Weddings in Afghanistan are often an expensive and ‘back-breaking’ affair. A government law to change the expensive wedding culture remains largely unimplemented and there seems to be little will to enforce it. The Taleban have also imposed an assortment of rules for controlling wedding costs in areas under their command, which vary depending on the area and commander. In practice, their edicts have had limited impact. This is particularly the case in the Turkic dominated provinces of the northwest, where bride prices and wedding ceremony costs are often driven up by a bride’s carpet-weaving skills. In this dispatch, AAN’s Obaid Ali looks at the social culture of weddings among the Turkic community and finds that in spite of government laws, Taleban pressure and local initiatives, the culture of holding expensive weddings remains firmly in place.
A wedding in Afghanistan tends to be an expensive affair. There have been several attempts by the Afghan government, social activists and community elders, as well as by the Taleban, to change this culture. While their attempts have had some impact in certain local communities, they have not led to a larger cultural shift.
Practices with regard to bride price and wedding expenses are different for different ethnic groups, communities, and regions (see also AAN’s previous report here). The ‘bride price’ in the northwest, for instance, is not a mahr (dowry), a sum of cash that should be given to a bride by her groom as a financial pledge and which remains the property of the bride. Rather, in Turkic communities where women are often employed as professional rug makers, the bride price is known as qaleen.
Bride prices and wedding expenses in northwestern Turkic communities (including provinces like Faryab, Jawzjan, Sar-e Pul, and Balkh) tend to be high, largely due to the fact that a woman’s skill makes her a high earner. Moreover, in the Turkic community (e.g. among Uzbeks and Turkmen), an expensive wedding party is considered an honour for both the groom and bride’s families.
Weddings in Turkic communities
The qaleen for a rug-weaving bride in the provinces of Faryab, Jawzjan, and Balkh tends to range from 15,000 USD to 25,000 USD. The price variation is often affected by the reputation of the family and the skills of the woman. Skilled women weavers from these provinces are famous for their ability to produce some of the most sought-after and hard to find rugs in the country (listen, for instance, to this famous Afghan song about rug weaving in Jawzjan province). The skill involved in producing such rugs means that they are often sold even before they are completed or on the market. The high prices of such carpets means that a prospective groom can expect a relatively prosperous life. Therefore, the bride price a groom has to pay is considered to be not only for the girl herself but also for the income her unique skill will provide for the rest of their lives as husband and wife. Because of the extra high costs of the qaleen and wedding party for skilled brides, it is actually very difficult to find a rug-weaving woman to marry.
When a groom’s family initiates a marriage proposal for a rug-weaving woman they face huge expenses. Although the high asking price is often an indirect way for the bride’s family to deter unsuitable marriage proposals, in many cases this does not prevent the groom’s family from persisting. The groom’s side will often try to negotiate the cost down to a manageable amount. However, high interest in a particular bride and her skills means that her family can insist on the price and even add additional wedding costs. These include the costs of the marriage and wedding parties, as well as items that the groom’s family must provide.
A list of items
In many northern provinces, the bride’s family submits a long list of items that the groom must purchase. The list often includes jewellery for the bride, clothes and gifts for the bride and her close relatives, food for the guests, other expenses of the bride until she leaves her parent’s home and a guarantee that the groom will provide two fully-furnished rooms for his bride. The groom’s family is then left with two options: to accept the conditions or to step away from the negotiations.
Haji Khalilullah Azizi, a former speaker for Sar-e Pul’s provincial council, described weddings among the Turkic community as kamarshekan (‘back-breaking’). He told AAN that an ordinary wedding for a woman without carpet weaving skills, including the qaleen price, averages a total of at least 1,500,000 Afs (19,000 USD). Qutbuddin Kohi, a local journalist and a civil society activist from Faryab province, said that the qaleen in Maimana city, Faryab’s provincial centre, normally exceeds 800,000 Afs (nearly 10,000 USD). He added that the groom must submit the money in a number of instalments before he gets married. He told AAN that there had been several attempts by social workers, the educated generation, and community elders – both at the local and national levels – to advocate for reduced wedding expenses. Their efforts, however, had only had a limited impact.
Durtaj, the district governor for Khan Charbagh district in Faryab, said the high qaleen prices have compelled some girls to flee. Speaking to AAN, she said that since her appointment in mid-2017 more than ten cases of girls who had fled their home “largely due to their parents’ unwillingness to marry them for a lower qaleen” had been registered. She told AAN that most of these girls ran away with their partners of choice to a hiding place. Community elders then had to mediate between both families, often convincing the girl’s family to allow her to marry the boy after all. In other cases, girls fled to local government-run women’s shelters, refusing to return to their families unless their parents guaranteed their safety and security. In the worst case, she said the girls could face death if captured by their parents, because of harsh traditions and the perceived damage to their family’s reputation.
If a groom’s family cannot provide enough cash for a qaleen, they can offer livestock and other goods during the engagement period instead, particularly in rural areas where goods are acceptable currency in the marriage market. The rest of the wedding expenses, such as jewellery for the bride, clothes for her and her close relatives, as well as food for guests should still be paid for and prepared by the groom’s family.
According to Haji Khodai Dad, a local elder from Faryab who has mediated several negotiations between brides and grooms’ families, as soon as the bride’s family accepts a groom’s family proposal and has fixed the price of the qaleen, any goods the groom sends to the bride’s family counts as cash. The price for these items is calculated based on their local market value. This is not, however, without occasional trouble. Haji Khodai Dad said that a quarrel erupted recently between two families over a dairy cow that was sent to the bride’s family, which stopped producing milk after a couple of weeks. The issue was taken to village elders for a resolution. They decided that the cow should be sold and the groom’s family should add money so that the bride’s family could buy another cow that could produce milk.
In most of the Turkic-dominated provinces of the northwest, the bride’s family agrees to arrange the nikah (a legal contract between man and woman to marry) during the engagement party. After the nikah, the groom becomes a mahram (the male companion for his bride) and he can meet and sometimes stay at his bride’s home. According to Durtaj, during the engagement period, which can last several years, the bride may already become a mother of two or three children. This pushes the groom to work even harder, as he now not only has to earn the qaleen, but also has to provide food and clothes for both his wife and children while they are still in his father-in-law’s home. Some of the grooms who take a long time to submit the qaleen not only bring a bride back to their family’s home, but also an already established family.
There seems to be a general reluctance to give up on expensive wedding parties. For the Turkic community, expensive weddings are not only a social demand but also an opportunity: for the groom to make a name within the community by holding a remarkable wedding, and for the bride’s family to increase their reputation by having secured an expensive wedding for their daughter. This has spread an ideology among villagers that, for the last few decades, has compelled them to invest in enormous weddings and high qaleen prices. But these expensive weddings also mean that grooms have to start a long and difficult journey to earn money. They often leave the country for Iran or Turkey, where they spend years working to save money, which can delay a wedding ceremony for years.
The government law on wedding ceremonies
The Afghan government published a wedding ceremony law in the official state gazette in December 2017. The law includes clauses on the bride price and ceremony expenses. According to article six, the bride’s family and relatives cannot force the groom to pay a bride price as a condition for getting married. The law also limits the number of guests at a wedding party: article ten says the groom and bride’s families may hold the wedding party in a wedding hall or a restaurant, but should not invite more than 500 people (full text in Dari and Pashto here).
According to Azizi, Sar-e Pul’s former provincial council speaker, the local government is not seriously committed to enforcing this law in the Uzbek dominated provinces of the northwest. He told AAN there were no outreach teams or public awareness programmes to inform people about the new rules. To enforce this wedding law, the Afghan government would probably face serious problems as it would see itself confronted with the expectations of guests and the interests of the prosperous wedding hall industry. (1)
There have been some local initiatives in Faryab, Sar-e Pul and Jawzjan provinces to reform the costly wedding culture, which have seen limited results. In some parts of Faryab’s provincial centre, Maimana, local elders say they have achieved a minor shift in that the qaleen. Here, wedding expenses are said to have been reduced from an average of 800,000 Afs (nearly 10,000 USD) to around 400,000 Afs (around 5,000 USD). Similar efforts have taken place in some parts of Jawzjan and Sar-e Pul provinces. According to Durtaj, the local government has held several gatherings and carried out campaigns to reduce wedding expenses in local districts. She told AAN, however, that because of the insecurity, these efforts had only affected district centres and nearby villages. (2)
Taleban restrictions and rules on wedding ceremonies
In some areas, according to local sources, Taleban rules and restrictions were being enforced instead of the government’s law. These Taleban rules on wedding ceremonies are largely enforced by their local vice and virtue committee, known as the religious police, tasked with enforcing Sharia law. The rules themselves seem to vary in different parts of the country, as does their enforcement. There seems to be no general or national Taleban regulation with regard to wedding ceremonies.
