Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazakstan: Lavish Weddings Ruin Uzbek Families

As a extravagant ceremonies impoverish the community, campaigners are urging changes in the law.
By IWPR Central Asia
When Sultan and Aydin, a young couple in Turkestan, a city in southern Kazakstan, decided to get married, the groom’s family took out a bank loan to cover the costs.



Sultan was planning to get a job in South Korea so that he could repay his parents. But he had to postpone the trip, and the family got into financial difficulties over the loan, which they had taken out at a high interest rate.



He married Aydin, but when they found it hard to make ends meet, she complained to her parents. The young couple got divorced soon afterwards.



During the divorce proceedings, Aydin’s family accused Sultan of lying about his intention to go to Korea, saying if they had known the true picture, they would never have agreed to such a lavish wedding.



Such tangled stories are all too common in Turkestan, where the cult of lavish weddings has turned into a major economic headache for the local Uzbek community, who account for 90,000 of the city’s 150,000 residents.



“In recent years, weddings have become really competitive; it’s a big problem,” said Mubarak Kasimov, deputy mayor of the nearby village of Stary Ikan.



Kasimov says most Uzbek families in the Southern Kazakstan administrative regions live off the soil and don’t earn much more than 1,000 US dollars a year.



“Families spend their entire annual budget on weddings and run up debts that take years to repay,” he adds.



Weddings in and around Turkestan can cost astronomical sums when measured against average local earnings. The bill can vary from one to five million tenge, or between 8,000 and 40,000 dollars - and in some cases twice the latter amount.



Besides the bill for the ceremony in the registry office and the wedding party, money disappears on a mass of obligatory pre- and post-nuptual events.



The groom’s family has to find the “bride price” or “kelin puli”, pay for the ceremony when the bride arrives at the groom’s house, known as “ kelin tushdi”, and hold compulsory feasts and exchanges of presents and money.



On the wedding day, they have to stump up for a wedding cortege including the mandatory limousine and up to 15 cars, which have to be all the same colour and of a more exotic brand than the common Russian models.



This fleet of vehicles will carry the numerous guests to the wedding and on to the “toykhana”, the special hall used for receptions. This is a change from the traditional-style Uzbek weddings here, which used to be held in a local courtyard in a residential area.



The obsession with luxury weddings has spawned a number of spin-off industries. There are about 20 toykhanas in Turkestan alone, so busy that their daily schedules are planned in detail a month in advance. The city also has four limousine hire companies and 15 salons which rent out wedding dresses.



The cult of lavish weddings among Uzbeks in southern Kazakstan not only impoverishes families, but also deters people in nearby Uzbekistan from marrying into the region.



“I wanted to suggest that my nephew from Tashkent should marry a local girl, but he refused, saying he couldn’t afford a Turkestan-style wedding,” said Turkestan resident Sirojiddin Ubaydulloev. “Things in Tashkent are done much more modestly.”



Local ethnographer and historian Kenes Ismailov notes that ethnic Kazaks also go in for costly weddings, but their standard of living tends to be higher, so the outlay is less ruinous.



“We have a stereotype – the richer the celebration, the more respect you get,” said Ismailov. “Costly weddings have become a matter of image. If you want serious people to have any regard for your family, you must demonstrate your family’s power at a wedding. It’s entirely impractical; it’s as if our powers of reason have gone to sleep.”



For the Uzbek community, the enormous expenditure condemns families to a life of debt, and some reformers are now trying to wean people off the ruinous obsession.



The Uzbek Cultural Centre in Turkestan, for example, is encouraging less extravagant ceremonies involving downsized toykhana parties.



Mahbuba Aymetova, who chairs the women’s council at the cultural centre, says wedding dresses are another area where economies could be made. Renting a dress usually costs from 100 to 400 dollars, whereas a colourful Uzbek traditional dress is far less pricy and can be used for years.



Aymetova, a lawyer by training, gives regular talks at workshops with women, in schools and through the media to encourage more moderate spending on marriages.



Her latest idea is for a “celebration commission”. “It would consist of eight to ten authoritative people in Turkestan who would agree a time and form for the celebration with both sets of parents, and ensure the agreement is honoured,” she explained.



The commission could even coordinate weddings so that if one family held its ceremony one day, the neighbours could hold theirs the next, and excess food could be passed on rather than thrown away.



A variety of other solutions are being offered. Mutalib Yuldashev, a member of the South Kazakstan regional council, believes the committees in charge of each “mahalla” or neighbourhood should step in, while others argue the legal system or religion should play a stronger role.



Iriskul Aitmetov, a former lawyer who founded the Uzbek Cultural Centre, advocates a new law that would set out the rules conducting weddings.



“Weddings have gone completely crazy; there’s no other word for it,” he said. “We need a law to regulate how the rite is conducted.”



Aytmetov has been using his position as a respected elder in the village of Karachik to encourage local couples to hold modest celebrations in the Muslim tradition. These cost a tenth or less than the full-blown variety, and are over within a few hours as opposed to several days. In line with Islamic precepts, the bride's costume is expected to be muted rather than lavish, and no alcohol is served.



The overtly religious aspect of these ceremonies worries the local authorities, who remain deeply suspicious of anything that might promote the emergence of radical Islam.



But local journalist Shamirza Madaliev says economical weddings based on Islamic tenets is a realistic alternative for poor farming families, who are otherwise under pressure to keep up with everyone else.



“The problem is that my [Uzbek] people are quick to follow others,” he said. “They have a misplaced concept of prestige and are afraid to look worse than their neighbours.”



Zinaida Savina is an IWPR contributor in Shymkent, southern Kazakstan.

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