KABUL (AFP) ― As a civil servant, Afghan Ahmad Mahfooz earns nearly 10 times the average annual salary in his impoverished homeland, but he still cannot afford to marry his fiancee.
Already thousands of dollars in debt after hosting a lavish engagement party for 500 guests in December, Mahfooz says he doesn’t know how he will ever afford the kind of wedding his wife-to-be and her family expect.
“I owe money to almost everyone I know, and I have no idea how I will ever earn enough to get married,” said the 27-year-old, one of a growing number of middle-class Afghans struggling with the escalating cost of weddings.
Since the fall of the Taliban nearly a decade ago, marriage ceremonies in Afghan cities have gone from being simple family affairs to lavish parties for up to 1,000 family and friends in specially-built wedding halls.
The ability to put on such an ostentatious display of wealth has become a test of honor for the groom, who traditionally foots the entire bill himself and sometimes also has to pay a dowry to his bride’s family.
Concerned the high cost is forcing young people to delay marriage, the Afghan government is considering banning extravagant weddings that experts say are often the result of competition between newly-rich clans.
A new bill being put together by the justice ministry would restrict the number of guests at a wedding party to 300 and limit spending per guest to 250 afghanis (around $5).
“Wedding parties have become like a competition to display wealth and influence,” said Abdul Majid Ghanizada, who heads the ministry’s civil law department.
“Most young people cannot get married because they cannot afford the cost, and that has to stop.”
An Afghan man dances during wedding celebrations at a wedding hall in Kabul. (AFP-Yonhap News)
Sociologist Barayalai Fetrat said the extravagant ceremonies were a new and predominantly urban phenomenon in Afghanistan, which has seen a massive influx of foreign money in recent years in the form of aid and military spending.
“The billions of dollars that have flooded into Afghanistan have made some people very rich and those people have come up with new ways to display their wealth,” said Fetrat, a lecturer at Kabul University.
“Expensive weddings have no root in our culture,” he added, bemoaning the high social costs of the new trend in a country where the average annual income is just $540.
But not everyone is happy about the proposed new law.
Marriage is big business in Afghanistan’s urban centers, with more than 70 wedding halls in the capital Kabul alone, and their owners say the industry will collapse if the restrictions are implemented.
“Wedding halls are so convenient, people no longer have to invite hundreds of guests into their homes,” said Mohammed Salam Baraki, owner of the Uranus Wedding Hall.
“If the new law is passed and enforced, the wedding hall business will be over.”
For Kabul shop owner Bashir, who like many Afghans goes by one name, the planned legislation is too late.
“I am still trying to free myself of my wedding debt,” complained the 29-year-old, who borrowed around $15,000 when he got married three years ago and has so far repaid only around half the debt.
“But if I had not done what I did, my relatives would have thought less of me.”