When it comes to public awareness of these disparate rules on weddings, the Taleban use local mosques and public gatherings to inform people and announce new restrictions, as well as the consequences for those who violate them. Taleban regulations that have been announced in parts of Faryab, Jawzjan, and Sar-e Pul provinces include that:
- The bride price should not be more than 200,000 Afs (2,650 USD);
- Men and women should be segregated and/or attend wedding parties at different times;
- Playing music and recording videos is prohibited;
- The bride and groom should receive only three suits of clothes each (normally the bride’s family asks for up to 20 suits of clothes for the bride and, in return, prepares five to ten suits of clothes for the groom).
- The wedding ceremony should take place in the groom or bride’s family home;
- The number of guests should be low (there is, however, no requirement to actively reduce the number of invitees, since it is understood that villagers will often attend the party without official invitation);
- The food for guests should be simple food, common among villagers: palao (rice with meat).
In practice, in the Taleban-controlled areas of Faryab, Jawzjan and Sar-e Pul provinces, locals often obey the Taleban’s rules in public but ignore them in private. For example, in Taleban-controlled areas, though the qaleen is presented as low in public, both families will often negotiate a confidential deal with a higher qaleen.
Even in the government controlled areas of Faryab and Sar-e Pul the local Taleban has tried to prevent people from holding parties in wedding halls. In July 2017, for instance, the Taleban issued warnings against wedding halls in the provincial centres of Sar-e Pul and Faryab. Speaking to AAN, Mahsuma Ramazan, a female provincial council member for Sar-e Pul, said that because of these warnings, the wedding halls in her province remained closed for a couple of months (see this media article). She said it was a clear indication of the Taleban’s influence on people’s social lives even in government-controlled areas. Eventually, the wedding halls reopened. It was unclear whether this was due to a deal between the Taleban and owners of the wedding halls, or whether pressure had simply subsided. (3)
Given that in Turkic communities wedding ceremonies usually take place in the bride and groom’s houses anyway, without much pressure to hold the party in a wedding hall, the impact of this specific restriction is limited. But other aspects of the wedding ceremony that the Taleban try to regulate are a common practice among locals, including the qaleen negotiation and payment, live music during the party, and the video recording of the wedding ceremony. The Taleban rules, if enforced, would thus surely impact the ways the Turkic communities marry in the northwest.
According to Sayed Fazel Agha, a former member of the Sar-e Pul provincial high peace council, neither the government law on wedding ceremonies nor the Taleban’s regulations were being obeyed by the population, at least not in his province. Wedding expenses, he said, thus remained a serious issue within the local community.
Conclusion: The cost of high expenses
Despite the government law on weddings, Taleban pressure and local initiatives to change the expensive wedding culture, the phenomenon of expensive parties and high qaleen prices remains firmly entrenched within the Turkic community. This comes at a high cost, in particular for the next generation. The need to meet qaleen prices has prevented many young men from studying, as they need to work and save money to get married. The high qaleen expenses also narrow the bride’s options for what she can do with her life, as she is under pressure to continue rug making instead of pursuing other possible futures. Even though she may have entered into marriage with seemingly high status, in reality, her marriage merely moves her as a worker from one rug making factory to another for the remainder of her life. So far, neither the government law on weddings nor the Taleban rules have solved this problem. Both laws and regulations are largely ignored: at best observed in public and ignored behind closed doors; at worst, openly flouted.
(1) The wedding halls in Kabul, for instance, located only a few kilometres away from the Ministry of Justice, host thousands of people every night in luxury wedding parties with expensive food. According to a wedding hall manager from Kabul, the prices for the wedding party’s menus ranged from 400 Afs (5 USD) to 1200 Afs (16 USD) per head. He said they would not host parties with fewer than 500 guests, since preparing food for fewer people wouldn’t allow them to make a profit (see for instance these pages for wedding halls in Kabul here and here which show a clear lack of awareness of, or refusal, to obey articles 17 and 18 of the law that limit the wedding menu price to 300 Afs (4 USD) and the number of guests to 500).
(2) At the national level there are ongoing efforts to reduce wedding expenses by holding mass wedding ceremonies, for instance in Kabul, Herat, Balkh and Bamyan provinces. These ceremonies, organised by charity foundations and local businessmen, are aimed at shifting away from the expensive wedding culture (see a media report here, here, here, here and here. But there is little sign of such initiatives in the Turkic communities of the northwest.
(3) During the Taleban regime (1994-2001), holding a wedding party in a hall was prohibited. Wedding ceremonies in wedding halls, however, have a long history in Kabul and other big cities. After the Taleban’s government collapsed, weddings were again held in halls, and the number of wedding venues in Kabul alone now stands at over 200.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020