Wedding feasts outlawed in Pakistan

A Pakistani bride

KAI RYSSDAL: If you've got any wedding invites this summer, you'll probably be treated to a fancy dinner and drinks after the nuptuals. But in Pakistan, wedding-goers are going hungry. The government's decided extravagant wedding feasts are a social problem. Miranda Kennedy mingled with some underfed guests in Islamabad.


MIRANDA KENNEDY: The lobby of the Holiday Inn in Islamabad always seems to be filled with wedding-goers, the women strutting through in stilettos and elaborate chiffon outfits. The gaudy wedding halls here are popular with middle-class Pakistani brides and grooms. Abdul Latif Qureshi, a school principal, is the father of one of the brides getting married here tonight.
KENNEDY:"Your daughter is getting married?

ABDUL LATIF QURESHI:"Yes, today.

KENNEDY:"OK. Congratulations."

QURESHI:"Thank you. Thank you, very much."

Sweat dampens his finely embroidered Pakistani suit as he tries to separate his guests from the other wedding-goers in the lobby.

QURESHI [translator]: I have invited 300 guests. I have a large number of friends and family friends and relatives in the city. I invited all of them to share this happiness with me. It's a very important occasion in our life.

So important that most South Asian families start saving for the daughter's wedding the day she's born. A wedding often means lifelong debt. The bride has to present a heavy dowry to her groom. Ceremonies and celebrations can last for more than a month, and all of them padded with sumptuous meals.

The average wedding costs about $5,000, but the average Pakistani earns only about $600 a year. So the Supreme Court recently decided to dust off an old Pakistani law: the "Prohibition of Wasteful Expenses Act." The law bans serving extravagant meals at weddings. Not even a single main course.

QURESHI [translator]: I think this rule is unacceptable for us because we invited people from far-flung areas, from remote areas. They come to attend the weddings and if we cannot serve them food it's very awkward for us.

But he admits he is saving money — several thousand dollars — by not having to fund a wedding feast. He's already spent $17,000 on the wedding, and about half of that was borrowed. If fact, going into debt for a wedding is a sign of hospitality.

ABDUL NAYYAR: Hospitality is a very big thing here, and the more you ruin yourself in hospitality for your guests, the more important it is. And this is true throughout Pakistan.

Cultural anthropologist Abdul Nayyar sees the law as the only way to stop the spending among Pakistan's poor, who make up more than 30 percent of the population.

NAYYAR: I am against any kind of restriction on human freedom, but I don't see any alternative right now, where there is an immaturity and the number of newly rich people is going up. This kind of public display of wealth is, I think, a very ugly thing because people do destroy themselves and become indebted.

But, of course, everyone will find ways around the law. At tonight's wedding, what passes as "snacks" is actually a small meal of samosas and chicken kebabs. And later, guests will get the full marriage feast at their relatives' homes. What's served at home is not counted by the government as part of the tab, at least it's out of sight. But Yasmeen Akhtar, the aunt of the bride, says that makes things a lot harder for her.

YASMEEN AKHTAR [translator]: They expect a real meal. So I had to spend the last week cooking for them. When the ceremony's over we'll go back to my house and eat.

In the end, they won't save that much money, she says, because they have to pay for both the hotel and the food. But the ones who feel the impact of the law the most are not the brides' families or their guests. It's the companies involved in the wedding industry. The Holiday Inn says the law has taken a 60-percent bite out of their business.

In Islamabad, I'm Miranda Kennedy, for Marketplace.

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