Pakistan's novel attack on poverty: ban wedding feasts

December in Pakistan is known as the Season of Weddings. It is a time that brings young hearts closer, and saddles some families with lifelong debt.

A Pakistani wedding is much more than a single event. It stretches over days of songs, dances, meals arranged for hundreds of guests, and a heavy dowry presented to the bridegroom. This lavish social custom is expected even among the poor, which make up more than 30 percent of Pakistan's 140 million people.

Now, in a novel effort to help the poor, Pakistan's Supreme Court has upheld a ban on serving food at wedding receptions held in public places. The move has cheered social workers, but it has also spurred elaborate efforts to circumvent the prohibition.

"People are at liberty to celebrate marriage.... What is prohibited is extravagance and ostentatious display of wealth," the Supreme Court observed in last month's verdict. "It is an important step to prepare the society as a whole for a change in wasteful expenses so as to relieve the poor segments of the society of the undue burden."

The government initially attempted the ban in 1997, allowing only tea or drinks to be served to guests. However, the prohibition was largely ignored, and now the Supreme Court ruled that it should be enforced across the country.

The scope of Islamabad's undertaking makes it the Taj Mahal of social engineering.

For starters, the cultural practice is deeply rooted. The Indian subcontinent was ruled for centuries by Hindu maharajas, Muslim khans of the Mogul Empire, and then nawabs of princely states, who spent an enormous amount of money on weddings. These ceremonies were emulated by common people.

Now a major portion of Pakistan'seconomy revolves around wedding functions. There are wedding management companies operating in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi responsible for the decoration of the venue, dance rehearsals, and arranging laser and fireworks shows. A bridal dress can cost half a million rupees ($8,380) and the whole event sometimes runs 20 million rupees ($335,200). Gold and silver are literally handed out to the guests as presents.

An apartment or a furnished house, as well as cars and cash, are given to the bridegroom as dowry. In some wedding functions, the dowry items are displayed and announced by the bride's family elders.

The events are as numerous as a nervous bride's rapid heartbeats.

Usually the celebration starts two months in advance by arranging the dholkis, a function where the couple's friends sing and dance. A few days before the wedding is the mayun, during which the bride is massaged with herbs. Then at the mehndi ceremony, guests and friends put henna on the palms of the bride and bridegroom. The wedding reception is the responsibility of bride's family. On the next day, the bridegroom's family hosts another reception, the valima.

Meals are served; gifts in cash and kind are presented at each event. Companies offer special deals to purchase dowry goods, including washing machines, TV sets, gold sets - all on "easy installments."

Social workers and women's rights activists hailed the court decision by saying the law takes pressure off lower-income groups who feel obliged to spend extravagantly on wedding celebrations.

"It has left a great option for people to free themselves from social and financial burdens. But ironically, when the government wants to provide them relief, many people try to dodge the implementing authorities and remain caged under social evils," says Fouzia Saeed, a social activist.

In recent years, people violated the ban by holding weddings in houses or in tents on empty plots instead of hotels where meals cannot be served. If wedding receptions are held in public places, then piƱa coladas and lattes replace mere soft drinks or tea.

These tactics are adopted by lower-income groups as well.

"I have taken money from my provident funds to marry my daughter," says Akhtar Hussain, a clerk at a private firm in Karachi. "I cannot send her emptyhanded to in-laws. I cannot listen to taunts of my family members that I am a miser or could not afford meals to the guests. But now I am left with nothing."

Many people believe that dowry and serving meals is according to Islamic teachings. However, the court's ruling disagrees - as do some clerics here.

"Islam teaches a simple way of life and not to exhibit the wealth. These customs in the name of color and even the giving of large dowries are all of Hindu origin and have nothing to do with the Islamic concept of marriage," says a local cleric, Maulana Mohammad Sharif.

But many here see the big ceremonies as important moments to socialize.

"Without serving meals, wedding remains colorless. This is our tradition. This is to further deprive women from socializing. Our women are not like women of the West who can go to clubs, pubs, and discos for entertainment," says Chaudhary Mohammad Siddique, the President of the All Pakistan Wedding Halls Association.

After the court decision, humanitarian and women's rights groups have stepped up a campaign against dowries. Social workers say that often brides who bring less than expected in dowry are insulted and maltreated by in-laws, including being burnt with acid.

"The rituals and traditions revolving around the wedding cannot be changed unless the attitude of society changes toward women," says Farzana Bari, head of the women's studies center at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University. "In our culture, the marriage is between the two families, two clans, or two tribes, and not between the two individuals. Unless marriage becomes an affair of two equal individuals entering in a relationship ... these evil rituals will keep on haunting society."

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