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A Toothless Legislation

BY SAVAIRA KAWISH

August 22, 2006 will go down in the annals of Pakistan’s history as a red letter day. It is a day that will be commemorated as Toothless Legislation Day for it was on this date that the Parliament succeeded in passing yet another toothless legislation.

In a ‘rare show of urgency’ the Lower House of the Parliament passed the Marriage Functions (prohibition of ostentatious display and wasteful amendment) Bill, popularly known as the ban on wedding meals. The bill was immediately sent to the Upper House, which wasted no time and endorsed it without the customary debate as the Opposition did not take part in the proceedings of the House.

The new legislation, which comes into force as soon as the President signs on the dotted line, allows the serving of at least one dish at wedding functions. The “one dish” actually translates into six dishes as it gives permission to serve gravy, roti (bread), rice, dessert, cold drinks and tea/coffee besides numerous salads and chutneys. Perhaps I am wrong in my interpretation - it might actually mean mixing all these dishes as one and serving it as a “Noratan”.

The ban on serving meals at weddings, first imposed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1997, though imposed in good faith, was violated with impunity by everyone from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom simply because Pakistanis are renowned for their hospitality. Even the poorest will go overboard in serving and catering to the needs of his guests. In fact, the guests feel overly spoilt with all the attention and effort made to welcome and make them feel at home.

The basic objective of the ban is ‘to curb ostentatious expenditure and give relief to poor people.’ Laudable objective but “ostentatious expenditure” is not incurred on the serving of meals only. Instead of focusing on the number of dishes that can be served at weddings, the legislators should have devoted their attention to other “ostentatious expenditure”, which rightly is ostentatious expenditure.

Weddings in Pakistan are not simple joyous occasions. They are a statement - Statement of one’s wealth, stature, and a status symbol. Weddings traditionally last for three days to anywhere around a week, if not more. Although most of these celebrations do not necessarily fall within the purview of Islamic norms as they are heavily influenced by Hindu customs, people participate in them with passion and enthusiasm.

Strings of hundreds of multi-coloured lights are strung over and around houses, lawns, and even on neighbouring homes. If the functions are held in a lawn then the entire lawn is illuminated. A lot of electrical units are consumed when these lights are hung up at least two to three days prior to the first function, mendhi, to at least two days after the last function, valima.

Ironically, most invitees attend weddings not to bless the couple, but to test the quality of the food served. A wedding is remembered not because it is a special day for the bride and the groom, but because of the type of fare dished out at the feast. At weddings frugality in serving of meals simply cannot be brooked. To do so would mean literally cutting off your nose in the family! After all, a wedding is supposed to be an unforgettable event.

Another important issue that consumes a lot of expenditure is the use of firecrackers. Made initially for the purpose of signalling, now firecrackers serve to express our elation on the happiest of days and other celebrations. On weddings firecrackers are fired impudently. Time and again firecrackers have caused fires and explosions resulting in injuries, even fatalities. A happy occasion is turned into a day of mourning.

And yet another issue which needs to be curbed on a war footing is the giving of dowry. Grooms are encouraged under Islamic law to give their wives a generous mehr (cash gift at the time of marriage meant to secure the bride's future). However, the amount of mehr has decreased while the modern version of dowry -- over which the bride rarely retains any control -- has gained ground.

To lessen what is considered as ‘an imminent burden on the new in-laws’, the bride’s family gives dowry comprising of cash, household goods, furniture, jewellery, car/motorcycle and even property to the groom’s family. The rich compete with each other to outdo the lavishness of other's dowries.

The insidious practice of demanding dowry from the bride’s family has left many families on the brink of suicide. Poor families work very hard and even end up taking loans against steep interest rates to ensure that the demands of the groom’s family are met.

Another ostentatious expenditure, though of a personal nature, which needs to be curtailed, is the use of expensive bridal dress, elaborate bridal trousseau, jewellery, glamorous wedding cards and reserving wedding halls.

The traditional bridal dress is very elaborate with intricate embroidery and delicate stone and beadwork. The dress is usually the focus of attention for years to come and will be discussed in minute details. The minimum price of a wedding dress ranges between Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 (US $ 700-800) while according to official figures per capita income in the country is $ 847. Just a wedding dress that will be worn for a couple of hours and then stowed away for years to come can be suicidal for an average family!

Jewellery is another bridal frivolity that is the topic of hot discussion with the females of all ages. Everyone tries to buy heavy intricately designed gold jewellery set with rubies and emeralds or sapphires, which are trusted as the appropriate combination. Jewellery is considered a form of 'long-time-investment' for the bride. This is apart from the other ‘smaller’ less glamorous ones to be looked over types of jewellery that can be worn on every day basis.

The cost of reservation of a wedding hall/lawn and the printing of wedding invitation cards are also taxing on the pocket. In the big cities like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad booking a wedding hall is usually done at least three months in advance. The down payment in addition to the actual cost runs in millions of rupees.

And then of course there is the selection and printing of the invitation cards. Invitation cards too have undergone drastic changes. Everyone wants a card that is unique and one that will make a statement. The cost of printing runs in thousands of rupees.

Nikah (marriage contract) should be conducted without delay. Hazrat Shaikh (Rahmatullahi Alai) used to say, “I can't understand all these formalities for Nikah, because Nikah is an Ibadat (act of worship). When someone intends to perform two Rakats of Salat (prayers) then must he print posters and send everyone cards asking them to assemble in the Jame Masjid before performing the two Rakats?” What a beautiful explanation. Since Nikah is also an Ibadat, then what is the need to print cards and gather a large congregation?

Another custom that must be done away with is the giving of clothes to both male and female relatives of the groom by the bride’s family. The mother, sisters and sister-in-laws of the groom are also gifted with small jewellery sets.

All in all, weddings in Pakistan are a costly affair and getting costlier with the passage of time. The cost of just one wedding can range from anywhere near to Rs 5 lac (Rs 0.5 million) to Rs 10 lac (Rs 10 million). Enough to get at least four to five poor girls married off respectfully.

If the legislation is aimed at giving relief to the poor, who ape, or try to ape the affluent, then the legislation should have out-rightly banned the giving of dowry, illumination of homes and wedding venues, and the use of firecrackers.

The legislation should have drafted a clause calling for the promotion of mass weddings. Although mass weddings are nowadays being held by some welfare organisation to lessen the burden of the poor families, the trend should be adopted by the affluent also.

A lot of the cost can be reduced if we simply do not follow the dictates of competing and out-doing each other just for the sake of raising one’s social standing. Instead of just stressing on the serving of meals, the legislation should have stressed on adopting simplicity at weddings. This way the number of dishes would automatically be reduced.

Islam considers simple weddings as the best weddings. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: 'The best wedding is that upon which the least trouble and expense is bestowed" (Mishkat). Let us make it our duty to follow upon this and there would be no need for legislations.

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