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Afghanistan Seeks Divorce From Long-Standing Marital Traditions

The families of many Afghan brides demand that the groom spend thousands of dollars in "walwar" payments and other gifts. The groom is also required to pay for a lavish wedding banquet and a string of wedding-related parties. (file photo)
In Afghanistan, few bat an eye when a young suitor spends a small fortune to secure his bride.

The payment of a "walwar" -- essentially a premarital fee paid to the bride-to-be's parents -- can run into the thousands of dollars, adding to the already exorbitant costs plunked down for the wedding itself.

Now there is a movement within the country's government to divorce the Afghan people from such long-standing but financially crippling customs.

The Afghan Women's Affairs Ministry is waging war on the walwar, arguing that it is not only technically illegal but unnecessarily buries families under tremendous debt.

"The campaign mainly focuses on unaffordable walwars, a shameful custom, which is putting enormous financial strain on families," says Deputy Women's Affairs Minister Mezhgan Mustafavi. "But it also includes a fight against some of our other marital traditions, such as marrying off girls to settle family feuds -- a so-called 'bad' marriage."

The goal of the campaign is to improve women's lives and protect their rights, because ultimately it's the woman in the arrangement who suffers the consequences, Mustafavi says.

In the case of walwar payments, the bride often "starts her new life in a family struggling under the burden of debt," Mustafavi says. "Or, in the case of 'bad' marriages, she is usually treated as an enemy's daughter."

Clerics' Participation Vital

The ministry has called on the country's influential clerics, as well as media and law-enforcement agencies, to help promote the campaign.

Some 400 religious figures from all over the country recently assembled in Kabul for a meeting organized with the help of the Hajj and Religious Affairs Ministry, during which they condemned the walwar tradition and other long-standing customs that are deemed to violate women's rights.

The clerics agreed to include lectures on marital traditions in their mosque sermons, potentially reaching millions of people throughout the country.

The popular television station Tolo agreed to record such sermons and broadcast them weekly during peak hours.

In Afghanistan's deeply conservative society, the word of clerics carries significant weight and the Women's Affairs Ministry considers their participation vital to the success of the campaign.

"Many people don't know that expensive walwars, which effectively mean selling your daughter, have nothing to do with Islam," Mustafavi says. "In fact, it violates both civil and Shari'a laws."

"According to Afghanistan's law banning violence against women, selling or buying a person in the context of marriage is a crime punishable with up to 10 years' imprisonment," Mustafavi says. "Our civil laws ban any un-Islamic preconditions in matrimonies. Our Family Code clearly states that customs like the walwar, bride price, marrying off girls to settle family scores, or marrying off girls as a blood price for a victim's family are against Islam. Therefore, such customs are forbidden."

Thousands Of Dollars

Shari'a law does allow for a potential bride to request money from the groom's family. While the amount is not fixed, Shari'a rules advise that the amount should be small and easily affordable to her new family.

Some clerics even estimate that the amount should not exceed a few hundred afghanis, the equivalent of $5 or $10.

In reality, however, the families of many Afghan brides demand that the groom spend thousands of dollars in walwar payments and other gifts, including jewelry. In addition, the groom is required to pay for a lavish wedding banquet and a string of wedding-related parties.

The ministry estimates that the average Afghan family spends up to $15,000 in wedding costs.

In the social sphere, the cost of the dowry and the lavishness of the wedding parties can affect each family's social standing. To affirm high status, families save for years and young men commonly leave home to endure years of hard labor abroad to raise cash.

Desperate to avoid such costs, some families that have both sons and daughters marry off the groom's sister to the bride's brother in so-called "badal" marriages, which literally translates as "exchange."

"The laws to punish such actions have almost never been exercised," says Mustafavi. "We have asked law-enforcement agencies to bring to justice a few people who violate these laws in order to remind others that it is a crime to sell your daughter."

With contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.