Context & Culture

The Bride Price: The Afghan tradition of paying for wives


A decorated car often accompanies the bride as she travels from her parent’s house to the house of new in-laws. In this wedding in the Ibrahimzi area of Deh Yak district in Ghazni province, the bride price was 11,000 US dollars. (Author’s photo: 2014)

A decorated car often accompanies the bride as she travels from her parent’s house to the house of new in-laws. In this wedding in the Ibrahimzi area of Deh Yak district in Ghazni province, the bride price was 11,000 US dollars. (Author’s photo: 2014)

Weddings are hugely expensive affairs in Afghanistan, with excessive costs for wedding halls, lavish meals and usually a bride price. The bride price is the money paid by the groom’s family for the bride to her family. It is a contested tradition that is viewed as having no foundation in Islamic law and does not appear in the new draft marriage law. It is also not to be confused with the dowry (mahr) which should be given to the bride in case her husband dies or divorces her. High bride prices can lead to debt for grooms and their families and early marriage to unsuitable men for the daughters of poor men; fathers of many daughters, however, may benefit from the practice. AAN’s Fazal Muzhary investigates the tradition and finds that current, local attempts to curb high bride prices are proving more successful than previous attempts by the state.  

Wedding Negotiations and Bride Price

Almost all weddings in Afghanistan start with matchmaking. The groom’s family initiates a marriage proposal and it is up to the bride’s family to agree or not. When the families have agreed to the marriage the real negotiations around the wedding and the bride price start and usually take place at the house of the bride-to-be. The negotiations about the actual wedding and its costs, including food and catering, clothes for the bride’s relatives and payment for the imam, who drafts the marriage contract and performs the ceremony, can be quite quick. However, the negotiations about the bride price can be lengthy. The couple are nowadays often consulted about the marriage proposal, but they have a very limited role in the wedding and bride price negotiations and have to accept what their families decide (for detailed information on marriage practices in Afghanistan see: here).

The father of the bride, or in his absence her oldest brother, specifies how much he would like to receive from the groom’s family for his daughter. The amount is often based on family credentials, education, skills, age, beauty and the reputation of the girl, as well as recent bride prices within the community. It is the groom who is expected to raise the money for the wedding and the bride price, but the groom’s family usually pitches in. As a consequence, the decision to accept or reject the wedding costs and the bride price becomes a family affair. The price tag for the wedding, especially in Kabul, can easily top 10,000 USD; a small fortune in a country where the gross domestic product per capita in 2015 was 623.90 US dollars (see: here). Even if the actual wedding costs are less in rural areas, the overall costs are pushed up by the bride price. Social media provides some examples of current bride prices in different provinces (see: here):

Maidan Wardak: 400,000 to 800,000 afghanis (5,900 to 11,800 US dollars);

Nangarhar: 100,000 to 500,000 afghanis (1450 to 7,245 US dollars). Not all communities in Nangarhar have a tradition of asking for a bride price.

Loya Paktia (Khost, Paktia and Paktika): 1,000,000 to 1,200,000 afghanis (14,500 to 17,390 US dollars)

Farah: 800,000 to 1,500,000 afghanis (11,800 US dollars to 21,733 US dollars);

Faryab: 66,000-135,000 afghanis (10,000 to 20,000 US dollars (see: here)

Kandahar and Helmand: 1,000,000 to 3,000,000 afghanis (14,590 to 43,468 US dollars) (see: here).

Bride Price versus Dowry

Bride price is known as walwar in Pashto-speaking areas and toyana and sherbaha in Dari-speaking areas. It is an Afghan tradition with no foundation in Islamic law (see: here) and does not feature in the draft marriage law. According to the draft marriage law and the civil law (1), the only payment that can be requested by the bride’s family is the Islamic dowry (mahr), which should remain the property of the bride for the duration of her marriage (2). Bride price and mahr are not the same: the bride price is a payment that the father of the bride receives, while mahr is the groom’s financial pledge to his wife. According to Islamic (sharia) law, women who enter into a marriage contract are entitled to receive mahr and it is intended to provide security for her and her children in case the husband dies or requests a divorce. According to Hanafi jurisprudence fiqh), a wife is allowed to use the mahr in any way she sees fit as it is her property – this means that she can also return it or share it with her husband or their extended family. Mawlwi Abdullah Haqyar, head of the Islamic and Culture Department of the Sharia Faculty at Kabul University, noted that “mahr is an Islamic matter and a gift from the groom to the bride, it remains the property of the bride. This is the financial obligation that a husband has to his bride.” The draft marriage law and Islamic law provide limited instructions regarding the size of the mahr or the timing of the payment; this is left to families to decide (3).

Community members interviewed by AAN said that mahr was almost never implemented as Islamic law prescribes, even if people are aware of the law. In fact, when parents of a bride and groom negotiate wedding arrangements, they often use the word mahr when they are actually talking about the wedding price. Sayed Wali (name changed at the request of the interviewee) from Ghazni said, “On the day of my engagement in 2011, my father and brothers decided on a sum of 800,000 Pakistani rupees [about 9,230 US dollars[ to be given as mahr to my future wife. The money was paid directly to her brother and after the wedding, when I asked my wife about the mahr, she told me that she did not receive a penny of the 800,000 [Pakistani] rupees. Instead, she told me that her brother had used the money to arrange the marriage of his son.” This practice was also confirmed by interviews with two mullahs from Ghazni province who explained that it is a widely accepted fact that the father of the bride takes the bride price money but calls it mahr.

The Complex Social and Financial Effects of the Bride Price

The bride price is a huge burden on grooms and their families, but is also a vital source of income for the families of brides, in particular poorer ones. If a father only has daughters and no sons, he will often rely on the bride price as a source of income, as he cannot rely on the income a son would bring. When a daughter is married, she moves into her husband’s household and has less contact with her parents and little opportunity to support them. The bride price is considered to be the daughter’s contribution to the economy and wealth of her parents’ household. Its importance is exemplified in one of AAN’s interviews by a story of a poor man in Ghazni who demanded 10,000 US dollars for his daughter, which helped him to feed his entire family for almost four years.

Bride price also drives child marriage in Afghanistan, as research in 2013 by the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation showed. Getting a high bride price was a major reason given by parents for marrying their girls off young. Other economic factors also counted, including giving girls in lieu of debts and exchanging girls, so that neither family had to pay the bride price. Although article 70 of the civil law specifies the minimum age for marriage is 18 years of age for men and 16 for women, girls under the age of 15 make up three per cent of all married women according to Afghanistan’s periodic report under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Article 28 of the law on the Elimination of Violence against Women states that those who force girls to marry under the age of 15 should be imprisoned for at least two years and the same article states that the marriage of an underage girl can be cancelled at the request of the girl. However, the implementation of these laws is difficult given Afghanistan’s traditional society. This is particularly true when the economies of entire families depend on underage marriages.

Parents who chose to or are forced to marry off their underage daughters often ignore factors such as the age or any disabilities of the future son-in-law. Daughters might even get married off to men whom their families have never seen before. An AREU study on marriage practice in Afghanistan from 2007 cited the example of Aziza, a girl in her mid-teens who was married to a 60 years old man. Aziza explained, “my father was sick and my family could not afford to pay for his treatment. Therefore I saw no other way out than to marry the old man who was willing to pay the bride price demanded by my family.”

As a result of the high prices for weddings, hundreds of young men have been forced to go to Iran, Pakistan, or the Gulf countries to find work, often under precarious conditions, to try to earn enough money to pay for their wedding and the bride price (4). This also affects many young women who are not able to get married and have to stay at their parents’ houses for longer than usual while their future husbands are working abroad to earn the bride price. For instance, Muhammad Nabbi from Khost province told AAN, “I had been to Saudi Arabia, where I worked as a driver for seven years. During these years, my fiancée had to wait and remain with her parents.” Niamatullah, 23, from Ghazni province, explained to AAN that he had spent four years in Iran in order to earn money to get married in Afghanistan. In summer 2013, just before he was about to return to Afghanistan, he fell from the third floor of a building where he was working. He suffered a broken neck and severe spinal cord injuries and had to spend most of his earned money on medical treatment. In order to still be able to get married he said, “I sent my younger brother to Iran to work and borrowed money from my relatives for the wedding.”

Young men who cannot go abroad to earn money try to find the necessary financial resources within Afghanistan. Most borrow money from relatives; others mortgage or sell land. In many cases, the families of brides are also willing to accept some of the bride price in kind through land titles, houses or cars. In 2014, Yar Muhammad from Mutakhan district in Paktika province transferred his 20 jeribs of farmland to his brother-in-law as payment for the negotiated 1,800,000 Pakistani rupees (17,176 US dollars) bride price. Yar Muhammad was left with only a few jeribs of land to use as a source of livelihood. In the long term, the mortgaging, selling or transferring of property can significantly affect the economic situation of the groom’s family, which often leads to resentment towards the bride and her family(see: here). In some cases, the pressure to pay high bride prices has caused young men to commit suicide (see a report of Mehwar Daily published in December 2012, here) . Similarly, depression and other psychological problems, family disputes, suicides and fleeing homes have been reported among those young men and women who were not able to get married because they were unable to meet the demands for the bride price (see for example: here).

