Weddings in Pakistan: Down with the dowry, enough with the spending!

Published: December 26, 2013

The society as a whole fails to realise that the money spent on weddings would be better invested in improving living standards, education, health and the overall well-being of the family.

An often ignored reality that has plagued Pakistani society is that getting married is a financial nightmare.

Marriage in our country is an occasion for insane displays of spending on outrageously lavish valimasmehndi banquets, jewellery, give-aways, dowry and similar acts. What is interesting and downright appalling is that all classes of society are guilty of this madness.

Our upper-class uses the occasion to show how wealthy they are. The middle-class, as always torn between the echelons of society, tries its best to spend as much as it can and register itself within the upper-class so as to feel accomplished. The poor take out the money from their children’s education, health and everyday basics of life to cover nonsensical marriage expenses.

It is not hard to find instances in Pakistan where a poor family saves money for years to marry off a daughter, when only a portion of this money would have been sufficient to send the kids to school, buy them books and invest in their future.

Recently, I did a small survey in my native village and compiled statistics of the expenses incurred on recent weddings in the village.

What I found was an astonishing trend.

A family, where the combined income of father and son was Rs60,000 spent more than Rs800,000 on dowry, clothes, give-aways and various functions related to their daughter’s wedding.

In another instance, a poor farmer in the village married his daughter to another farmer’s son and bore wedding expenses of Rs150,000 – most of which was borrowed from relatives or contributed by someone well-off.

Another old man married his son who was a taxi-driver to another man’s daughter – of similar financial stature – and bought gold worth Rs150,000 for the bride. He incurred additional expenses on arranging the ‘customary’ functions. The money was again borrowed from relatives and friends.

The social behaviour exhibited in these examples reflects a bizarre and anomalous condition in our society – all in the name of traditions and customs. Spending such huge amounts of money on a wedding just does not make sense in a country with poverty figures such as ours.

Marriage – the commencement of a new and beautiful relationship – is unfortunately often marred in Pakistan either by the scary repercussions of a family’s self-esteem blown away with the burden of donations or by going bankrupt and plunging themselves into financial debts.

The reasons behind our irrational spending on marriages are obvious.

Long established traditions of wedding functions and obligations of giving jewellery, dowry and give-aways has created a standard on which each family tries to excel more than it actually can. People fear being mocked by society if they fail to spend ‘enough’. More often than not, this forces them to spend more than the resources they have.

The society as a whole fails to realise that the money spent on weddings would be better invested in improving living standards, education, health and the overall well-being of the family.

Just imagine the on-going benefits if the same money that a poor father spends on his son’s wedding was spent on starting a business for the son or if the son saved the money for occasions such as childbirth, health care and children’s education.

The irony is that although most people do realise that this behaviour is a social anomaly, we all seem resigned to it and no one bothers to fix it. Everyone talks about the problem but no one actually does anything to help society put an end to it. There may be the occasional sermon in a mosque on not having extravagant weddings and the elderly in the family do tell their children to be humble in their lifestyle, but very little is actually done beyond the verbal discussion.

In effect, our society seems paralysed without any clue on how to change this terrible system.

So what we ought to do if we all realise that the spending trend in our weddings is nonsensical?

I think that the first step should be to try and gradually avoid some of the expenses that make our weddings such a financial ordeal.

For starters there is at least, one certain expense that the men in this society can actually refuse only if they could muster up the courage – a rebellious stance to completely refuse dowry from the bride’s family irrespective of how much they insist.

Who else, other than the man getting married, is in a better position to stand up against the heinous practice of dowry?

After all, with the custom so deeply entrenched in our society, neither the girl nor her family could ever propose a dowry-free marriage. It is the guy who is the receiver of dowry and hence, it is only him who can take a stern stance against it.

Putting an end to the custom of dowry might prove to be the first step in cutting down other wedding expenses.

Think about it.

If a man stands his ground against receiving dowry, then the bride and her family would also have to be rational enough when demanding jewellery from the groom’s side. This will help save money for matters of far greater importance than outrageous functions, jewellery and furniture for the groom’s entire family.

