Faced with cultural challenges, youth in Afghanistan can make a difference.
Afghanistan, predominantly rural, has undergone significant changes in recent decades. The urban population has increased at an unprecedented pace, owing to rural insecurity and concentration of capital, goods and services in the cities. Kabul, for example, is home to roughly 5 million people, or one-seventh of the population.
Given the lack of stronger dynamics of internal social development driving urbanization, the population has not yet realized the shift and is not ready to make adjustments in their lifestyles accordingly. This lack of realization of a changed reality of life and lack of preparation to accommodate new conditions — through value shift — is a cultural challenge for Afghans, a reflection of which can been seen in weddings.
Weddings, as one of the only sources of entertainment especially for women, are considered to be public affairs (wolasi) in most parts of Afghanistan. Even if not invited, many Afghans just decide to show up and expect hospitality. The traditional logic for being an uninvited guest is the “responsibility” to share joy. The logic for welcoming an uninvited guest is that “guests are God’s friends.” Though feeding large numbers of guests have always been a burden, owing to traditional values and social pressure, exceptions to this social norm have been rarely observed.
Life in the city is different, however. There is more work to do, more bills to pay, more money to earn, less space to occupy, less people to meet, and less time to spend in social activities. Yet Afghan weddings continue to be wolasi. On average, 900 people attend the reception, 400 the Henna ceremony and 300 the lunch reception. Of course, it is a lot of fun, but we run out of most of our savings. Not just that, we end up, in most cases, in lifelong debt.
Villages are less-populated, scattered over large areas with a lack of transport and communication facilities, limiting the number and width of social associations a family could have.
In the cities, however, owing to improved communication and transport facilities, social relations expand. Unlike villages where one has a big house or the luxury of holding a wedding in a village garden for free, no space is provided free of cost in the cities. The only option is to reserve a wedding hall, where one pays as per the number of guests seated on the wedding night. The cost of this can be astronomical.
But it is not just the wedding hall. The bridegroom has to cover the costs of pre- and post-wedding dinners and lunches; jewelry in gold; a couple of wedding gowns for the bride, and suits for himself; a beauty salon visit for the bride and her close relatives; live music; photography and videography; flowers; and hall and bridal car decoration.
Some bridegrooms also have to pay a bride price or dowry. These expenses render the average cost of a wedding to be between $10,000 and $30,000. To put things in context, the annual earning of a fortunate civil servant in Afghanistan is between $2,500 and $5,000.
So it is not just war, terrorism, corruption, drugs, human trafficking, poverty, illiteracy, maternal mortality, child labor, self-immolation, and a lack of access to basic services that is killing Afghans. We as a nation face a serious cultural challenge.
Afghans are spending many times more than they can possibly earn and, in doing so, are compromising their future and wasting resources that could be spent on education, health and shelter. Those who can afford to pay for these weddings without running into lifelong debts will soon lose this capacity: the drawdown of US forces, the decreased financial resources allocated to development in Afghanistan, and the reduced opportunities for well-paid employment is fast approaching.
But the problem is much deeper. Afghans, like anyone, think that social gatherings — wedding being one of them — are supposed to reflect assumed success in life. The desire of being perceived as successful by relatives and friends is so strong they risk their health and their children’s future. Afghans often think twice before paying for a medical test required for diagnosis by a physician, but do not think even once before feeding 1,600 guests.
Bridegrooms complain, but are mostly overwhelmed by the implicit and, at times, explicit expectation of lavish Afghan weddings. Families challenge when it is their turn to pay, and return the favor when it is someone else’s son who is paying.
Initiated by religious conservatives in the Afghan government, a bill was proposed to put a ban on excessively large weddings in 2010. In addition to placing restrictions on the length of the ceremony, number of guests and costs per guest, the bill also proposed to restrict, on the basis of Islamic law, women’s choice of dress and families’ choice of gathering (mixed or gender segregated.)
Civil society organizations rejected the bill as government interference in private family affairs and rightly exposed the conservative hands in the background that aimed at restricting women in general. Open-minded families did not like the idea of being forced into gender segregated gatherings.
However, the main and strongest opposition came from the wedding industry, namely the owners of wedding halls, wedding planners and decoration centers, as well as highly fashionable wedding gown stores. This bill had the potential to destroy their businesses. Today, the fate of the bill remains undecided.
But this situation cannot be addressed with a technical fix. It requires cultural questioning and a shift in values. Questioning Afghan culture, and deciding what parts of that culture to leave behind, is the hard task lying ahead.
The fact that hundreds of people show up at funerals helps deal with pain. That no one’s doors are closed, and one does not require an appointment to visit friends, relatives and neighbors means a more close-knit society; the fact that Afghanistan has few cases of psychological disorder due to loneliness is valuable.
What must be addressed, however, is a value conflict — between simplicity and the desire to appear rich — and the habit of spending.
There have been some attempts at addressing this issue. A couple of provincial governors and tribal elders organized mass weddings in their respective provinces. They covered all the expenses of a wedding where tens of couples got married at once. This initiative received praise from most factions in society.
However, it also did a disservice by putting false tasks in front of the people. It encouraged poor families to remain and appear even poorer in order to qualify for the next round of mass weddings. The plan encouraged resourceful families and individuals to gain social praise by paying for mass weddings.
In any case it did not promote the idea of saving, let alone promoting the culture of putting an end to the waste of financial resources, thus not addressing the challenge of spending huge sums of money on a one-day event. The focus is still on spending today and depending on “God” for tomorrow.
The Youth’s Role: A Shift in Values
Youth in Afghanistan can make a difference with the future of their country. Other factions of society can support, but cannot be the main force behind this value shift.
Notably, some youth groups have taken initiative. A 23-year-old management graduate from Ghazni Province who established a youth organization, mobilized the people of his province and, when it was his turn, he convinced his father-in-law to agree on a small evening reception of tea and cookies instead of a large buffet dinner.
Liaqat Frotan, supported by his fiancé, exercised leadership. He embodied the value by applying it to his own life, while helping his family and peers face this cultural challenge; he succeeded in introducing a small shift by setting an example.
Compared to Liaqat’s work, what some elders and governors did was anything but the exercise of real leadership, especially when they were far from embodying what they preached: a culture of saving.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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