A Family Affair
Zeba is 23 years old, sitting calmly in a green silk dress, adorned with gold jewelry and a sheer scarf revealing her curled, light-brown hair. She whispers a joke to her younger sister, who laughs loudly and calls over to their preoccupied mother, busy entertaining three of more than 300 guests attending Zeba’s wedding to Jamshid, a 25-year-old aspiring pharmacist.
The women’s section of the wedding hall is covered in pink and white rose petals and large tulips imported from India. Small children dressed in faded heels and suits run from one corner to another, dodging the reaching arms of young women and mothers trying to reign in the unruly small guests.
“I could not leave my kids at home. There was no one to care for them because we all had to come to the wedding and now the food is almost gone,” says Basbibi, feeding her two-year-old daughter while another six-year-old boy stands nearby soothing his crying toddler brother.
Sinking in Debt
“500 people. 500 people. We had to feed 500 people, and all their kids and their cousins and their cousin’s children and just everyone,” said Jamshid’s father, Wahidullah, speaking to me the day following the wedding. The night before, greeting every guest at his son’s nuptials, he stood at the entrance of the Qalb-e-Asia (Heart of Asia) wedding hall from five pm until 11pm, and carefully noted the relatives who did not make an appearance (as per his wife’s orders).
“I will not lie. I told my wife this and I will tell you this: I secretly hoped few people would come. I make $500 a month. My son makes $250 a month. Our rent is $170 month. Oil is more expensive these days, and the price of bread just keeps going up. You know how much this wedding has cost me? $22,000. I owe everyone money, including my daughter-in-law’s family now.”
In Afghanistan’s urban centers, high wedding costs are disproportionate to meager salaries, leaving many families little choice but to borrow money from wherever they can. The cost of renting venues, buying dresses and gifts, organizing vehicle transport, purchasing food for hundreds of guests, and more, adds up quickly. Additional expenditures related to Afghan traditions, including providing the bride with gifts during an engagement ceremony and paying the bride’s family an agreed upon mahr (interpreted as a dowry, or bride price), make an Afghan wedding an expensive affair.
Prior to the wedding, Wahidullah paid Zeba’s father only half of the agreed upon $10,000 mahr. Feeling pressure from Zeba’s family to come up with the remaining $5,000 before the rest of the family found out their daughter had married with only half her publicized dowry, this was the first debt he would soon have to settle. Although Jamshid’s family could not afford such a high dowry, Zeba’s family refused to agree to the marriage unless the bride price was at least $10,000.
A Proposal and A Wedding
Two years ago, Jamshid met Zeba at Kabul University where they were classmates in the pharmaceutical faculty. Jamshid immediately fell for the girl who always wore a blue pin to hold her scarf on her head, and looked for any way to speak to her – borrowing a pencil, befriending her cousin who was also in the class, and once convincing her it was too dangerous to walk alone to the gate to be picked up by her older brother. During their first walk together, he told her how he felt, and she responded simply: “I will never marry before I finish my studies.”
“Okay,” he replied.
A year before the two graduated, Jamshid’s mother, Mariam, was in the living room putting on a light pink blush and a new velvet dress-suit her daughter embroidered for her the previous week. As usual, Mariam’s older sister arrived late, wearing bright red lipstick that was immediately removed by Jamshid’s mother.
“You can’t wear that right now. What will they think of us?” With the lipstick wiped off, the two sisters quickly went on their way to visit Zeba’s home.
Their job was to ask for Zeba’s hand in marriage on Jamshid’s behalf. They kept to all formalities – bringing large amounts of sweets for Zeba, allowing Zeba’s mother to do the talking, and, occasionally, dropping hints of their intentions. Zeba served the visitors tea, attending to all of their needs and speaking as quietly as possible. It was the first time she saw Jamshid’s mother. Zeba wanted her mother to approve the proposal, having hoped to marry Jamshid from the moment she first saw him hide a pencil in his coat pocket before asking her for one. She always kept extra pencils after that.
Jamshid’s mother left and Zeba went to the kitchen where her younger sister was busy preparing dinner. Her parents whispered in the living room, making calls to their relatives until dinner was on the table. The next morning, Zeba’s mother asked her daughter to come into the living room while her father sat nearby, engrossed in reading the Quran.
“The family of your classmate has come asking for your hand, and we want to know how you feel about this,” her mother asked.
“Whatever you want. I will do whatever you two believe is best,” Zeba replied.
“Okay. Good. We approve of the match and would like to see you two married,” her mother explained, noting further that the said “classmate” came from a good family and would treat her well. They lived nearby, so Zeba would not be too far from her family and, at the insistence of Zeba’s father, Jamshid’s family agreed to wait for the wedding until after his daughter’s college graduation.
With the match finalized, the engagement party – another often extravagant affair, but this time paid for by the bride’s family - was set to occur two months later. Meanwhile, dowry negotiations began. Jamshid’s mother proposed a $5,000 dowry, countered by Zeba’s mother with $17,000. The two eventually settled on $10,000, $1,000 higher than the dowry Zeba’s cousin received.
“My daughter is beautiful and is graduating from college. I can’t have her go for less than my niece who barely finished high school. We have spent a lot of money on her and we cannot afford a dowry any less than this,” Zeba’s mother explained.
The bride price sparked competition between Zeba’s mother and aunt. Whose daughter was worth more? Zeba’s mother won the battle this round, but kept in mind that Zeba’s dowry set the precedent for future daughters. Zeba’s mother believed the dowry was equivalent to a daughter’s public worth and her family’s reputation. It was also a practical matter. Zeba’s family, severely in debt from her older brother’s marriage ceremony two years earlier, needed the income a dowry provided, and started planning for their youngest daughter to marry soon as well. Saddled with the costs of the wedding and the remaining dowry balance, the transferred wedding dues now put Jamshid’s family in debt, too.
As the $22,000 cost of Jamshid’s wedding illustrates, society’s expectations of families in Afghan’s urban centers to throw extravagant weddings they cannot afford cause a disconnect between capacity and reality. Despite the fact that his family earns a few hundred dollars each month, Jamshid’s family and many others in a similar financial situation are expected to book wedding halls that accommodate hundreds of guests. Whispers of shame circulate if anyone fails to receive an invitation. Newlyweds’ fathers feel little agency, keeping the doors open and feeding whoever arrives with a smile.
Mahr Mistintrepreted: Tensions Between Governmental Control and Cultural Practice in Afghanistan
Article 14 of Afghanistan’s 1971 Law on Marriage introduces mahr as a requirement for a valid Muslim marriage. In the next article, it states that the relatives of the bride may not “ask or receive under any title any cash or goods from the groom or his relatives. If such an act is done, those who commit it shall be pursued and punished according to the provisions of law.”
In accordance with Shari‘a, which mandates a mahr as a prerequisite to marriage, the Government of Afghanistan requires that any registered and legally recognized marriage include a nekah nama (marriage contract) that has an explicit mahr, an amount of money or other property given from the groom directly to the bride for her exclusive use. However, while Afghanistan’s civil code makes several references to a bride’s exclusive right to a mahr, customary practice often replaces the mahr with a dowry given to the bride’s family. This transaction is called walwar in Pashto, qalin in Uzbeki, and shirbaha, or toyaana, in Dari, which translates as a “price” for a woman for marriage.
On the ground, weddings generally remain outside of the government’s control and oversight. In practice, Afghan civil law often fails to enforce its own legal requirements pertaining to marriage, simultaneously contributing to non-adherence to Islamic law. In fact, families are often unaware of the Islamic requirements for marriage. A mahr, a clear stipulation for Muslim marriages, is often misinterpreted or wholly ignored between negotiating families.
The mahr is meant to serve as a safety net for a woman, giving her the freedom to provide for herself if needed, not as a dowry or bride price, given to the bride’s family as payment in exchange for raising her. She is supposed to have sole ownership of the mahr, and the full authority to use it as she wishes. She is also the only person who can forgive the mahr, deciding for herself if she does not want a mahr or its full payment.
Dowry does not exist in Islam. The interpretation of mahr as a dowry is a purely cultural practice that is not rooted in Shari‘a. Nevertheless, in Afghanistan, a mahr rarely makes it into the hands of the bride herself.
Another obstacle to enforcement of legal marriage proceedings in Afghanistan is that few Afghan couples formally register their weddings, as there is little incentive to proceed through the difficult task of formal marriage registration. Registration is a multi-step process that requires the police and local village leaders’ written confirmations that the marriage was not forced or arranged for a child, and the production of valid identification documents for both the bride and groom. In most cases, women do not possess the state-issued credentials needed to register a marriage. Consequently, couples do not fulfill the basic requirements of the registration procedure. In 2012, fewer than 700 marriages were registered in Kabul, despite a population size in the millions.
