The lunacy of the Pakistani wedding

Published: January 23, 2011
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If there is any hope for sanity amidst the financial absurdity of Pakistani weddings, it must come from the growing class of urban professionals.

If there is any hope for sanity amidst the financial absurdity of Pakistani weddings, it must come from the growing class of urban professionals.

‘Tis the season of weddings in Pakistan, the time of year when relatives fly in from all over the world to gather at the gold-dipped, henna-encrusted, week-long dance-fest that is almost mandatory for anybody seeking to tie the knot in the land of the pure.

Given that fun seems to be generally illegal in the country, weddings seem to be the only excuse for people to escape the drudgery of their boring lives. Yet from a financial perspective, this culture of over-the-top nuptials could not possibly be more ruinous.

Having worked as a financial advisor in Karachi, I’m all too familiar with the fact that most people are not smart enough to plan out their financial future. Yet the few who are list their children’s wedding as one of their major life expenses, alongside infinitely more justifiable investments such as buying a house, saving for their children’s education and perhaps even their own retirement, are just plain unhinged. And unfortunately, there seems to be no movement in the works aimed at striking the conspicuous consumption of weddings off the list of acceptable cultural behaviour.

So just how excessive are Pakistani weddings? One can judge through a set of comparisons. An American friend of mine recently got married and had what constitutes a reasonably elaborate wedding in upper middle-class America: with around 500 guests, the event cost her around $50,000. To put that in perspective, that is less than three months of the combined incomes of the couple and less than the average per capita income of the United States.

By contrast, a friend who got married in Pakistan had a wedding that was deemed somewhat low-key by upper middle-class Pakistani standards and yet still managed to cost more than 40 times the average national income of the country. If the couple each had an income equal to mine, the bill would equal more than a year and a half worth of salaries for the two of them combined.

From a financial perspective, there is absolutely no justification for spending that much money to entertain a whole host of people, most of whom only love to bicker and complain rather than act as a genuine support network. The old canard about financial folly is especially applicable to Pakistani weddings: people spend money they do not have to buy something they do not need to impress people they do not like.

Why do we spend so much on weddings? The most obvious reason: a Pakistani wedding has multiple events that typically stretch over a week, as opposed to other cultures that have just one reception. That alone ratchets up the costs considerably. And while having multiple events does have a basis in tradition, the recent surge in the importance of hitherto side-events like the mehndi has its roots in other phenomena.

As Pakistani society has grown more overtly conservative, weddings remain one of the few culturally acceptable venues for men and women to meet without restriction and even dance with each other. In other words, a mehndi is simply a substitute for a nightclub.

The number of events is not the only problem; there is also the nature of each event. There are elaborate decorations for each, the food must be exquisitely catered and the women must be more bejewelled than display cases at Saks Fifth Avenue. If there is any human cost to the weddings, surely it is borne by the women, who must go through all of the gruelling stress of preparing for the wedding, choreograph the dances, manage many of the events and still look stunningly beautiful while doing it all.

Yet it is the women who seem to love the traditional, and very expensive, wedding format the most. Of the several men I spoke to about weddings, hardly any was supportive of spending significant amounts of money or even having more than one event. The women, on the other hand, were a completely different story.

They all tried to hide behind the shrivelled cloak of cultural legitimacy but most women who chose to discuss their nuptial plans made it very clear that they wanted to have what the rest of the world considers an elaborate wedding.

The phrases used to justify the extravagance ranged from “people will talk if you don’t have an elaborate wedding,” to “I just want a traditional wedding” and “there is social capital being built at weddings.” But the bottom line was obvious: these women have never paid a bill in their life and, despite many of them having jobs, they never will. Cost just does not seem to be factor in their thinking.

Not all women had that attitude, of course. A woman from the Dawoodi Bohra community, for example, seemed to value her community’s emphasis on simplicity. Several professional women from Karachi and Lahore want small, intimate weddings attended only by people who matter to them and their spouse, rather than their father’s prospective clients. But these brave souls are the exception rather than the rule.

By and large, women in Pakistan love big weddings and the men had better foot the bill or else there will be hell to pay. This is not to say that the men do not enjoy the festivities, of course, nor that many women are not in favour of extravagance, nor even that some women do not help pay for their own weddings. But, on balance, what the woman wants is usually closer to what happens.