Having said that, it is unfortunately not that easy to change long-standing traditions in reality. In effect, this will entail standing against both the families because everyone here is tied up in notions of trends, traditions and social pressures, and no one in either family would agree to a dowry-free marriage. The classic argument is,

“Hum apni khushi se day rahay hain” 

(We’re giving it out of our own happiness)

Or

“Hum tou thora bohat day rahay hain apni beti ko”

(We’re just giving a little bit to our daughter)

Giving less dowry is of no good either as it doesn’t act upon the message that there was no dowry required in the first place.

The snake of dowry is still alive but just fed less.

The idea is complex but fairly executable. If we don’t start today, this anomalous social behaviour will keep haunting us and our coming generations. All that is required is for both the families to sacrifice their social harmony temporarily for the sake of the greater good. The rich and the educated men, particularly, bear more responsibility as they are the ones who set the example. There is no message to be followed if a poor family spends no money on a marriage. A message is only given when you have a lot to spend and you choose not to.

The fear of the backlash from the families in the beginning is undeniable. But believe it or not, once the dust is settled, everyone around us will appreciate us for sparing them the money they were about to waste on things that do not essentially matter.

Imagine the day when all you need for a marriage is a happy couple and two happy families without the fear of arranging dowry or any money for their joyous day.

In an age where most of us dream about a changed society, very few take tiny but pragmatic steps to bring about and be a part of that change.

Rizwan Mumtaz

Rizwan Mumtaz

A PhD student currently based in Europe. A social worker affiliated with several international youth organization. Founder of Nojawan Pakistan, a volunteer youth organization aiming to help education of the unprivileged Govt schools in Hazara Division. He tweets @RizwanMumtaz (twitter.com/RizwanMumtaz)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    This system is not unique to Pakistan, its noticed in many countries especially in the East. Trying to stop or change this through well worded, good intentioned efforts is a waste. Thinking aloud………if a strong government passes laws with punishment attached that is enforced, possibly over a period of time this menace would subside, if not completely die.Recommend

  • Fed up

    I agree with you completely. Especially for less well off families this money can instead be used as a form of investment, which could improve the families quality of life in the long run.Recommend

  • Khan

    This dowry and other expenses makes it impossible for poor peoples to get married, because they simply cannt afford it. Even if they afford it then they spend their life time spending on it leaving them with no money for futre life. Marriage in Pkaistan is more expensive than in EU.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    Exactly!Recommend

  • Prospective Groom

    U r right… But the main problem is that our society is too much into status.. All they think is what will others think if we made a simple wedding…

    I strictly said to fiance’s parents that I dont want any dowry and my parents were equally supportive of me… Since they knew me before the marriage was fixed,the girl’s parents were ok… If not,they would suspect that there is something wrong in me that I dont demand dowry…. Thats how our society is…

    Also,they said that though I didnt want any dowry,they cant send a girl from their house empty handed so they are giving x grams of jewellery… When I said dont buy jewellery in this high gold demand,they said that it was made 5 years in anticipation of her marriage…..Recommend

  • mohd indian

    and what about when u people go berserk over bollywood songs……..Recommend

  • Owais

    I have already committed,I wont get even a penny,dowry No wayRecommend

  • Pervaiz

    It is true that the guy should stand against the dowry but I also think that girls should also stand against dowry and extravagant spending. There is no point spending 3 or 5 or 7 lakhs on a bridal dress just because its your special day or even wearing 10 lakh of jewellery. I have witnessed girls who spend so much money on dresses and jewellery which they only wear once and then it is useless. Simplicity is beautiful…extravagance is not!Recommend

  • Mr. T

    The argument has long been made in support of those who are poor and have difficulty in getting their daugthers married and against those riches who set wrong trends in our society. I agree to every argument about girls and their families under preasure of dowry. But what about a guy who is a self made man or proud enough to take matters in his own hands rather then being burden on his parents to pay for his wedding and against dowry as well.He is dubbed as immature, disrespectful to social norms and traditions.

    Its about those young men who are in early stages of their careers and trying hard to make their mark and doing reasonably well. Yes, the number of such males in our society is less but the fact is even for that smallest fraction who are trying to make any kind of change are not being supported or encouraged by either of the families or the society and unfortunately not even the bride. Since, our society has been telling these girls fairy tales from their childhood that a prince charming riding a white horse is going to take them and they will live happily ever after in a palace. Which is far away from the reality of the present.

    Yes, men needs to take the stand against dowry of any sort and i agree with the writer, “The snake of dowry is still alive but just fed less.”

