Despite earning a few hundred dollars per month on average, Afghan men pay tens of thousands of dollars on jewellery, robes and wedding traditions in order to marry. The government has promoted alternatives, but families still insist on lavish ceremonies.
Guests at the Almas Wedding Hall in Mazar-e Sharif. (Photos: Orya)
More than 700 guests are sat in the dark in their finest robes in the wedding hall. A solitary spotlight illuminates a door from which the bride and groom enter. The only sound comes from a singer performing Walk Slowly (Aheesta Boro), a local marriage anthem.
All eyes in the hall follow the couple as they walk down the staircase. The groom takes the veil off his bride’s face, puts a ring on her finger and both stand, absorbed by the moment.
Besides her white gown, the bride is adorned in a necklace, earrings, a ring, a crown, a bracelet and a belt – all of which are made of gold. The occasion has brought together both families, each radiating with pride at their offspring’ s union.
Yet behind all this joy, there is pain. When an AT reporter meets the groom Kareem, who earns 500 dollars a month, three days after the grand event, he says he spent everything he had on his wedding. He sold two houses that he inherited from his father and saved a further 10,000 dollars to cover the costs.
“Many Afghans believe the more money is spent on their daughters’ wedding, the more valuable their daughters are regarded,” says Kareem, who estimates that it will take him ten years to stand on his two feet again financially.
Courting can be just as expensive as the wedding ceremony itself for young Afghan men. There are at least five traditional receptions the groom must host before the wedding: these include a suit party, a suit approval party, a candy party, a henna party, as well as the actual wedding and post-wedding receptions.
The bills mount up at an alarming rate. Kareem purchased three bridal dresses, one for the henna party, one for the wedding reception and one for the post-wedding reception, which cost him 4,000 dollars – eights months wages. Just renting his bride’s white wedding dress on the day of the wedding cost him 600 dollars for 24 hours. And that’s considered cheap.
“Rich families buy white gowns for up to 2,000 dollars,” says Abdul Moneer, who owns a wedding dress business in Mazar-e Sharif. Then there’s the jewellery.
“The day after dresses were purchased, I went to buy jewellery with my mother and my fiancée’s family.," says Kareem. "We bought a necklace, a ring, a bracelet, an arm décor accessory, and a dozen other bracelets. I had 20,000 dollars on me that day: When I took every one for lunch after shopping, I noticed that from the 20.000 I had left the house with, only the money for lunch was left."
Golden occasion: Shafi Hashimi says people spend thousands on jewellery for weddings at his store in Mazar-e Sharif.
Shafi Hashimi, a jeweller at the market in Mazar-e-Sharif, explains why weddings fuel his business. “For the suit approval party, families often buy their brides a pair of earrings and a pair of bracelets, which cost them something around 400 to 2,000 dollars,” says Hashimi, adding that grooms usually make further purchases for the bride and her family at later receptions before the actual wedding.
At 20 dollars a head, the food at Kareem’s wedding reception alone cost him 14,000 dollars. Overall the wedding cost the young groom more than 50,000 dollars.
The Almas Wedding Hall, a gala venue in Mazar-e Sharif where Kareem got married, has two wedding spaces available for hire, each with capacity for 2,000 guests. Its lavish furniture, professional personnel, parking lots and all round sparkle distinguish it from other venues: every potential groom aspires to marry here.
The hall offers three menus. The top menu is 30 dollars a head, while the 'Grade-One' menu is 22 dollars, and Grade Two is 15 dollars. “On average, we have more than 2,000 guests at every reception,” says Fawad, the Almas manager.
Despite the exorbitant costs, young men must meet them if they want to marry and fulfill the expectations of the bride’s family.
Much sought after: The Almas Hall, Mazar-e Sharif.
The daughter of Kareema, another parent, has been engaged for more than a year. “Yesterday the groom’s family came to talk to me about the wedding," says the mother. "I told them that they still have not paid the initial 75,000 afghanis (1420 dollars) of the dowry and that they have to pay it first. I told them that I want to buy jewellery myself without consulting them.
"My daughter’s wedding should be at the best wedding hall and top food should be served. I have 600 family members and friends who I want to invite to my daughter’s wedding,” she emphasizes.
At the suit party, a sort of initial consultation between the bride and groom's families, the bride’s mother prepared a list of material requests and gave it to the groom’s family.
The groom’s family must pay 200,000 afghanis (3,800 dollars) for the total dowry, as well as the usual jewellery and wedding expenses. “I told them that if they can afford all of this, we can have the wedding today. We do not have to wait for tomorrow,” Kareema told Afghanistan Today.
The rising costs of matrimony have led some couples to seek new solutions. Two years ago, 50 couples married in a mass wedding with the encouragement of Sayeed Haidar Hashimi, a Muslim Scholar in Mazar-e-Sharif city, and the financial support of the Khomeini Donation Committee. Last year, a similar number of couples had a mass wedding with the financial support of Ahmad Shah Ramazan, a member of the national Parliament from Balkh Province.
“This year we have tried to throw mass weddings with the support of Afghan businessmen and local authorities. Nobody expressed their willingness to take part." Qazi Muhammad Saamay, Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Despite the cost-sharing logic of such ceremonies, they remain unpopular. “This year, we have tried to throw mass weddings with the support of Afghan businessmen and local authorities. Nobody expressed their willingness to take part in a mass wedding. They are not willing mainly because of the traditions and not being looked down upon,“ says Qazi Muhammad Saamay, regional director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).
The AIHRC even held a meeting with the Ulema (Muslim Scholars) and Balkh Governor Noor, where it was decided that costly breakfasts at wedding halls should be banned. Instead, guests should only be served milk, cakes and cookies. But gradually, hall proprietors replaced milk, cakes and cookies with fish. Before long, it was lavish business as usual.
The price of marriage is driving many love-struck men abroad. Abdul Roozee, a farmer from Shoortaypa District, has been engaged for eight months. The bride’s family have requested a dowry of 40,000 dollars, and Roozee set his sights on going abroad to make the fortune.
“A family friend in Iran called me and told me to go to Iran where I would have a decent-paying job. I took a passport and I went,” says Roozee, who four months ago was denied a visa at the border.
Roozee, who still hopes to get the visa and seek his wedding fortune, uses the term selling and buying girls to describe the situation in his area: “In our village, girls are sold for something around 500 to 8,000 dollars. Their prices depend on the reputation of carpets they have woven,” he says, referring to skill at lucrative handcrafts that can even determine a girl's worth as a bride.