Young Afghans are taking a stand against exorbitant bride prices

Afghan weddings, such as this one in Kabul, often take place in lavish halls. A law passed in March aims to rein in what is traditionally a very costly celebration.
(Shah Marai / AFP/Getty Images)

For years, Maroof Anwari feared the prospect of marriage.

The school principal, now 22, had seen other young men like him go to financial extremes to meet rising demands for meher, or payments to the family of the bride, in what is one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces.

Many would-be grooms endured mistreatment and discrimination as migrant workers in Iran or turned to the drug trade in an attempt to raise the thousands of dollars demanded by brides’ families.

Some say the Afghan tradition breaks with the original Islamic intent of a bride price, provided for women in case of divorce or emergencies. Instead, it goes most often to the bride’s family, which sometimes uses it to help defray the costs of sons’ weddings.


Some families hand over livestock or firearms in place of cash, which Anwari and others say has contributed to growing lawlessness in a rural province overrun with armed groups.

In Kabul and other Afghan major cities, costs of weddings, which often take place in lavish halls decked out with bright colors and lights, sometimes with 1,000 guests, have become so high that Afghan lawmakers in March passed a law aimed at curbing the expenses. The law limits weddings to 500 guests and prohibits such events as engagement parties from being held in the glitzy halls.

In the central province of Ghor, wedding costs may be lower but have remained burdensome for many young men, who consequently are unwilling or unable to marry.

For Anwari, however, that changed in 2013, when he met and fell in love with an 18-year-old named Bibi Zekr.

Anwari quickly decided he wanted to make the education student his bride. But with a monthly income of less than $200, he could never afford the approximately $11,000 that Zekr’s parents were demanding for their daughter’s hand.

Anwari, a member of a civic group representing his home district of Dawlat Yar, began raising the meher issue at youth meetings. He found that some other men had to pay more than twice as much to brides’ parents.

The youths of Dawlat Yar quickly rallied around the cause.

“It was very serious to all of us,” said Zarmina Azimi, another member of the civic group, a project of Afghan Aid, a Britain-based assistance organization. “Every time we asked the young people the most pressing issue in their lives, this was always at the top.”

They faced opposition from elders, who said tradition allowed parents to ask as much as they wanted. Anwari and his supporters approached religious leaders for help, appealing to Islamic law that says any payment belongs to the bride, not her family.

Anwari faced a dilemma: He was in love with Bibi Zekr, but if he paid up, he knew no one would take his future activism seriously.

Fortunately for him, his wife-to-be also opposed the practice. He said Bibi Zekr argued with her parents, invoking Islamic law and saying that demanding a payment would ruin their married life. When that didn’t work, she told her parents that if Anwari paid meher, it might mean they would go hungry.

Finally, he said, she threatened to run off with him, an especially risky proposition in Ghor, where militant commanders were known to publicly humiliate young couples by lashing them for suspected improper behavior, including eloping.

After her family asked for a large engagement party, including dozens of guests and elaborate platters of sweets that would cost more than $1,600, Anwari insisted on a smaller gathering of their families and closest friends. He prevailed.

Her family eventually relented and reduced the meher by about two-thirds. To Anwari it was a personal — and political — triumph.

Just before his wedding in 2013, elders in several parts of the district decided to reduce meher rates. Now, in some areas, a family can face fines for requesting more than $6,200.

Anwari and his associates, who credit Afghan Aid for giving them the confidence to speak up in a society that values age over youth, continue to travel across Ghor in hope of having the policy implemented throughout the province. That, he said, would give young men and women more say in their future.

“Two or three years ago parents could still force their children to marry who they as parents wanted them to, but not anymore,” he said. “We have empowered young people. Now that they know the value of self-determination, there is no going back.”

Latifi is a special correspondent.