Afghan government seeks to ban costly weddings

KABUL — There was still confetti on his tuxedo when Ahmed Rashed Azimi settled into his purple throne at the center of an expansive wedding hall and surveyed the crowd: 1,200 friends and family members, a live band, costumed dancers and a crew of greeters dressed in the colors of the telecom company that made him rich.

“This is the biggest wedding in Kabul,” Azimi said. He wasn’t smiling. “It cost so much money.”

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There’s perhaps no better symbol of this city’s recent infusion of wealth than the glitzy wedding halls that have sprouted near its center, with Vegas-style replicas of the Eiffel Tower and flashing neon everything.

But the country’s government sees such celebrations as a different kind of emblem — of waste and anti-Islamic values. A law proposed this year by the Ministry of Justice would curb celebrations like Azimi’s, placing a limit on the number of guests and the cost of festivities. As American troops prepare to begin drawing down from Afghanistan, the law is an attempt to rebuild traditional Afghan culture, which, according to some officials, has been corrupted since U.S. forces helped overthrow the Taliban in 2001.

“The parties have gotten out of control. People spend money they don’t have and go into debt for many years. It’s not good for the society,” said Muhammad Qasim Hashimzai, the deputy justice minister.

The law, which would also prevent women from wearing dresses “contrary to Islamic sharia,” reminds some here of Taliban-era paternalism. It doesn’t jibe with the new Afghanistan, they say, a place where an influx of foreign dollars has created a new elite eager to flaunt its wealth, even as the vast majority of Afghans live in poverty.

Azimi is no doubt a part of that elite. He makes a substantial salary in the country’s booming telecom industry. He drives a new car and owns a closet full of shiny, Western suits. But even for Azimi, the cost of a wedding big and glamorous enough to impress colleagues and friends is difficult to shoulder. The string of parties during the week of his wedding will cost him about $80,000.

That is part of the reason why the stout, mustached 26-year-old sits on the throne with his lips pursed, looking thoroughly unhappy. Every guest who walks in the hall costs him another $15.

“I can’t refuse these people,” he said. “They invited me to their weddings. How can I not invite them to mine?”

Azimi borrowed money from family members to foot the bill, but he’d much prefer an excuse to thin the guest list. The justice ministry’s new law would serve as that kind of excuse, he said: “Then I could just tell them, ‘Sorry, the government has placed a restriction. There’s nothing I can do.’ ”

The Law on Prevention of Extravagance in Wedding Ceremonies would limit the number of wedding guests to 300 and the amount spent to around $7 per guest. It also aims to prevent grooms’ families from spending too much money on gifts for brides and their relatives. Brides, who sometimes wear more than a dozen outfits during wedding-related festivities, would receive only two dresses — one for an engagement party and one for the wedding itself.

Couples and wedding hall owners who exceed the legal limits would face fines or prison sentences.

But with the bill just now being reviewed by lawmakers, Azimi still felt pressure from friends, cousins and colleagues to show off his new wealth at the Uranuse Wedding Hall, which was blanketed with lace and flowers and fake snow during last week’s celebration. As is customary in Afghanistan, only men attended that event; a party for women would be held the following day.

Not long ago, someone of Azimi’s stature would have held a modest party in his home. But after the Taliban was expelled in 2001, strict wedding regulations disappeared andstandards began to change.

Parties remain divided by gender, but the venues have become larger and gaudier. Pop stars are hired to headline events. Dresses have become more revealing — another controversy the law aims to address by mandating a slew of “monitoring committees” composed of politicians and bureaucrats.

“People are returning to Afghanistan from outside, and they’re introducing a new culture,” said Hashimzai, the deputy justice minister. “Our purpose is to bring some discipline back to the society.”

But that push for discipline has met with resistance, with critics calling it unjust and logistically untenable.

“Why should the government tell people how to spend their money?” said Mohammed Salam Baraki, the owner of Uranuse. “If they pass this law, it will only facilitate corruption. I’ll have to pay off the inspector to allow more guests in.”

The population of Kabul has more than doubled in the past 10 years to 5 million, as Afghans have fled dangerous provinces and refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan for the relative safety of the nation’s capital. Some have prospered, but most remain as poor as they’ve ever been, sometimes living in tent cities just outside of the wedding halls.

For Afghanistan’s nascent middle class, the city’s wedding halls have come to symbolize their aspirations. Ajmal Wahabzada, 28, watched as Azimi was showered with confetti and thought instantly of his own wedding.

“It was also at a wedding hall, but nothing like this. This is really impressive,” he said.

Enamullah Arman, a boyish 22-year-old who works as a sales coordinator for a telecom company, spent much of the party filming dancers and musicians on his cellphone.

“This is exactly what I want,” he said. “I’ve already saved $800.”

Not long after a stream of men finished greeting Azimi, a shaggy singer started crooning about love.

“I’ll always remember you,” he sang in Dari.

Men began dancing, twirling in circles with arms outstretched. A videographer sprinted around from table to table, following the groom’s brothers as they looked for guests whose hands they hadn’t yet shaken.

Azimi sat on his purple perch, presiding quietly over the affair. Neon blue lights flashed over his head.

“We still have three more parties to come,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”

 
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