Justice ministry proposes that ceremonies be policed for modesty to crackdown on lavish events that put families in debt.
There’s an awful lot of flesh on display at Qasre Aros in central Kabul. Arms and shoulders are free to the elements, while necklines plunge daringly low on garish ballgowns made of every shade of synthetic material imaginable and encrusted with fake jewels.
Though the skin may be the orangey plastic of the dozens of mannequins lining the walls, the dresses are worn every night by real Afghan brides.
But the days when brides-to-be flock to the shops of central Kabul’s Shar-e-Now Park may be numbered. Conservative elements of Hamid Karzai’s government are pushing for far-reaching restrictions on weddings the likes of which have not been seen since the Taliban regime.
Under a law proposed by the justice ministry and soon to be considered by Karzai’s Cabinet, “garments contrary to Islamic sharia” will be banned.
Shops selling “outfits that are semi-naked, naked, transparent, or tight in a way that reveals part of the woman’s body” will be fined and, if they persist, closed down.
When plans to regulate Afghanistan’s booming wedding industry were announced earlier in the year, the government said it merely wanted to curb the country’s mania for lavish weddings that drag people into debt.
But according to drafts of the law it is also aiming to introduce various public morality provisions in yet another sign of the casual erosion of the small freedoms women have won since 2001.
And in an echo of the Taliban regime, which used to police weddings to ensure they complied with hardline rulings, including a ban on music, the government also intends to set up committees to monitor wedding ceremonies.
Including representatives of the religious affairs ministry, these will be expected to patrol private ceremonies in the garish, multistorey wedding halls on the edge of Kabul that light up the night with their neon facades.
Pressure from the Taliban
Among their duties will be to ensure male and female guests do not mix in the same rooms—already the practice at most Afghan weddings—and that the bride is modestly attired. Muhiuddin Alizada, the owner of Qasre Aros, looked bewildered when he was shown a copy of the draft law.
“This is pointless because the mullahs won’t be happy unless the women are wearing burqas,” he said. “It’s all because of pressure from the Taliban.” Human rights activists are aghast. “Experts who’ve looked at the draft law believe that it interferes with private family life and could be inconsistent with sharia principles and the constitution,” said Georgette Gagnon, the United Nations director of human rights in Afghanistan.
Other shopkeepers were more understanding, even though none of them had a single item of stock that was sharia-compliant.
“We’re Muslims and women should dress modestly,” said Muhammad Shah. But moments later, he concluded that there was no way such a law could be enforced.
“Gambling is haram [forbidden by Islamic law] but the government can’t even stop that.”
Sadia, a 26-year-old who got married last week, was outraged that the government might stop her wearing the white, bare-shouldered creation she chose for her wedding.
“When I’m wearing this dress, I feel very beautiful. Why shouldn’t I wear it?” she said during a four-hour session in a beauty parlour on the morning of her wedding.
“If I don’t wear it, people will think I have a bad husband who says I cannot wear these things. This is a day I will remember all my life.”
Under the proposed law she would also have to go for something far cheaper. The government wants to impose a maximum spend on wedding dresses of just more than R600. Alizada says his cheapest frock is R1 500, a dowdy thing that has been used more than four times.
Most brides rent their dresses, paying between R1 400 and R2 750. If they buy, they have to pay more than R6 500. The law also limits wedding guests to 300, while food will be regulated by local government officials to ensure no more than about R30 is spent per person.—