Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Single and Broke? Afghan Tribes Have a Solution
Guldad, 75, has lived with his brother on their farm all his life. Neither of them was ever able to afford the “bride-price”, the money any groom must hand over to his future in-laws.
“We will take our desire to get married with us to the grave,” he said. “We earn enough to take bread home in the evening. No one can lend us money or help us out. If I had got married, I’d have sons by now, like other people. My life would have been serene and peaceful.”
The scale of the bride-price plus wedding costs in Afghanistan can be so prohibitive that some young men just cannot afford to pay, and both they and potential marriage-partners stay single.
Tribal elders in one area, the Tanai district in the southeastern Khost province, have now negotiated an agreement limiting the amount that families can spend on marriage. Locals say this should make it much easier for young people to marry.
The bride-price, plus the cost of engagement and marriage ceremonies which the groom’s family is expected to cover, can total between 10,000 and 20,000 US dollars – a lot of money in a low-income society.
Many men go abroad to work, risking imprisonment, deportation and even death, in the hope of scraping the cash together. After marriage, brides are sometimes mistreated by in-laws who resent the expenditure they have been forced into.
An agreement reached by 400 tribal leaders and religious scholars in the Tanai district sets a ceiling of 5,000 dollars on the bride-price. The gold jewellery included in this sum cannot weigh more than 64 gram.
Tradition allows the community to impose penalties on anyone who breaches the agreement, including being ostracised.
“No one will agree to dig a grave for them when they die,” said tribal elder Hajji Hakim Wali. “No one will attend their weddings. No one will ask after their health. They will be expelled from village and tribe. Those who violate the rule will also have to pay a fine of 2,000 dollars to the tribe.”
A religious scholar, Maulavi Sanaullah Rahmanzai, said clerics had played a major role in codifying the agreement. Imams would not officiate at religious ceremonies held by offenders, who would find themselves with no one to officiate at weddings, funerals and other ceremonies.
Hajji Gulajan, a tribal elder, said the community had been left with little choice but to clamp down on the inflated costs.
“We had to do it, because young girls were left at home and no one courted them. The high bride-prices meant there were no engagement ceremonies and no weddings,” he said.
Another elder, Rasul Mohammad Tanai, said that negotiations on the agreement had taken several years.
“The bride-price issue has meant that many young men and women never marry, and they grow old while still living in their parents’ homes,” he said. “We therefore decided to find a solution that would protect our sons and daughters and provide them with better lives.”
Civil society activist Nadia Bawari says one reason that young men seek work abroad, legally or illegally, is the need to cover the high cost of weddings. This not only led to great personal risk for them, but also meant that Afghanistan was losing a significant part of its workforce.
“Once this decision is in place, many young men will not have to go to foreign countries and their skills will be put to use in their own country,” she said.
The agreement also includes a ban on the practice of “baad”, a Pashtun custom which involves an arranged marriage to settle serious disputes between two families. This is seen as a way of avoiding an escalating blood feud in cases such as murder which could cost many lives on both sides.
But while face is saved, the woman, or often a young girl, finds herself forced into marriage, and her in-laws often take out the lingering feeling of bad blood on her. Human rights activists say the custom is a major cause of domestic violence.
Local resident Misbahuddin said there was widespread support for a ban on baad.
“Women have been wronged a great deal. A man would commit a crime, and the punishment would be imposed on his sister or daughter.” he explained. “One woman was married off as reparations for a crime in our area. Family violence ended with her being killed by her in-laws.”
Others say that the new, lower bride price will similarly help combat gender violence.
Zeba Barakzai, the head of the Khost branch of the Afghan Women’s Network, said her group dealt with many cases where women were treated badly as a result of their in-laws having to pay hefty bride-prices.
“In my view, one of the important factors in violence against women is high bride-prices,” she said.
Wazira Sadat, a local civil society activist, said she had witnessed for herself the harsh consequences of young people struggling to raise enough money to get married.
One young man in the district borrowed a huge amount of money, and to repay the debt, he travelled to Saudi Arabia to find work and was killed there while digging a well.
His family forced his widow to marry his brother.
“Now the woman gets beaten every day,” Sadat said. “Her family members constantly harass her with taunts that someone died because of her bride-price.”
The burden posed by extravagant wedding costs is a serious issue for many Afghans. Even the Taleban have identified this as an issue in order to boost their standing among local people, limiting bride-prices in some areas under their control.
Locals say the agreement in Tanai district is an important example of cooperation between religious scholars, tribes and officials.
District government chief Zemarai Haqmal told IWPR, “The tribal elders asked us for help with this agreement. We cooperate with them fully and we will deal with offenders in consultation and coordination with the tribal elders and according to our cultural practices.”
The agreement was also praised by politicians in Kabul, with Fazel Hadi Muslimyar, the head of the upper house of parliament calling on other tribal leaders to follow the example of Tanai.
“I promise all the tribes that we will provide all the help and cooperation they need in this regard,” he added.
In Khost, a similar ban on high bride-prices and baad was agreed by residents of Motun district three years ago.
Maulavi Abdul Rahim Bilali, one of those behind that scheme, said more than 40,000 families had been involved in the agreement. Initially, the vast majority of people in the district complied, even though the penalties were mild compared to the ones now instituted in Tanai district.
The accord ran into trouble last year, however. Bilali said that tribal elders were at fault for allowing people to bend the rules.
“We are considering introducing severe punishments for offenders, just as they have done in Tanai district. Then no one will dare break the agreement,” he added.
Motun resident Maiwand said the tribal agreement had allowed him to get married.
“My life with my wife is very good,” he said. “I spent 4,000 dollars on my wedding because of the agreement, whereas we spent up to 20,000 dollars on my elder brother’s wedding.”
Barakzai said the benefits of such agreements were clear.
“I call on all the tribes in Khost to sign agreements like the ones in Tanai and Motun. This will improve people’s economic position as well as preventing disputes,” she added.
For Guldad, though, the agreement comes far too late.
Ahmad Shah is an IWPR-trained reporter in Khost.
This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiative, funded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.
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