A blushing bride, a crushing price for Afghan grooms
Afghan grooms must pay a crushing amount to their bride's fathers to marry them, forcing them, like Esmatullah, to wait many years for marriage.
When you make $35 a month, how do you pay $20,000 for a bride? That's cold, hard reality for Afghan grooms.
Afghan weddings brim with long-standing traditions, and one of them is the custom known as walwar. It requires the groom-to-be to pay cold cash to the bride's father. The amounts negotiated between the families can exceed $20,000, a sum far beyond the means of working-class Afghans.
In Andkhoy, a town of carpet makers and wheat farmers, many fiancés borrow from relatives and friends and pay the money back over months or years. For common laborers like Esmatullah, the amount is hopelessly out of reach. His would-be in-laws insist on $13,000. Friends and relatives lent him $8,000, but he has no way of coming up with the rest.
"I make $6 a day as a day laborer," says Esmatullah, who, like many Afghans, uses one name. "God knows how long it will take me to raise the rest."
The tradition is harshly criticized by women's rights advocates, who say it essentially places a price tag on a daughter and reinforces a mindset that women are little more than chattel.
"It's basically money that the father gets for selling his daughter," says Mojgan Mostafavi, a deputy minister in the Afghan Women's Affairs Ministry. "They are saying, 'You are like our animal.'"
Technically walwar is illegal, but it's tolerated by local authorities because it has been ingrained in Afghan tribal society for hundreds of years. Prosecution of fathers or grooms involved in walwar transactions is rare, Mostafavi says. It also unfairly shackles young grooms with burdensome debt, she says.
"It's basically money that the father gets for selling his daughter. They are saying, 'You are like our animal.'"It's just one of many elements of Afghan weddings that are at odds with reality.
— Mojgan Mostafavi, a deputy minister in the Afghan Women's Affairs Ministry.
In a country where the average worker makes $35 a month, Afghans spend tens of thousands of dollars on a wedding. Guest lists routinely number in the hundreds. More money must be spent on another Afghan tradition: buying gold jewelry for the bride-to-be. Asadullah, a 21-year-old university law student in Andkhoy, recently spent $28,000 on his wedding — $13,000 as walwar, $12,000 for the bride's jewelry and $3,000 for the reception.
"It's a lot of money, but this is our society," says Asadullah, who comes from a wealthy family. "We have no choice but to pay."
In 2011, a measure spearheaded by the Women's Affairs Ministry that would have prohibited wedding halls from allowing more than 500 guests at an event was rejected by President Hamid Karzai's cabinet and failed to make it to the legislature for a vote, Mostafavi says.
"They are spending so much money, but these families often don't have enough money to buy food," she says. "I know some families that have had 3,000 to 4,000 guests at their weddings. ... In this country, a boy has to work so many years and borrow so much money to have a wedding. Why is this happening? It's a big roadblock for girls and boys in this society."
Pride is a major motive behind Afghans' extravagant wedding budgets, says Samir Rostiyar, a wedding hall owner in Kabul. Families relish outdoing their friends and neighbors with bigger, pricier receptions. Even if they're not competitive, they don't want the shame of being branded as cheapskates.
Lavish weddings are also a way of escaping the angst of everyday life in a war-torn country, if only for one night.
"Afghanistan has been at war for 30 years," Rostiyar says. "People spend this much money to get a break from all the misery."
Abdullah Rahman got engaged to his 19-year-old fiancée a year ago. The woman's father set the walwar price at $15,000. Rahman, 23, his father and one of his brothers haggled him down to $10,000. To begin raising the money, Rahman had to leave college and take on day labor jobs in his hometown, Andkhoy. So far, he's been able to pay his prospective father-in-law only about $1,000.
"My father's working and I'm working to make the money," Rahman said. "I have no idea how long it will take. It's very hard to focus on life, focus on saving the money. It's a tradition and we have to pay it, but I hope someday someone gets rid of this custom."