In Afghanistan, even among educated families, the lack of awareness about the meaning of mahr remains an obstacle. Zeba, for instance, believed that Shari‘a required a mahr to be paid to her family. For the majority of women in Afghanistan they have never even heard of a mahr, leaving many brides without this Islamic-sanctioned protective measure.
Not being aware of the bride’s right to a mahr, a young wife is vulnerable. Out of her father’s home and into her husband’s home, she often possesses few non-social resources. She likely does not hold a job or have any private income, and remains entirely dependent upon her husband for her sustenance. While it is a husband’s Islamic duty to care for and respect his wife, this duty is not always fulfilled. Wives are sometimes neglected. Other times they are abused. And sometimes, despite a husband’s best efforts, in cities with high unemployment and underemployment, he cannot earn enough to provide for her.
A woman’s possession of her mahr offers short-term financial security to pursue her own interests. For example, she could pay her own tuition and return to school, or she could invest in a business. In the event of the dissolution of her marriage, mahr could offer a woman the chance to consider living on her own with her family or, if not a sufficient amount, as is likely the case, it could at least provide her some financial independence and give her time to find a way to increase her holdings. While the mahr cannot be considered welfare, nor is it a monthly paycheck, it gives an Afghan bride that little bit of legroom so she can attempt to build something for herself.
The Need for Awareness: An Extreme Case
One young woman living about 10 kilometers north of Kabul city sat outside repairing the buttons on her father’s shirt as we waited for her younger sister to bring us lunch. “I got married when I was 16 years old, and I was very excited. But, when I moved in with him, he and his family beat me,” she said. “He humiliated me and treated me horribly, sending me to the hospital with a broken leg and blood loss. I could not breathe those days.”
It was not until three years later, at the age of 19 that Fahima fled to her parents’ home, pleading for a divorce. Her family was devastated. Fahima’s mother said, “We had no idea that this was her life for three years. She came to us so broken. I had only seen her once during that time until she came to us crying.”
Fahima soon divorced and returned to the safety of her childhood home. She was unable to find a job and her family’s financial constraints tempted them to find another match for her against her wishes.
“I can’t do anything. I can’t go to school or work, so I just have to sit here. I should get married, I think, but I don’t want to,” Fahima said, carefully putting each thread through the button’s hole.
At the time of her marriage, a small dowry of $150 was given to Fahima’s father for his daughter’s hand. Her father borrowed the same amount three years later to pay his son-in-law’s family for a divorce. Fahima was given no mahr herself and left her marriage empty-handed with an unemployed father, now in debt. Her options were slim. A second marriage and another dowry for her family seemed likely.
Fahima is now engaged to a 45-year-old man with four children from a previous marriage. She has high hopes for her next marriage and the ceremony will take place this spring. Of course, when Fahima’s family receives a second dowry for her hand in marriage, the mahr will remain with her parents. Should the marriage share a similar fate to her first, Fahima will find herself in the same compromised position that followed the end of her previous marriage.
What Lies – And What Should Lie - Ahead
The government, legal, and religious leaders should aim to spread awareness of a bride’s right to mahr, as required by Islam, and launch a government-sponsored campaign to increase the percentage of formally registered marriages. Registration can be used as a tool to track and mandate mahr for Afghan women. If the process is streamlined to provide incentives for registration while maintaining the necessary checks on the legality of the marriage, then more couples are likely to register their marriages in accordance with state and Islamic legal requirements. This state-based advocacy, if successful, could also address the issue of high wedding costs by spreading awareness of its negative consequences and encourage families to take a more affordable path.
Legal advocacy groups as well as women’s rights groups should cooperate with the government in launching these awareness campaigns and streamlining the marriage registration system.
While marriages are often successful – Zeba and Jamshid are both married happily and expecting their first child in three months – Afghan women still need the protective measure mahr offers them. A person, after all, can only speak so loudly and be heard so often, when she is dependent on another person for something as basic as food.
Shahla Naimi lives in Afghanistan where she studies the development of legal systems, with a focus on frameworks in Muslim-majority countries (Afghanistan, Egypt and Morocco), as well as international and domestic refugee laws. Her interests remain on methods of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and legal reasoning (‘aql), considering – from an anthropological perspective – how laws can be interpreted and enforced. She has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.
This story was originally published on the Women's Voices Now website.