000 from relatives to help cover the $15,000 bill for his wedding last fall, as well as for four related parties. He does not expect to pay off his debt for at least two years. Ask any Afghan man, and he will say that competition among brides is driving wedding expenditures up. Women who were interviewed did not disagree. “The unfair thing that is going on in Afghanistan is the competition,” said Haidia Paiman, 20, an engineering student at Balkh University in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. “In 70 percent of the cases, the woman’s family puts pressure on the boy to pay a lot of money.” A result, she said, can often be paralyzing debt — and an early, unwelcome visit by the debt collectors to the newlyweds’ new home.

Even some people who are directly profiting from the soaring costs of weddings say enough is enough. “All these expenses are unnecessary,” bristled Muhammad Haroon Mustafa, owner of the Mustafa Store, which opened 40 years ago and is one of Kabul’s oldest bridal shops. “If I was in the government, I would close all the wedding halls.” When a visitor to his store pointed out that such a prohibition would probably cut deeply into his business, he quickly retorted, “Yes, but I’m also part of this society.” In Balkh Province, Governor Atta’s nonbinding decree on the use of wedding halls was greeted with unbridled joy by the young men there. “It’s a good thing that the governor is trying to bring down the costs because the economic situation is really bad and the people are very poor,” said Ali Sina Hashemi Muhammad, 21, an agriculture student at Balkh University. “A wife is very expensive!” But according to Mohammad Zaher Khoram, 62, manager of the Kefayat Wedding Club, one of the most grandiose halls in Mazar-i-Sharif, Governor Atta’s order has not been strictly obeyed.

“It’s not compulsory,” he said, shrugging. Hamid’s wedding unfolded at the East Diamond Wedding Hall in Kabul, in two vast banquet rooms, one for the men and the other for the women. Islamic custom dictates that the sexes be separated. About 600 people attended, in suits and evening dresses, and a five-piece band played loud, rollicking Eastern music. Dinner included sumptuous amounts of beef, rice, vegetables and bread — much more than even the enormous crowd could possibly eat — served on big platters atop the hall’s banquet tables. Hamid was mostly absent from the men’s side, choosing to spend his time with the women as is the Afghan bridegroom’s right. “I feel very light,” he said, slipping out of the room briefly about halfway through the long night.

Dressed in a white suit, he was smiling and seemed happy. “In our country, the wedding is a big problem — until you’re done with it.” Hamid’s father, a lifetime civil servant who makes $100 a month, also seemed relieved. Minutes earlier he had reached into an inside pocket of his jacket and handed over a stack of well-worn Afghan bills — worth about $3,000 — to the general manager, Hashmat Ullah. Neither man smiled. Few words were exchanged. It was pure business. After the transaction, Hamid’s father was joyful, and a little dazed. He was grinning, and his tie was slightly askew. Asked how it felt to hand over the equivalent of 30 times his monthly salary, he replied: “It was good! I’m extremely happy!” The payment, he explained, allowed the marriage to happen.

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