The Afghan government has recently passed a , limiting guest lists to 500 and setting a cap of 400 Afghanis (£4.50) per head on food. But in a country with little to celebrate, is this a throwback to the ultra-conservative days of the Taliban? With continued unrest such as this week’s attack on a guesthouse in the capital, weddings are one of the only ways for ordinary Afghans to let go. And weddings are escapism of the highest order, when people can for a night forget about living in one of the poorest countries in the world, where war has raged on for longer than the bride and groom have been alive.
I’ve never worn so much makeup as when I went to my cousin’s wedding in Kabul in 2009. After spending many hours in a beauty salon I was decidedly light-headed from inhaling hairspray. Caked in so much white powder I could barely move my face, my relatives barely noticed the shock that registered on my face when I was shown the dress I would be wearing. Born in Kabul but having lived in London for most of my life, I only really knew from what I’d read and seen in the papers – and the giggling ladies, big Disney princess frocks and glitter lipstick did not fit with that.
The government has been trying for years to tame this obsession with big weddings and have so far failed
When the bride’s entourage finally made it to the venue, I was again taken aback by the blinding neon lights, the plastic sparkling palm trees that lined the outside and the gargantuan chandelier and gold carpet of the wedding hall. My cousin told me she only really wanted a small occasion for her nearest and dearest and didn’t want her husband paying the wedding off for years, as is often the case. More than 700 people were invited. Afghan weddings can clock up 2,000 guests easily and that’s not counting the wedding crashers.
“When I told the caterer that I had invited 700 guests, he told me I should pay for 1,000 guests to avoid the embarrassment of running out of food,” my cousin told me. “He said people would gatecrash, bringing all their family when only they were invited and it’s rude to turn them away.”
I was indignant. “How could they bring their entire families?” It was later explained by my mother that many of these families don’t make enough to have meat more than once a week, and coming to the wedding means that the entire family will at least eat well that night.
All of this – the rather opulent but segregated hall, the four-piece band blaring out Afghan party tunes for the dancing guests, the mountains of food – was not going to come without a big price tag. A wedding like this could set back the groom and his family £1.5m Afghanis (£16,000). When you think that the , that is a lot of money and it’s these astronomical sums that some Afghan politicians want to see an end to. In the days of Afghan austerity, such celebrations are thought to be callous overspending at best, and un-Islamic debauchery at worst.
The government has been trying for years to tame this obsession with big weddings and has so far failed. This time, they say, they’ll get it done. But to what end? The money spent is going into the local economy, something that Afghanistan badly needs. The vast majority of growth propping up the Afghan economy comes from the aid that’s flooded the country over the past 14 years, so discouraging business in one of the most lucrative trades is going to do little more than make sure money doesn’t flow freely. And exactly how is this to be policed? By all accounts, they will need to impose monstrous fines which would be at odds with the whole point of making weddings more affordable for those who simply can’t get married because of the sums involved.
In a country that faces the very real and present danger of and a that has displaced thousands of people only this month, you’d think that the legislators had more pressing things to occupy their time than too much food on the table or one guest too many at a family wedding.
Years on from my cousin’s wedding, I asked her if she regretted spending all that money on a single day. She laughed, telling me that, yes, she’s only just managed to pay it all off, but did she regret it? “No, never,” she replied. “Remember how pretty we looked.”