When Haji Arif Shefajo’s father, a military doctor, first opened the doors of his multi-storey building in Kabul, the Taliban still ruled Afghanistan.
At first, the family intended to use the building for medical purposes, but eventually, it became a gathering ground for what few small meetings and events people held at the time, including simple, austere wedding ceremonies.
Due to the Taliban's strict rule, there was no music, no video recording, and certainly no dancing.
“They were very basic affairs. You would roll out a plastic tablecloth on the floor, a small group of men would have a simple meal, say a few prayers and go home. That was the extent of it,” said Shefajo of the hush-hush gatherings.
In 2001, when the US-led coalition drove out the Taliban with B-52s, Afghanistan’s cities went through an immediate change. Everything that was banned or inaccessible in the nine years since the Civil War and Taliban rule was quickly re-embraced.
The sounds of music once again came blaring out of the cars that began to reclaim the streets damaged by years of war. Clothing styles started to become more expressive, and shops and stands full of bootleg VHS and DVD films started to pop up across the major cities. At the same time, the invasion brought with it an influx of NGOs, media outlets, journalists and foreign embassies—all of which had to be staffed, at least in part, by Afghans. Hundreds of thousands of people were employed as drivers, translators, fixers, cooks and house cleaners.
Many of these workers were paid in dollars and euros.
All these sudden changes led to rapidly shifting tastes and expectations among the city’s fast-growing population. Nowhere was this more evident than in weddings, which Shefajo says grew more and more elaborate with each passing ceremony.
“For years, people had been secretly looking at photos and videos of their family’s weddings abroad and taking notes,” Shefajo said from Morwarid, one of the two wedding halls his family owns in the Afghan capital. “But now they could finally afford to replicate them.”
Now, nearly two decades later, much of that money has dried up and the incoming U.S. administration is likely to withdraw from the nation as the Afghan government is trying to hold peace talks with the Taliban, even as violence continues to surge across the country. Add to that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 1.4 million people and devastated economies across the globe.
Still, the weddings and the industries they created, go on.
As the costs soar, though, these ceremonies are also taking a toll on generations of young Afghans—mostly men—who are finding themselves incurring massive debts to get married at a time when the country is again plagued with mounting uncertainty.
By most Western standards, the 90,000 Afghanis ($1,168) Mohammad Iwas spent on his wedding ceremony in the western city of Herat seems like a bargain, but as the oldest of four fatherless children, the money did not come easy. He had to spend years working as a labourer in Iran in order to pay for his wedding costs and provide for his family at the same time.
When the 29-year-old got engaged last year, he tried to lay it all out for his future in-laws, saying, “I’m a simple uneducated man, I don’t make much money at all. Let’s please just have a small affair at home.”
They were unmoved. “They said, ‘Our daughter is no less than anyone else, she will get married in a wedding hall or not at all.’”
With those words, Iwas knew what he had to do. He went back to Iran, where Afghans are often forced into low-paying manual labor jobs and constantly face the threat of arrest and abuse at the hands of the police, in order to pay for the mounting expenses.
Knowing how hard her son was working to pay for all of the wedding costs—$6,493 for the meher (payments to the bride’s family) and gifts for each Eid and Persian New Year holiday that passed during their engagement along with the $1,168 for the wedding itself—Iwas’s mother also went to his in-laws to beg for their understanding.
That too, had no effect.
“My wife was extremely picky. I’d try to suggest less expensive options, but she’d refuse,” Iwas said of the subtle ways he tried to keep the costs down, knowing his fiancée had no education or income to help support their family financially after they’d get married.
Each additional expense—like the rent for the wedding hall, food at the wedding, the bride’s wedding night outfits, the car his in-laws would ride in, and the bride’s wedding night hair and make-up—meant Iwas had to spend more time working on construction sites as a day labourer, and less time basking in what should’ve been the most joyous time of his life.
As the costs began to add up, it took a toll on Iwas’s mental health.
Even on his wedding night, he couldn’t join in on the revelry. While others feasted and danced the night away in their finest clothes, Iwas was in a constant state of panic, left to wonder how he’d pay for everything. It’s a worry that hasn’t left his mind throughout his first year of marriage. “All of my happiness has been weighed down by the burden of this debt,” Iwas said of the $389 he still owes vendors, friends and family. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 situation has hindered his ability to travel to Iran for work.
Iwas blames the situation he and millions of other young Afghans are finding themselves in on a sense of societal competition that he says has taken over Afghan culture.
“Everyone is trying to outdo the other. My own mother-in-law would constantly turn to her daughter and say, ‘You need this, you deserve this,’ knowing very well I couldn’t afford it.”
Part of that competition, Iwas said, is spiked by the war economy, which still sees people being paid in foreign currencies. “People don’t understand that us average guys can’t compare to those who trade and earn in dollars. We aren’t businessmen. We aren’t politicians. We are simple workers trying to build our lives. I started out my new life in debt and yet, no one seems to care.”
But even those who have better economic prospects are facing the kind of pressure Iwas did.
Nasim Mohammadi is a stylist at the Posh Barber Shop in Kabul. He makes $90 a month cutting and styling the hair of some of the Afghan capital’s most well-to-do young men.
