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In Pakistan, High Gold Prices Taking Luster Off Marital Tradition


Gold is a status symbol in Pakistan, where no bridal ensemble is complete without ample if not excessive solid gold accessories.

Gold is a status symbol in Pakistan, where no bridal ensemble is complete without ample if not excessive solid gold accessories.

Far from the busy floors of the world's major commodity-trading centers, rising gold prices are taking their toll on marital tradition in Pakistan.

As gold hits record highs, some couples are being forced to postpone -- or even cancel -- their weddings because their families cannot piece together a suitable dowry.

And in places like Kanju, in the country's southwestern Swat Valley -- no gold means no wedding, because this is a place where tradition trumps all.

"My two brothers are engaged to marry, but we have to postpone both weddings because of the incredibly high price of gold," says Shahnaz Bibi, a resident of the village. "My cousin's wedding is also off for this reason."

The price of gold has soared on global markets, rising beyond $1,630 per troy ounce. In Pakistan, where precious metals are measured in Pakistani tolas (.44 troy ounce), one tola of gold currently costs more than $620.

Tradition dictates that families should buy several tolas of gold for their children's wedding, but with average salaries hovering around $150 a month, even middle-income families like Shahnaz Bibi's are finding the costs too steep.

"My brothers have to give their brides 10 tolas of gold as dowry," Shahnaz Bibi says. "We can't afford that. This is too much."

Her native Swat, a district in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has suffered tremendously in recent years from clashes between Pakistani Taliban militants and government troops and destructive floods.

"We already have too much on our plate," Shahnaz Bibi says. "We're under the strain of poverty."

Status Symbol

Gold is a status symbol in Pakistan, where no bridal ensemble is complete without ample if not excessive solid gold accessories -- from numerous rings and earrings to elaborate bracelets and necklaces.

Shortly before a wedding, the proud parents will customarily display the wedding jewelry to guests. After the wedding, the bride enters her new husband's home adorned with the gold, which is not provided for decorative purposes only. It is also seen as an investment in the family's future.
A jeweler prepares a necklace at his gold workshop in Karachi.

According to Swat tradition, it's the duty of both sets of the parents to provide gold, which is seen as a much more reliable asset than real estate or cash. In wealthy families, however, usually it's the bride's family that purchases most of the gold.

It's the weight of the gold that counts, not merely the act of gifting jewelry. Fake or gold-plated jewelry is not going to cut it because it is common for potential in-laws to have experts verify the purity of the gift.

Well-to-do families and neighbors are known to compete by upping the ante when it comes to gold purchased for their children's weddings.

Those who can't afford to splurge often do so anyway and are forced to borrow or work abroad to keep up appearances.

Time to Change Habits?

For years, the dowry tradition has come under criticism both by politicians and the Pakistani media, which describe it as an unnecessary extravagance that leaves families in debt and misery. Some local mullahs have sought to discourage people from overspending on gold, saying Islam's prophet did not support the concept of the dowry.

Whereas politicians' and mullahs' lectures failed to end the gold dowry culture, it seems that high prices could finally force Pakistanis to break with the tradition.

Just a few months ago, well-to-do parents in Swat used to give at least 30 to 50 tolas (12 to 20 ounces) of gold to their children's weddings. Nowadays, such families are content with providing 15 to 20 tolas (6.6 to 8.8 ounces) of gold.

Impoverished families would traditionally provide two to three tolas (0.8 to 1.3 ounces), but they now settle for half that amount.

Peshawar jeweler Azmatullah Khan says record high gold prices are not translating into good business. He watches customers leaving his shop empty-handed, disappointed by the high costs.

"Poor people come to our shops with a clear budget on their minds," Azmatullah Khan says. "They come to the shop to buy, let's say, five to six tolas of gold for a wedding. When we tell them that amount of gold would cost about 300,000 rupees ($3,460) they leave in dismay."

Kainat, a young villager in Kanju, says impoverished families like hers consider the gold dowry tradition a burden that destroys many lives.

The wedding of Kainat's sister has been called off because her family couldn't afford their share of dowry gold.

And such a situation, as dictated by more local tradition, can cost a family its reputation.

"We are helpless," Kainat says. "We cannot even leave the house, and my father cannot cope with this issue that had so much impact on my sister's destiny."
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