Take for instance, Khalid, an engineer who wanted to have a small, simple wedding. His wife is American-educated so he thought she would be supportive of the idea. But the lady put her foot down. She was going to have an old-fashioned wedding with all of the bells and whistles, and he had to go along with it.

If there is any hope for sanity amidst the financial absurdity of Pakistani weddings, it must come from the growing class of urban professionals, people who may simply not have the time or energy to spare from their careers to have a traditional series of ceremonies. Here’s hoping the workaholics take over!

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 23rd, 2011.

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Reader Comments (28)

  • Babruk
    Jan 23, 2011 - 4:48PM

    my wedding is planned next year. I sometimes have sleepless nights when i start thinking of money that i need to get for the wedding. my finace wants an elaborate wedding, she is just impervious to any rational or sane discussion on the cost of the wedding. I wish it had never been the case.
    one thing more, you are treating the whole of Pakistan as if it has one culture. though i agree that when it comes to the attitude to the wedding ceremony, we can generalize that pakistanis tend to spend a lot on wedding to impress people and save face. but the details of wedding that you talked about cannot be generalized.Recommend

  • Nighat+Khan
    Jan 23, 2011 - 6:26PM

    Bravo !! About time, I am increasingly distraught at wedding expenses with no guarantee of success of marriage. I know of a simple wedding but successful marriage just because my husband and I put our feet down in spite of our wailing families 23 years ago. I hope I have raised my daughter with similar disdain for obscene and expensive weddings! Imported flowers designer clothes,wedding planners and mehndi choreographers!! This nation has got to set its priorities right other wise we will continue our nose dive!!!.Recommend

  • Sidra Ahmed
    Jan 23, 2011 - 8:33PM

    The idea of the article was good, but it is poorly written. For example, your American friend apparently has an household income of 200K. That is NOT “upper middle class” America!! That is higher than 95% of Americans. Even at that level, a wedding with 500 guests would be considered excessive. I live in the States and it is very hard to find a place besides a hotel which allow over 200 guests. Only Pakistani-Americans and other immigrant groups have weddings that big. So the American example seems a bit made up.

    And the thing about the Pakistani couple who had a 40K wedding….why is it ok for them to have this wedding in America but suddenly in Pakistan it’s considered bad? If one considers the average anything in Pakistan it will look bad….for example, my shoes cost 30 times what most Pakistanis earn in a day. This sounds outrageous…until you realize that 2/3 of Pakistanis subsist on 1.50 or less a day.

    And acting like women are the demanding ones while men are just innocent and don’t want a fancy wedding is way much of an oversimplification. You forgot the men who demand fridges and TVs for their household, whose mothers need zaver to be put on, etc etc.!! I don’t know if the author is married or not, but I’m sure if he is, he definitely had a Mehndi or Rukhsati and did not voice any objection to it. Saying “what the women wants is closer to what happens” is actually wrong!! The vast majority of women there have no earning power, and are financially chained to their dad’s will!! And even if she is earning, it’s very hard to do anything yourself…it is considered very rude to make any demands, and everything is done through the parents. So I think that assessment is off.

    This article should be rewritten with better examples, real interviews, real statistics, and maybe it can be a better article.Recommend

  • Jaweed
    Jan 23, 2011 - 9:51PM

    anyone asking me a loan for marriage is turned down immediately. my comment “enjoy on your money not someone elses hard earned rupees”Recommend

  • Mujtaba Haydar
    Jan 23, 2011 - 10:13PM

    @Sidra Ahmed, I think this article was geared towards making a point about an absurd and wasteful extravagance enjoined to one of the more nobler traditions of humanity i.e Marriage. And I don’t see the need for a more researched work on this issue, it’s all too well known!.Recommend

