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Afghanistan: Men Grapple With The High Price Of Love

  • Farangis Najibullah

In Afghanistan, tradition calls for a bridegroom to present a substantial sum of cash -- called "mahr" or "walwar" -- to his bride's family. Supporters says the tradition is a sign of respect for women and makes bonds between the families stronger. But in a country suffering from widespread poverty and unemployment, many men cannot afford the gesture, and are forced to sell their land or travel abroad to earn money for the "mahr."

Prague, 11 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Afghans say Afghanistan has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world. The breakup of marriages is virtually nonexistent among many Pashtun tribes, where divorce is considered a bitter disgrace.

Perhaps another reason for the marital longevity is that marriage does not come cheap for many Afghan men. According to an ancient Islamic tradition, a man is required to present the family of his bride with a large amount of cash, called "mahr" or "walwar."

Originally, experts say, "mahr" was designed to show respect for women by granting them a degree of financial independence. But the tradition's original purpose has long since been forgotten. Now, many Afghan men simply see "mahr" as a kind of fee for getting married.

According to Islam, "mahr" must be an affordable sum of money that is paid to the bride's family during the wedding or once the couple is already married, depending on the wish of the two families.

But Afghans say nowadays the guidelines are often misinterpreted. Brides' families now ask for steep amounts of money, and also expect the family of the groom to provide gifts, clothes, jewelry, and a wedding party for several hundred guests.

The minimum amount of money acceptable for "mahr" or "walwar" differs from province to province.

A young man from Paktika Province tells RFE/RL the tradition puts a huge financial burden on the bridegroom's family.

"In Paktika's Zurmat region, 'walwar' costs between 500,000 and 1 million Pakistani rupees (between $9,000 and $18,000). This is a tradition in Paktika and neighboring areas," he says.

As well-off Afghans pay increasingly high amounts of money as "walwar," their poorer neighbors find it hard to follow the trend. Some of them sell their land, borrow money from relatives, or leave to earn money working in Pakistan or Arab countries. Some men are in their 40s by the time they are able to afford marriage.

One Kabul resident says he had to leave his new bride at home and travel abroad in search of work to pay off his debts. "When my relatives went to the girl's home to ask for her hand in marriage, her family promised that they would not ask for a big 'mahr.' But as soon as we got engaged, we realized that my family was trapped. Her family asked for 400,000 Pakistani rupees ($7,300) and other gifts. We couldn't afford it. We borrowed some money and also sold our land. After the wedding, people who had lent us money would come to our house asking for us to pay it back. I had to leave [to find work] in Pakistan just 10 days after the wedding," he says.

The inability to pay "mahr" has resulted in a new tradition among Pashtuns called "badal" -- a bride exchange. Families who cannot afford to pay "mahr" will instead offer a daughter to the brother or other male relatives of the bride.

But "badal" does not always solve the problem. Another man in Kabul says the situation is difficult for men who have no sisters, or sisters so young that it will be years before they are of marriageable age.

"I think 'walwar' is not a good idea," he told us. "Those who don't have a grown-up sister or female relative have to wait for years until a girl in the family grows up, and only then they will be able to exchange brides. I don't like 'walwar,'" he says.

Some critics of "walwar" say although the tradition is meant to provide the bride with financial security, her family usually keeps the money and will rarely share it with her. Many newlyweds are left saddled with enormous debts because of the "mahr" system.

The "mahr" tradition is beginning to fade in urban areas, where educated Afghans say the system no longer holds importance for them. But in many provinces, especially among Pashtun and Turkmen groups, the tradition is as strong as ever.

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