In some cases, the bride price also results in women not being able to get married. This is viewed as shameful for the women, as is getting married at an old age. For example, Nasima (name changed) was 50 years old when she finally married a 60 year old widower in another village of Andar district. Prior to her marriage, she lived with her elder brother at her parents’ house where she had a sad life, “My nephews and niece would always taunt me about why I did not marry at young age, and they would sometimes not allow me to eat the food that my brother would bring. I was so fed up with my life at my brother’s house,” she said in an interview with AAN. Life was so difficult for her that she said she would agree to marry anyone who asedk her, even if he had disabilities or was an old man. The widower, who married Nasima, had a daughter and three sons from his previous wife. After a few weeks of marriage, life again became bitter for her. “My married life is not like those girls who got married at a younger age because my husband taunts me from time to time about why I did not get married at a young age,” she said. “My stepsons treat me as if I am their servant and insult me by telling me I am an old woman.”

Historical examples of government efforts to regulate wedding costs and prohibit bride price

High wedding costs and bride price are not a new phenomenon and there are several examples in Afghan history of governments’ attempts to curb costs. In the 1921 Marriage Law, expenditures for the wedding itself were limited, the mahr was fixed at 30 afghanis (at the value from that time period) and bride price was prohibited. The law was widely criticised by Islamic scholars who considered these reforms as intervening in their domain and curtailing their powers. The scholars accused King Amanullah Khan of endorsing laws that were contrary to Islamic law. Later legal initiatives, including those from 1934, 1960, 1970 and 1977 focused on limiting wedding costs, but without explicitly forbidding bride price. A law from 1949 states that the bride may not demand a bride price, but she can demand mahr. However, the 1960, 1971, and 1977 laws did prohibit bride price.

In 1978, communist President Nur Muhammad Taraki issued decree number seven, according to which the bride price for a young girl was set at only 300 afghanis (roughly an equivalent of 30,000 Afs now or about 450 USD). The decree, however, was unevenly implemented and, was rejected by more conservative parts of society (see here and here). Others, however, took advantage of the decree: officials and government supporters in rural areas harassed families with unmarried daughters, telling them that they were obliged to marry their daughters to them as they were offering the required 300 Afghanis. According to 55 year old Khudai Nur in Andar district of Ghazni, the parents who refused were threatened. These developments, related to decree number 7 and the behaviour of officials and government supporters, played an important role in convincing the population to rise up against the communist regime. The anti-communists, for example, used the decree as one of their propaganda subjects to encourage the population to stand against the communist government (see here). Religious leaders at the time said that the decree was un-Islamic because in Islam there is no specific amount of mahr; although a minimum is given, a maximum is not prescribed. Haqyar, a member of the Kabul University Sharia faculty, stated that the communist regime also insisted on a minimum amount of mahr to be paid, but that the decree was perceived as an enormous disrespect to women, “as people would not even sell an animal for 300 Afghanis.”

Other examples from that time, however, also showed that communities were not opposed to regulation as long as they were consulted. For example, according to Mawlawi Muhammad Qasam, the head of a tribal shura in Sar Roza district of Paktika province, an agreement was made by local tribal elders in the post-communist period (30-35 years ago) to set bride price at 10,000 Afghani. Such local agreements have also been attempted more recently.

Provincial efforts to reduce bride price

In recent years, ulama and tribal elders have come together in southern and south-eastern provinces to informally ‘regulate’ bride price.

According to Mawlwi Muhammad Qasam in Sar Roza district of Paktika, the tribal elders made a new decision in 2010 that bride price should be around 300,000 Pakistani rupees (3,000 US dollars); this was considered a reasonable amount for the people of the area.

A similar decision had, as noted above, been taken in this district in the 1990s when the elders decided that the bride price should be around 150,000 rupees (1,500 US dollars). However, by 2010, this agreement was no longer adhered to and bride prices had become as high as 1,000,000 rupees (10,000 USD), in addition to other wedding expenses, in some parts of the district. The 2010 agreement included attempts to limit the number of guests to only 20 and to provide clothes for only up to four women. The local communities, particularly the youth and the poor, have welcomed this initiative.