  • Taqi
    Jan 24, 2011 - 12:45AM

    Only a woman would be able to vent so much putrid feminist anger when it comes to relationships and marriages. This topic ain’t new its been goin on since before i was born and the same hapless drudgery a man has to bear when it comes to his wedding or his daughter’s wedding. For goodness sake’s people have friggin rahat fateh ali performing at weddings, now tell me that is not just beyond ” a tad bit expensive”? Women want jewellery of the best and shiniest kind there is, the decorations to be the snazziest, the knackering dance recitals to be the dopest. Get this through ladies : MEN PAY FOR WEDDINGS NOT YOU
    Of course men have to join the band wagon cuz be it for their future financial prospects or for their beau/executioner’s no-nonsense-just-do-it appeals. they got no choice. as far as the few intelligent women are concerned well tha’s a start n its gonna take what at least another century before ppl realize this: So cheap is better, huh? This is genius! why didnt we think of it before?”
    This article is flawless, no changes needed. Nuff said. Recommend

  • -
    Jan 24, 2011 - 5:50AM

    citation pleaseRecommend

  • nina
    Jan 24, 2011 - 6:23AM

    @Babruk,
    If you are having sleepless nights long before your actual wedding, because of the impending costs of the elaborate wedding which your fiance insists on, then I wonder what will happen after the wedding, will she demand a certain type of house, car, clothes, jewellery? If that will be the case, then expect never to get a good night’s sleep ever again!

    In Pakistan, there appear to be the growth of two extremes, the woman who is being abused by her greedy inlaws for more stuff from her parents home, and the greedy woman who abuses her husband in demanding more stuff for herself just to show off!Recommend

  • Sameer
    Jan 24, 2011 - 8:08AM

    Pakistani generally interact more with their relative than their American counterpart. So obviously you would expect Pakistani inviting more of their relative than American counterpartRecommend

  • Alex
    Jan 24, 2011 - 9:21AM

    To the previous commenter:

    You are correct that 200k seems a bit too high to classify as upper middle class in the States. It is important to note that what is deemed upper middle class depends on one’s locale. 100k/yr in Iowa constitutes upper middle class whereas in Boston/NYC, a couple bringing in 200k is considered breaking into the upper middle class. Recommend

  • yasmeen
    Jan 24, 2011 - 4:28PM

    Tthis is a very nice article. I am so glad that you had the courage to write this. I hope that someone has the courage to do what you have said. I know of many people who are broke after they pay for the wedding, and sometimes the divorce takes place within the year. It is not only out of fashion in other countries , but our weddings are also becoming showy and tacky, and just plain vulger.Recommend

  • Jan 25, 2011 - 12:15AM

    Thank you for writing this article. Some kind of balance between tradition and fiscal sanity would make a lot of sense.Recommend

  • Waqar
    Jan 25, 2011 - 1:32AM

    @Sidra, Please read the article again. The comparisons made between US and Pakistan is in terms of per capita income verses the expense of the wedding. $50k is less than per capita income in USA while in Pakistan the wedding expense is 40 TIMES (not 40k) the per capita income in Pakistan.

    @ Babruk… if ur fiancée doesn’t listen to reason, nip the problem in the bud. Upgrade for the one bless with wisdom. It doesn’t matter if u love her, worship her or she was chosen by your dying beloved grandma, you will end up starting ur married life in debt and paying off the debt till the day u die and resenting her for it. Not to mention the tension and rift caused between married couple due to money problems. And if you are blessed with kids during such a marriage, you can not possibly provide a home environment to raise them with noble character. This you can easily observe in Pakistan’s younger generation.
    you can disregard my advise if you choose the path of corruption so prevalent in our country MAINLY due to weak men putting up with demanding unreasonable women.

    By the way, judging the values of our people from this article and Pakistani media, it wouldn’t be long before we will be demanding the name of Pakistan to be changed to Napakistan or Unislamic republic of Napakistan. take ur pick.Recommend

  • Waqar
    Jan 25, 2011 - 1:51AM

    @ Henna and everyone
    Solutions are right under our nose. they are wrapped up in finest silks and placed above the fridge or cupboards and was also used as traditional tool of placing over the brides head for blessing. Yes, the Quran. the one book we can not even think of turning to for solutions. It is the same Book that the Molvi scare you into not even attempting to read with meaning. siting the reasons that you have to be taught by a molvi or only a molvi can read and interpret or other BS along those lines! Think about it! why are the Movlis so afraid to let you read and understand by yourself? WHERE in the Quran does it say: “Ya Ayyuhal Molvi…”? Quran always addresses mankind and not molvis. in fact, it is mentioned in many places in Quran that the first to reject the truth were the elite and the religious figures of the society.
    Muftis today are more worried about veena malik’s activities and do not raise a voice (let alone take action) against all the corruption and BS happening in Pakistan! they will raise hell if people like Zakir Naik and Ahmed Deedat were to visit Pakistan, but are ok with all the bombings and day light robberies and the corrupt government!
    My message to Pakistan Youth! Do not be like Nation of Noah that would push their fingers in the ears and run at the invitation to Islam. you have the internet. search on youtube and listen to Khalid Yaseen, Zakir Naik, Yousuf Estes, Abdurraheem Green, Ahmed Deedat, Dr Asrar, Zaid Hamid…
    Learn about yourself and your own religion. It has been my experience, it is the most liberating and awesome feeling.Recommend

  • Sidra
    Jan 25, 2011 - 9:53AM

    At the same time, such weddings support a variety of small businesses, which generally do more good than harm in bringing a community together.Recommend

  • Sidra Ahmed
    Jan 25, 2011 - 10:18AM

    Sidra, Please read the article again. The comparisons made between US and Pakistan is in terms of per capita income verses the expense of the wedding. $50k is less than per capita income in USA while in Pakistan the wedding expense is 40 TIMES (not 40k) the per capita income in Pakistan.

    Actually the per capita income in the US is approx 27K, not 50K. You may verify it under “Economic Indicators”: http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/ACSSAFFFacts. The median HOUSEHOLD income may be 50K, but that’s not what you said.

    And if a wedding is 40 times the per capita income in Pakistan, it does equal 40K, because the per capita income in Pakistan is ~ $1000. (http://www.einfopedia.com/per-capita-income-of-pakistan.php)

    Not that the actual figures matter a huge deal in this discussion– if one thinks weddings are frivolous, they would think so regardless of income. But since you called me out on my figures, I thought I should reply.Recommend

  • Faraz
    Jan 25, 2011 - 10:27AM

    Bravo! for writing such an article. Leave the examples and comparisons, the over all idea is very good. I don’t think we need more examples because each one of us have experienced such things in our lives.

    “Mehndi a night club” so true!!!! your friends, sisters and everyone else can dance with each other and the parents have no issues with it.

    Ubtab, Mehndi and these dholki’s are such waste of money. In fact I have personally attended few weddings where rukhsate and Valima were at the same day. I got confused and got it checked with couple of learned scholars. There i got to know that our religion actually has a provision for one single event and you can share the expenses.

    Sometimes I feel this is so stupid, working like a donkey your whole life and saving money just to get married and then save for your children marriage. At least we can teach our kids to take this responsibility!! At least my parents have taught me and I am pretty much on the mark with my future financial plans.

    I must say you are one my type of thinker:) Recommend

  • Faraz
    Jan 25, 2011 - 10:33AM

    @ sidra: I don’t think this a fair rational that we need such kind of weddings as it helps a lot of other people. you are not understanding the difference here, maybe one can afford and the other can but the kind of pressure these kinds of norms create on those who can not take such financial load is immense.
    If we can control this, it would also save many from debt issues and other financial crises. This would also do more good than harm to our society Recommend

  • Jan 25, 2011 - 12:23PM

    I admit that i am guilty of having a reasonably lavish wedding and succummbed to the social pressure. And i know for sure that it was a huge financial burden for my dad. In restrospect, it would have been more fun if we and cut down on one function and used it to have an extended honeymoon or better still saved it for a future holiday with my husband.I cant change what i did, but i do hope that other people can learn from my story.Recommend

  • Dr+Dev+Mishra
    Jan 26, 2011 - 1:56AM

    At last, a social evil that is equal in both India and Pakistan. As a doctor, I was exposed to a lot of personal angst of my patients and not just their medical details. It used to break my heart to hear of parents creaking at their foundations to meet marriage expenses.
    Are ppl saying I am exagerating? No, Sir, I will repeat it- IT IS A SOCIAL EVIL.

