Block That Bridal Bouquet! In Pakistan, Frugal Leader Bans Exorbitant Weddings

New prime minister's decree in March irked the rich, helps the poor in an Islamic nation.

Pointing to his horse cart in a vegetable market outside Islamabad, Himat Niazi says he's grateful for a recent decision by Pakistan's new leader to ban lavish weddings, long a tradition in South Asia.

"[He] saved my livelihood," says Mr. Niazi.

Just two months ago, the father of seven was thinking of selling his horse and cart for rupees 25,000 ($625) to pay for his oldest daughter's wedding. He would then have had to earn a living by carrying bags of vegetables on his back instead of by horse cart. The scorching heat of the coming summer would have made his 12-hour-a-day job unbearable.

Many in this Islamic nation of 131 million are breathing a sigh of relief for the new ban, which was issued in March and makes it illegal to entertain wedding guests with anything more than a cup of tea or a cold drink, or shoot off fireworks, or garishly illuminate hotels with lots of lights, or fire guns to celebrate to celebrate the occasion.

Law breakers will have to pay a steep fine of Rs. 300,000 - the equivalent of three years' wages for the typical unskilled worker.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's move is the first time that such a law has been enforced. Elected in February, he wants Pakistanis to adopt a more frugal lifestyle - especially when it comes to the blatant excesses seen at wedding parties. Before the ban, Pakistan had earned a notorious reputation for large, lavish weddings.

A burden for the poor

Even among the poor living in shantytowns, families frequently incurred huge debts or sold off their family silver to be able to afford weddings for their children. For the middle class and the rich, weddings were usually conducted at posh, five-star hotels, where receptions cost roughly Rs. 400 per guest - equivalent to four times the daily wage of a laborer.

Pakistani newspapers have welcomed the ban, though opinion is divided over how strictly it should be enforced.

"As a third-world country, Pakistan can ill afford wasteful expenditure on marriages," said the English-language Frontier Post in an editorial. The Nation, another English newspaper, also hailed the decision, saying, "This display of vulgar wealth has no doubt contributed ... to the feelings of envy and bitterness amongst citizens not so 'blessed' as those who have made marriages [ceremonies] lengthy affairs."

But the new policy does have some critics, such as the poultry breeders association. Claiming that the ban will disrupt their business, the breeders would like the policy reviewed.

"Wedding parties should at least have one simple dish. How can you ban all kinds of food?" asks one member, who requested anonymity.

Other critics charge that hosts should be allowed to serve at least one curry dish with bread rather than the 8 to 12-course dinners that have been common. "There are guests who travel from one city to another just to attend a wedding. They should at least be served a simple meal," says a senior bureaucrat who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Shamim Kazmi, the president of the Business and Professional Women's Organization, agrees with the ban in principle but argues that weddings were just about the only entertainment for the poor.

The government now needs to compensate them by improving recreational facilities for outdoor activities. "The rich should be penalized because they were setting a bad precedent by spending such huge amounts, which the poor could never afford. But the poor should get alternative means of entertainment now that wedding meals are gone," Ms. Kazmi says.

"Weddings are the only festival in villages that allow people to relax and enjoy themselves. They save for the entire year to feast their guests. There are certain traditions that cannot and should not be given up suddenly," wrote Musarrat Leghari, a columnist for the Urdu-language Nawa-i-waqt.

Movable feasts

One of the traditions was for the wedding party to go from one town to the other. Some critics charge that it has now become practically impossible for large wedding groups going from one town to another in what used to be a day-long excursion, because hosts can no longer serve meals.

But Prime Minister Sharif appears determined to press on in spite of the criticism.

At a recent farmers' conference in Islamabad, a representative of the poultry breeders protested the ban. But the breeder had to retreat amid loud boos from the audience. "You have witnessed the public support to what I have done. Do I need to say more?" Sharif said later.

A member of parliament who belongs to Sharif's ruling Pakistan Muslim League also defends the ban. "There were so many excesses in spending before that such tough measures were required. You can't tame bad habits overnight," he says.

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