Elders in the provincial capital, Sharan, as well as in Yusufkhel district of Paktika province decided in January 2010 that the exact amount of bride price should be 230,000 afghanis (3,333 US dollars). The tribal elders also suggested limiting the number of wedding guests and reducing expenses. In the past, the bride’s parents were expected to provide sets of clothes for 80 to 90 guests; now they should only provide them for up to ten women and only three wedding cars should be used. Violators of the rules could be fined by the tribal elders. These rules have been implemented both in the provincial capital Sharan and in the neighbouring district of Yusufkhil, according to Abdul Hai Sahibzada, head of a reform council in the province.

According to a UNAMA 2010 report on Harmful Traditional Practices (see: here), elders in Faizabad district of Jawzjan province decided to reduce the bride price from 400,000 afghanis (5,796 US dollars) to 200,000 afghanis (2,898 US dollars). According to the same report, in Samangan province’s Khuram and Sarbagh districts communities decided to reduce the bride price from 10,000 to 4,000 US dollars. The report also stated that in Sabari district of Khost, communities had agreed that a bride’s family should not ask the groom to buy jewellery worth more than 5,000 US dollars. It also points out that the Taleban in Tagab district of Kapisa province set the bride price at 3,800 US dollars. While these measures appear to have been successful attempts to reduce the bride price, they did not spread to other districts or provinces in the north or east.

In Andar district of Ghazni, on 23 August 2013, there was another initiative: tribal elders in most of the western and central villages of the district issued a declaration consisting of 19 articles, in which they decided that the bride price should be 350,000 afghanis (about 5,017 US dollars), only four cars should be used on the wedding day and that the bride price, which is referred to as mahr in the written declaration, should be used to purchase goods to furnish the new home of the bride. Overall, the declaration stressed that both sides were not allowed to incur huge expenses. Based on the declaration, if anyone violated these rules, there would be a fine of 200,000 afghanis (about 2,900 US dollars). At the same time, in the western area of Andar, the local Taleban fighters supported the implementation of the reduced bride price andalso played a role in convincing the tribal elders to set the rules. Furthermore, the Taleban said that if someone resisted these changes, they “would deal with that person.”

Positive and negative effects of local initiatives 

Positive effects of these local initiatives to regulate wedding costs and bride price were reported to AAN. For example, Sahibzada, the head of a reform council in south-eastern Paktika, explained that the tribal agreement he had been part of deciding on had resulted in a major rise in the number of weddings in the district from a few to a hundred weddings a year. He said that now there were fewer unmarried young men and women, and fewer young men had to go abroad to earn money in order to get married.

The reduction of the bride price, however, had unintended negative consequences. Based on interviews with local residents in Khost province, the reduction in the bride price to 220,000 afghanis (about 3,000 US dollars), in the Lakani area of the provincial capital, resulted in people coming to Lakani from other parts of the province in order to find local girls that they could marry to their sons for a lower bride price. This angered the people of Lakani, “People thought it was a sort of market place, where the girls were sold for cheap,” one Khost resident told AAN. Although unwilling to abandon the reduced bride price altogether, it was unacceptable to the Lakani people that outsiders were taking advantage of the situation. So, after a few weddings with ‘outsiders’ had taken place, residents decided that if someone from another part of Khost province wanted to marry a girl from Lakani then they would be charged the higher bride price customary in their district of origin, while the bride price for the local families would remain at the reduced sum.

When the initiative to reduce bride price found its way to Ghazni province, people in Qarabagh district initially welcomed it, and also decided to set a standard lower bride price. However, in Andar district, the idea was challenged first by local mullahs and then by tribal elders. For example, when people in late 2012 and early 2013 came together in western Andar district and decided to set the bride price at 350,000 afghanis (about 5,057 US dollars), two famous mullahs, one from Alizai village and another from Shado village, resisted. They told the community that the reduction of bride price was a violation of the rights of the woman to be married. Interestingly, one theory was that these mullahs resisted the new rules because they themselves have many daughters and a few sons, which means if the bride price were reduced they would be able to earn less money. When the first mullah, from Alizai, resisted the new bride price policy the Taleban visited him and thereafter he no longer resisted. However, the Taleban reportedly did not approach the mullah from Shado village.

While these attempts clearly indicate that communities are interested in some form of regulation to reduce and possibly even in the long-term abolish the bride price, the implementation, in particular in conservative communities, seems to hamper these efforts.