Over the years, the 26-year-old has prepared countless grooms and their friends for their weddings. Unlike Iwas, these young men are among some of the wealthiest in Kabul, and are prepared to drop as much as 7,000 Afghanis for their wedding look.
That’s as much as Mohammadi makes in a single month.
Mohammadi, who also got married this year, credits the months-long COVID quarantine in Kabul with helping him to keep the costs down. Still, even with a simple home wedding, he spent $5,195 USD—an amount that will take him years to pay off given his current salary.
“Since I’ve gotten married, I’ve had to put the $78-90 I make each month into just repaying the wedding costs.”
At another barber shop in Kabul, before a stylist can respond to a question about how much men spend on their wedding looks, another young man jumps in, “It’s the girls who spend the money, not the boys.”
Though the comment was clearly imbued with misogyny, many of the sources VICE spoke to said it is often the bride and her family who make the majority of the demands that drive the costs up.
But Neelofar Rasouli, who owns Neel beauty—one of Kabul’s most exclusive salons—said too much is made of what a bride spends.
Rasouli said depending on the season, a bride can spend anywhere from $130 to $390 on their hair and makeup. When other services, including skincare procedures, hair dying and manicures are added, Rasouli said it is quite possible for a bride to rack up a bill of $1,000. She admitted that those prices may seem high, but said that those costs are part of a much larger wedding industry. Salons, like other wedding vendors, charge what the market can support.
To critics, mostly men, who blame the brides alone for high wedding costs, Rasouli said people have to understand that beauty is a serious passion for some women. Afghan women, said Rasouli, have as much right as women in other places, to look their best on their wedding day.
Rasouli said her prices are part of what allows her to be at the forefront of beauty in the country. One way to ensure that is by using top brands—Estée Lauder, Chanel, MAC and Huda Beauty—most of which have to be purchased in Istanbul or Dubai and brought to Kabul. That of course adds to the overall cost.
“It takes a lot of effort and patience to bring these products here,” said Rasouli. “If I can’t go myself, I have to beg friends to bring as much as they can with them each time. I can’t just go to a store down the street and get these things.”
Recently, the Kabul Municipality sent out a list of price ceilings for the city’s beauty salons, but Rasouli said it was entirely unrealistic. “How can they tell me how much to charge? Do they know what it costs me to get these products to Kabul? I use the best, and the best costs money.”
Despite all the criticism she receives about beauty being a frivolous obsession, Rasouli said her salon and the 22 young women it employs, are an important example of female economic empowerment in the country. “These women have all learned a trade, making other women beautiful in a rare female-only space where women can feel free to be themselves. And just as importantly, most of them are the sole breadwinners of their households. That’s power,” she said.
Nadima, a 37-year-old mononym Afghan-Canadian social media influencer, agreed.
Where so many see a burden for Afghan men, Nadima sees these wedding celebrations as a rare moment of joy for the nation’s women, who too often do not feel comfortable enough to be their authentic selves in public.
“Excess is always problematic, it’s un-Islamic, but we also have to remember that these parties are moments of happiness, especially for women,” she said.
Nadima, who moved back to Afghanistan ten months ago, said she was initially put off by the seriousness of weddings here.
“I showed my aunts what I was wearing to my cousin’s wedding, a cute dress I’d brought from Canada, and they just shook their heads, saying ‘No, no. That simply won’t do. It’s your cousin’s wedding, you have to stand out. Come, we’ll take you shopping.’”
That was when she was first introduced to the Kabul wedding fashions, where she saw dresses for as much as $650. The experience caught her off-guard; she couldn’t have fathomed spending that much on a dress for one night in Canada, but she saw her aunts and cousins casually perusing the racks. It wasn’t until she arrived in the women’s section of the wedding—prior to the Civil War of the 1990s, many weddings in the major cities were not gender-segregated—that she saw how much weddings could mean to women.
“It’s the one time they can get dressed up, spend as much as they want and dance the night away without anyone saying anything.”
Nadima elaborated on how because women are not able to travel and enjoy themselves with the same ease as men, such events offer a much-needed release for them. “Yesterday there were literally rockets flying through the streets of Kabul, today there are women who came from all over the country dancing and singing. That’s why weddings mean so much here. How many other places can men and women find this kind of collective happiness in this country?”
As one of the oldest florists in Kabul’s flower district, Sayed Jamal Hashemi’s family has been part of the Afghan wedding industry for nearly 40 years. That experience has made the 57-year-old the de facto mesher (elder) of the street, where dozens of flower shops operate next to one another.
Over the decades, Hashemi has seen the amount people are willing to spend on their nuptials rise to newer and newer heights. He’s also seen his fair share of grooms who are clearly in over their heads. In 2015, when the Afghan Senate enacted a law to limit the cost of weddings, Hashemi supported the effort, but quickly realised it would have little lasting impact. “For these things to be effective, they have to be implemented, but no business will work against their financial interest if the government fails to enforce the law.”
Though he says these costs are an example of the “excessive” culture that has overtaken the country, Hashemi still feels proud to be part of Afghanistan’s wedding industry.
“We are very fortunate that our business is in peace and smiles.”
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