    And I am delighted that the author has used a comparison with annual incomes and not just currency conversions that make no sense. For example, here in the UK, my monthly food bill is 15% of my net salary. In India, it used to be 35%.
    Are ppl aware, however, that some hindu sects like Arya Samajis emphasise simple weddings where the total expenditure would be equal to just one month’s salary of the groom?!!

    Let us have more of these articles which emphasise the common struggles of the Indo-Paks.
    Bw allRecommend

  • Jan 26, 2011 - 1:00PM

    Simple.. when the GIRL is being SOLD in an arranged marriage… the Parents need to do something to make it look nice!!Recommend

  • Sharjeel Jawaid
    Jan 26, 2011 - 2:33PM

    Vulgar Exhibition of wealth in weddings is a custom exhibited from the Hindu Bania Culture. They lived the life of a scrooge saving for the ostentantious display in weddings.

    It is a matter of common sense to live a decent life and spend in moderation for weddings and also other celeberations.

    Sincerely / Sharjeel JawaidRecommend

  • moise
    Jan 26, 2011 - 6:18PM

    I miss the time when biryani daighs and shamyana all is needed. Now middle class marriages are like hedgefund managers marrying in oil sheikhs family.Recommend

  • Dr+Dev+Mishra
    Jan 26, 2011 - 6:35PM

    @Sharjeel- abit childish to bring in hindu banias into this. I am not a bania but can vouch for the fact that they are amongst the most gentle, non violent, highly educated and prosperous of all Indian communities.
    In fact, ostentation is generally not a trait asociated with them. So, pl debate intelligently and try not to listen to the mindless anti Hindu drivel that fills the airwaves in Pak.
    All that terrorism in Pak- which Hindu community will you blame for this?
    PeaceRecommend

  • Usman
    Jan 26, 2011 - 7:53PM

    I got married in khi last year. My family (not the girl) wanted a massive wedding….i refused and allowed just 350 ppl. however, the extended family just couldnt stop saying omg u have to have more than 3 dishes our family’s honour is at stake. i alhamdulilah remained steadfast and didnt budge and managed to make every1 fall in line. Got alot of complaints about having a boring wedding.but who cares!its against my religion to spend on ridiculous stuff
    But i must say that is almost impossible if ur would be spouse doesnt agree!Recommend

  • Z K
    Jan 30, 2011 - 10:47AM

    wow..Usman..350 ppl is a small wedding?
    seriously?

    I agree with the point of hte article..on the other hand, most likely I’d only get married once in my life and it would be great to throw a good party..

    I’m a girl and I work and would want to pay for the wedding myself and not have my parents do it. But I would likely spring for a somewhat pricey wedding which is small with only the people I actually care about.

    Then again, I’m not entirely sure about wedding costs here in the US. I’d probably get my friends to help with a lot of things rather than hire ppl to do them.

    But if it came down to spending money on a wedding vs spending money on a downpayment for the house…the latter wins.Recommend

  • Sameen Zaki
    Feb 9, 2011 - 1:39PM

    Woww!! I enjoyed the article and everyone’s replies. Very well written article. I am not going in the figures of the expenses. We all know, we all see extravagant weddings all around us. I am also of the view ‘not to spend too much on weddings’. I agree with one of the respondents that this ritual is now becoming a SOCIAL EVIL. and yes it’s becoming a norm that disturbs those who barely meet their expenses. I just cannot figure out WHAT IS THE IDEA OF IMPRESSING AND SHOWING TO THOSE WHO YOU DON’T LIKE ?? PLEASING OTHERS BY SPENDING YOUR DAMN MONEY ON SUCH DAMN STUFF….With due respect to those who really want elaborate weddings, I am unable to comprehend their logics -to date. It’s a topic that needs a lot of debate, a lot of.

    In my opinion, people need to have ‘strategic thinking’ ! what do they get in the longer run? I am glad that one of the respondents shared her resentment about spending too much on wedding and not being able to save much for better stuff… I don’t think we ever generate ‘social capital’ at our weddings…
    And then we teach our younger generations “Money saving concept” where is the ” Wise Spending concept”?
    It’s all about Priorities, we need to ‘Change our MIND SETS’ for setting our priorities and of those in our younger generations.
    Hats off to the writer of the article. such practical social issues should be brought into limelight.
    Best wishesRecommend

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