Conclusion

Wedding costs and especially bride price are deeply rooted customs in Afghan society, and bride price, in particular, has important economic consequences for the families of the bride and the groom. Efforts to regulate bride price through legislation or national policies have tended to remain poorly implemented, or when implemented, contested. The most notorious efforts to regulate bride prices were adopted during the Taraki government and contributed to the downfall of that government. Local initiatives seem to have been more successful in their implementation, which may not be surprising as they, when successful, are local solutions developed to solve what is perceived as a local problem. However, as noted above, local solutions have also had unintended negative consequences. A possible conclusion of this is that national initiatives to reduce bride price and wedding costs need to be well anchored within local decision-making structures and local realities.

Edited by Lenny Linke, Sari Kouvo, Jelena Bjelica and Kate Clark

 

 

(1) The draft marriage law came into force in 1977 and articles 56 to 267 focus on family issues. However, the civil law and the Shia Personal Status Law (SPSL) are both silent on bride price. Article 121 of the SPSL, however, clearly states that the bride’s father pays for the goods the bride brings with her to her husband’s house (jahizia). It also states that if the groom or his family send the goods to the bride or her family, they remain the groom’s property. This means the bride’s family is not allowed to receive money for the purpose of buying jahizia.

(2) The 2015 draft marriage law approved by the parliament appears to return to previous attempts to explicitly abolish bride price, but requires the payment of mahr according to Islamic law. The law also regulates other wedding expenses. According to this news story, the law prescribes that the number of wedding guests cannot exceed 500 and limits the food cost to no more than 400 afghanis (5.80 US dollars) per person. Wedding hall owners who allow more than 500 guests per wedding will face a penalty of 30,000 afghanis (434,68 US dollars) for their first offence and will have their permits rescinded if it happens again. However, though the parliament passed the marriage law in April 2015, at the time of writing this dispatch, it had not been ratified by the president and had not been sent to the Ministry of Justice to be published in the official gazette. So far, AAN is not aware of any examples where these limits were enforced or where penalties were issued.

(3) According to the Hanafi school of law, which is the most prevalent one in Afghanistan, the minimum amount of mahr should be 10 darham (a currency during the prophet, Muhammad’s times), while the maximum is not defined. However, this interpretation as well as mahr as a requirement for a nikah (the legal contract between a bride and a groom in an Islamic marriage), is disputed even among Afghan Islamic scholars. Mawlwi Abdullah Haqyar, head of the Islamic Culture Department of the Sharia Faculty at Kabul University, notes, “It is [the] responsibility of the couple to decide on [the] amount of mahr, and no one else, but the girl to be married, can choose or decide on mahr.” According to him, mahr is not a condition or principle of nikah. “This means, if the couple accept each other in [the] presence of witnesses, whether the mahr is specified or not, the nikah is perfect.”

At the same time, anecdotal evidence suggests that some mullahs in Kabul and other provinces have not accepted a nikah as valid unless it included stipulations regarding mahr. In fact, some of these mullahs insisted on re-marrying already married couples in order to provide them with a valid nikah that included the amount of mahr. While the amount of mahr needs to be indicated in a nikah, Islamic law and its practice does allow for a wide array of payment options such as cash, jewellery or property and it does not have to be paid in full immediately. Here, while not agreeing that mahr has to be a part of the nikah, Mawlwi Abdullah Haqyar, head of the Islamic Culture Department of the Sharia Faculty at Kabul University agrees that “there are two types of mahr: musma and mesl (both are Arabic words that are commonly used in Afghanistan). Under the terms of musma, the amount of mahr is decided at the time the nikah is prepared, but the groom can either pay the amount immediately or at a later point. Under the condition of mesl, the mahr is not decided (and not paid) on the day of the nikah signing, but if the wife later asks her husband for mahr then the husband should pay. In this case, the amount is decided based on the mahr paid to the wife’s married sisters or other close female relatives.”

(4) There are some other traditions and practices common before, during, and after a wedding which could be considered a big burden on the groom. Again these practices and traditions are different in every region. For example, in most of the Pashtun-dominated parts of Ghazni province the groom agrees to provide additional goods during bride price negotiations. These goods can include flour, rice, firewood, cooking oil, clothing, cattle to be slaughtered and served to guests on the wedding day, money to pay the imam and cooks for the wedding. These costs vary, based on the number of wedding participants and the size of the bride’s family. In most of the central and northern provinces practices are different. For instance, in Balkh province, the groom is expected to purchase jewellery, pay the wedding hall costs, hold a pre-marriage party called shirini khuri, purchase two special wedding clothes outfits for the bride, prepare a 30-50 kilogramme cake for the wedding day and make a big invitation after the wedding which is called takht jami.

 

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture