Costly Afghan weddings under government scrutiny

June 19, 2011 - 4:43 AM

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Some brides in Afghanistan change their outfits up to 10 times. Throw in the six-hour trips to the beauty parlors and the meals for 1,000 guests — and one wedding alone could bankrupt many Afghans.

Now the Justice Ministry is proposing limits on the lavish events to cut down on the pressure poor Afghans face to match the elite's elaborate weddings. The government is specifically targeting party halls — and threatening to fine owners who flout the austerity rules.

"It is breaking the back of the groom and of the family," Justice Minister Habibullah Ghaleb said of the lavish nuptials. "It creates an immoral corruption."

Under the proposed wedding law, which still needs to be passed by parliament, locations would be barred from allowing more than 300 attendees for an engagement party and more than 500 people at a wedding, Ghaleb said.

Those halls caught breaking the law would be subject to serious fines or other possible penalties. However, it remains unclear what enforcement powers authorities would have to go after the wedding halls, especially in a country where bribery remains common.

Other rules are aimed at protecting grooms' families from spending too much money on gifts for brides and their relatives. Brides would get only two dresses — one for an engagement party and one for the wedding. The law would restrict other gifts too, Ghaleb said without elaborating.

"We don't want to put pressure on the people," the minister said. "We want to put pressure on the wedding halls."

Afghan weddings traditionally took place in the home, with families and friends attending several events marking the groom and bride's union. Under Taliban rule, lavish ceremonies were forbidden.

But over the last decade, rich Afghans have begun renting out the country's top halls and hotels to host thousands of people for weddings and engagement parties, complete with gifts and tables heaped with food.

The frosted-glass wedding halls in Kabul appear like a neon dream of what Afghanistan could be amid the ruined roads and bullet-marred apartment buildings. And some believe the weddings that cost of tens of thousands of dollars hint at the graft strangling government and private life in Afghanistan.

"It is happiness for them, but for others, it is just fire," Ghaleb said.

Families around the world take out loans and run up credit card debt to throw lavish wedding celebrations for their children. But in Afghanistan, the average government employee earns just $50 to $100 a month, according to a recent U.S. Senate committee report.

But even a modest government paycheck won't even secure a deposit on a $1,500 wedding dress in Kabul or expensive gold jewelry.

The financial pressure multiplies across large families, as Afghan women on average have at least six children. Most borrow money from family members and friends to hold their weddings, as formal loans remain difficult to obtain.

Afghan families mostly shrug and accept the cost as a sign of tradition mashing into a country where ATMs now spit out U.S. dollars.

Hamid Walizada, 31, an interpreter for the U.S. military, said it took his family 10 months to put the money together for his wedding from friends and others. Others travel abroad to earn money, while some elope at the risk of arrest.

"Everything is expensive here," Walizada said outside of one dress shop. "Everybody is trying to find money and get married."

Wedding hall operators — not surprisingly — disagree with the proposed rules. However, they point to the Quran as guidance for large celebrations.

"We are following the history of our Prophet Muhammad," said Moula M. Paiman, president of the City Star Hall. "When he got married, thousands upon thousands attended the wedding. We are following that."

On a recent summer night, Paiman juggled three mobile phones and a walkie-talkie, trying organize the crowds and 300 employees at his wedding hall, ablaze with lights like a Las Vegas casino with the traffic to match.

He declined to say how many people could be seated inside, but the crowds suggested thousands. Most hall operators charge at least $10 a person.

Yet he took the time to smile with pride when asked about the two, towering crescent moons leading into the hall, luminescent against the flashing neon.

"See, on the way you came, it was a dark desert," he said. "Here it is beautiful."

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Associated Press writer Amir Shah contributed to this report.

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.