KABUL (Reuters Life!) - Extravagant weddings with music and dance were banned by Afghanistan's Taliban as un-Islamic and now the government plans to again rein in lavish marriage celebrations, but this time to stop grooms going broke.
Since U.S.-backed Afghan forces ousted the strict Islamist Taliban in 2001, Afghans have revived the tradition of holding big weddings, costing thousands of dollars, in a country where the average annual income is less than $400.
Afghan weddings are celebrated by hundreds of guests in luxurious wedding halls with the groom and his family expected to foot the bill and agree to every request of the bride and her family.
"Wedding ceremonies among people are like a competition, no one wants to come last, people like to show off their wealth by feeding hundreds of guests in costly wedding halls," said Justice Minister Habibullah Ghaleb.
"Families are the victim of such a wrong tradition and have to accept these heavy burdens," he said.
Details of the planned ban on expensive weddings were still being worked out, said Justice Ministry spokesman Farid Ahmad Najibi, and he acknowledged it could be difficult to enforce because lavish weddings were so ingrained in Afghan culture.
State institutions were shattered during decades of conflict, with regional, ethnic and tribal differences also making it difficult to enforce laws. Violence is at its worst since the Taliban were ousted, making security a priority even while authorities try to rebuild the aid-reliant economy.
Rafi Kazimi, 24, and his family spent about $10,000 when he married Farima, 20, in October. The couple had 600 guests at their wedding in Kabul. Taxi driver Kazimi and his family are now repaying at least $6,000 in bank loans.
But Kazimi recently lost his job and his family -- his wife, mother, father, grandmother, two sisters, three brothers and one of their wives -- are surviving on his older brother's salary of $410 a month, $300 of which is used to repay the loans.
"It was too much," Kazimi said of the money spent on his marriage to his first cousin. "I was so worried about how to find this money. Her parents didn't care if I had the money or not, they just said we must have a big wedding."
While Kazimi thought a ban on expensive weddings was a good idea, he doubted if it would be accepted. Along with the wedding celebrations, a groom and his family are also expected to pay for ornate outfits for the bride and groom.
The government's bid to regulate weddings follows similar moves by some tribal elders and provincial officials.
Late last month, elders from several villages in northern Jawzjan province banned expensive weddings and dowries in a bid to encourage young people to marry instead of postponing their nuptials because they could not afford it.
Under the rules, the cost of a wedding must be in line with the economic status of the groom, and if someone violates the ban then they will not be invited to any other weddings in the village.
"Marriage is everyone's right and it must not be presented as a huge burden for the bride and groom," said Azaad Khwa, an
elder from Jawzjan. "Making the groom's family pay for everything and feed hundreds is a big sin."
Many elaborate wedding halls have sprung up around Kabul over the past nine years, compared with just a few that operated while the Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001.
Guests attending weddings at City Star Hall in Kabul's Wazir Abad neighborhood drive through a lit-up moon to the entrance and a large silver star adorns the roof. It opened three months ago at a cost of $5 million, said manager Zabi Mujeeb.
It has four wedding halls and hosts about 70 weddings a month, with an average of 800 to 1,000 guests, Mujeeb said. Prices per guest range from $12 to $23 for the food. Music, a cake, decorations and a photographer are all extra.
"The people living in the city, they don't like to have a lot of guests," said Mujeeb. "But the people living in provinces, they like to have a lot of guests."
In the largest of City Star Hall's venues, staff were putting the finishing touches on decorations for the wedding of a couple from nearby Parwan province. There will be 1,600 guests at a cost of $16,000.
The opulence makes one's head spin.
The bride and groom were to walk over a bridge above a fountain in front of mountain landscape mural. They descend onto an illuminated walkway under arches of fake flowers to a stage where they will be seated on silver-colored thrones.
"The grooms find the money," said Mujeeb.
Additional reporting by Fraidoon Elhaam in KUNDUZ; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel