For Afghans, Wedding Costs Put Marriage On Hold

April 8, 2011

Corey Flintoff

Romeo Gacad
Afghan men dance at a wedding party in Kabul in October 2009. Celebrating weddings with dance and music returned to Afghanistan after the practice was banned during the Taliban regime. In a country where most Afghans are poor, this 600-guest reception cost about $5,000.

Afghanistan is in the midst of a cultural clash over marriage.

Afghan culture places the highest value on marriage and family life, and bars most contacts between the sexes outside of marriage. But the culture also favors big, expensive weddings that are out of reach for most young people.

Many can't afford to marry, and the Afghan government says that leads to frustration and instability. So far, though, government efforts to remedy the problem are going nowhere.

Costly Luxuries

The wedding dream for many young Afghans is a lavish party at a wedding palace, such as the City Star wedding hall in Kabul.

The groom's family hosts anywhere from hundreds to thousands of relatives and friends, offering food and entertainment in surroundings that have all the glitz of a Las Vegas casino. Men and women party separately, on either side of a tall partition, and by all accounts, the women have more fun, dressing up and dancing out of the sight of men.

Mawla Mohammad Payman, the director of City Star, leads a tour of his four wedding halls as workers get ready for another evening of parties. He points with pride to the International Hall, which can accommodate up to 1,500 people under sculpted gold ceilings and crystal chandeliers.

Payman has his workmen turn on the artificial waterfall that gushes beneath a mural of Afghan mountains. It features a bridge that the bride and groom cross to take their places on silver thrones at one end of the hall. These luxuries are costly, but Payman says his facilities are booked up for months in advance.

For young men such as Jalal Paeez, even a more modest wedding is far out of reach. Paeez is 28 and unemployed. His last job was dubbing foreign movies into Afghan languages at a Kabul TV station.

He says most young people in Afghanistan used to get married in their late teens or early 20s. Now, unless they come from wealthy families, he says, most men put off marriage until they're 30 or 35, when they can save enough for a wedding party.

Paeez says he would like to propose to a 22-year-old former co-worker, but that he doesn't want to follow the example of many of his friends, who borrowed heavily to finance their wedding parties and are now deeply in debt.

Proposed Law Sparks Anger

The Afghan government is taking on the issue in the form of a proposed law that would limit the number of wedding guests to 300 and the amount spent to around $7 per guest.

Ahmad Fareed Najeebi, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Justice, says one reason for the proposed law is that the government believes the inability to marry creates instability among young men, and even drives some to crime.

At the City Star Wedding Palace, Mawla Mohammad Payman is indignant about efforts to limit wedding spending. He says the proposed limits would hurt his business and force him to lay off many of his 200 staff members.

"It's supposed to be a free-market economy," Payman says. "How can they justify this law?"

The proposed law failed to get the approval of Afghanistan's council of ministers, meaning that it goes back to the drawing board. Even if it did pass, though, many feel that the tradition of big parties would be hard to overcome.

Paeez says he thinks the government should make it easier for young men like him to marry, but he doesn't know how he could limit his own party.

For one thing, he says, he's already attended too many other fancy wedding parties himself, and Afghan tradition requires that he put on a big splash for everyone who's invited him in the past. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.