Taleban Try Hearts-and-Minds Tactics

Ban on excessive marriage costs proves popular among young men in impoverished district.

Taleban Try Hearts-and-Minds Tactics

Ban on excessive marriage costs proves popular among young men in impoverished district.

Many men in Kapisa will have an easier time trying to get married following a Taleban order limiting the amount they have to pay the bride’s family. (Photo: US Army/John Gay)
Many men in Kapisa will have an easier time trying to get married following a Taleban order limiting the amount they have to pay the bride’s family. (Photo: US Army/John Gay)
Wednesday, 8 September, 2010

Abdullah, 27, sings under his breath as he waters his pomegranate farm, his face shining with sweat and happiness. 

Explaining the reason for his good mood, Abdullah says that after years of struggling financially, he is looking forward to getting married at last.

Three years ago, he leased out his land to get the 5,000 US dollars he needed to pay for the engagement ceremony. That left him with no money for the actual marriage. He went to Iran to look for work, but was arrested as an illegal immigrant and imprisoned for four months before being deported.

I was in Kabul when some of my friends from Tagab started calling me to tell me I should go there to get married. Although my family is originally from this district, I have lived mostly in other provinces. But they told me, “God has blessed the youth in Tagab.” I thought they were just teasing me, but what they said was true; God had really blessed the youth in Tagab, because the Taleban had passed laws there banning huge dowries and significantly lowered other wedding costs.

Now his money worries have been resolved thanks to a local decree from the Taleban restricting the cost of weddings.

“With God’s grace, the Taleban have imposed a new rule that the bride-price rate should not exceed 3,800 US dollars,” he said. “I have already gathered that much money and if God wills it, I will sell my pomegranates and get married.

“Now my father-in-law can’t charge me too much because this Taleban order isn’t like one from the Karzai government - it’s a strict order which no one can disobey.”

Grooms in Afghanistan are customarily required to pay money to the bride’s family, the amount typically varying from 2,000 to 20,000 dollars. The husband’s family also has to pay for the engagement and marriage ceremonies, often costing 4,000 or 5,000 dollars each.

Such sums are difficult to find in this cash-strapped society, and many young men go abroad to work, risking imprisonment, deportation and even death.

The Taleban edict, issued some two months ago in the Tagab district of Kapisa province, north of Kabul, reflects the growing presence of the insurgent movement in areas that until recently were deemed relatively secure.

As in other areas, the Taleban are seeking to boost their credibility by offering their own form of Islamic justice and governance as an alternative to the Western-backed government. 

The marriage payment edict has gone down well in an impoverished are where most people survive by growing pomegranates.

Walking on crutches, Gul Ahmad, 25, recounts how he tried to cross illegally to the Gulf in search of work.

“When I got engaged, the girl’s father demanded a bride price of 7,000 dollars and I decided to go to Dubai, like many other young men. We faced lots of problems - hunger, thirst and illness. One of my colleagues died in the desert, and I broke my leg.”

Sighing deeply, he said, “Now, thanks to the Taleban, they have decided that no one can demand more money. This is a very big help that the Taleban has given young people.”

As well as setting the highest allowable bride-price at 3,800 dollars, with offenders facing a 2,000-dollar fine – the Taleban have banned other costly practices surrounding marriage, including one known locally as “takbir” where up to 50 people visit the bride’s family to receive food and presents, and the “gahwara” or “cradle” custom by which the bride’s family offer expensive gifts when she has her first child.

“In the Sifder area, a family decided to take gifts to the girl’s family on Shab-e Barat [Muslim holiday, this year July 26],” said Tagab resident Mohammad Idris. “They took a big healthy sheep with them, but on the way the Taleban stopped them, destroyed the gifts, fined the family 50 dollars and told them to go and eat the sheep in their own home.”

Idris added, “A family living near the centre of Tagab district practiced the old custom of takbir. The Taleban sent them a warning and the family paid a 100-dollar and apologised for violating the new rule.”

The local government chief for Tagab district, Abdul Hakim Akhundzada, said that even if the Taleban ruling was not strictly in line with Sharia or Islamic law, there were benefits in curbing excessive customs.

“I too believe that eliminating certain unnecessary customs that create problems for people is a good thing,” he said.

Mohammad Akbar, a religious scholar, said that Islamic law did not prescribe maximum limits for the bride price.

“The lower limit for the payment in Islam is ten dirham or 150 dollars,” he said. “But the top limit is not defined. It isn’t a sin if both families agree on a higher payment, but the money should be given to the girl, not to her family. If the family gets the money, that’s against Sharia.”

A Taleban representative in Tagab, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision was made after consultations with religious leaders.

“We saw that many young people were unable to get married because of the high bride price, and were therefore getting involved in criminal activities like gambling, adultery, robbery murder and so on,” he said. “So we placed a limit on the bride price to ease the burden on people.”

Habibullah Rafai, a political and social affairs analyst, argued that whatever the social impact of the Taleban ruling, it was essentially a tactic to build local support.

“This move by the Taleban also has a political aspect to it,” he said. “They want to gain the support of unmarried young men and thus win over the hearts of the people,” he said.

Rafai said the Taleban ruling could have been preempted if the Afghan government had taken the initiative and clamped down on superfluous traditions.

For some Afghan men, the high cost of weddings means they can never marry.

Abdul Ahmad, now 70, is among them – after his father’s death, it was left to him to raise his brothers and sisters. By the time they were grown up, he says, it was too late for him to marry.

“I still harbour huge regrets in my heart about marriage,” he said. “I wish everyone was able to get married.”

Abdul Ahmad has lived in his brother’s home ever since, but it is not his own.

“If I’d married and had my own home, my own son and daughter, I wouldn’t be at such a disadvantage now,” he said.

“It’s over for me, but let other young people’s wishes come true. I wish there had been Taleban like this in our day.”

Mohammad Fahim is an IWPR-trained journalist in Afghanistan.

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