    However, i urge parents as well. Life is not a fairy tale or a Karan Johar movie. So stop telling these to your daughters and make their heads so swollen with fantasies that they are not ready to accept the realities and challenges of life.Recommend

  • reema arshad

    great piece n quite realistic too!!!
    ur idea to stop dowry traditions by enforcing prospective grooms is very impressive n justified as they reaklly are the only person in the whole shadi mania whio can stop this practise.
    nice writing….Recommend

  • zahra

    Again, our priorities are clear. Rather than discussing the lavish spending of our government on their 5 star lifestyle we chose to discuss this rather simple issue; stop micromanaging people, let them spend what makes them HAPPY..discuss the atrocious corruption of billions of dollars in our government, or the issue of terrorism..to any policy analyst those are our main problems, not some poor guys CHOICE of spending.Recommend

  • Sajjad Janjua

    it should be performed in Islamic manner example is present – see how Prophet Muhammad and his companions had practiced this event – simple as possible and without any such inventions as we see todayRecommend

  • MR M

    good article. We must make nikkah as easy as possible.Recommend

  • rashid behlim

    Well Muslims of Sub continent have not got over this. In Middle East the Groom has to arrange and bear all the marriage expenditure. One of my friend from India told me that in Calcutta many families have been boycotted and have been kept out of the social circle if they have asked or received dowryRecommend

  • Sherwani

    I believe that Dowry isn’t even a question any more. It is the, what I like to call , THIS-IS-MY-DAY syndrome.

    Brides and Grooms have are now completely drowned in the feeling that their wedding should be like some Disney Fairytale weddings, With all the shines and glitters, brands, and photographers who charge 50 Thousand/ Day for a few photos.
    And trust me it is not the society, there is no social pressure on you to wear designer made ties or a Gucci cuff link or get your make up done by a 40 Thousand/ day parlour. I have met countless brides and grooms all of which are of the idea that their wedding day should be like a divine occasion. They are not willing to compromise on that even if they know their parents financial situation. I totally disagree that the Dowry is forced, I can bet that no brides nowadays want to go an live in his husband’s BACHELOR PAD with old Tv and squeaking bed. In fact shopping for dowry is the Brides favourite part.Recommend

  • Sana Saleem

    Very well written .. This is the one of the reasons parents don’t want daughters even in 2013. Weddings in Indo-Pak is being so over-rated that people went into severe burden because of it. Parents start saving for dowry and specially for gold and wedding functions specially ignoring the fact and need to spent on their education.
    This is dilemma because of which every year thousand of sisters and daughters are killed by in-laws or remain unmarried.

    The only hope which is left is with the Groom to be who could be bold enough to stand strictly & stop his family for taking dowry and spend lavishly and un-neccesarily on weddings.Recommend

  • Madiha

    Believe it or not, I did not take any dowry from my parents. I stated to my then-fiance that I will not bring even a spoon in the name of dowry. I did however bought a bed and a dresser, but only because we were starting from scratch. I completed the bedroom, and he bought stuff for the rest of the house. And we are happy. Its been now two years since our marriage and nobody has ever said anything about it. My husband told his parents very clearly that no single letter of dowry will ever be spoken in my presence. I made a place for myself in his house on my own, without any dowry or jewells gift for his mom and sister supporting me.

    I strongly believe it is only possible for women if the men in their lives are supportive. If my husband wouldn’t have been so supportive, I dont think I would have been able to lead a happy married life without the dowry. However, I have no doubt that no matter what, I wouldn’t have brought any dowry even if he had refused to marry me.

    Our marriage was also a simple affair. Attended by no more than 80 people, we arranged the function in a good restaurant and after having dinner everybody just went home, and we started our life. My husband has been a blessing for me.Recommend

  • Zahra Najam

    I totally agree with you. Dowry has become such an obligation in our culture that if someone does not follow this, she is not given respect by the new family. Although i always fail to understand that why respect to a girl by the new family is directly proportional to how much dowry she is bringing with her. Can those non living things replace the love and warmth she’s bringing with her for them? It is small minds of people who think of giving more importance to the dowry than the girl who is sacrificing her home, her freedom for them. Recommend

  • Zahra Najam

    I totally agree with you. Dowry has become such an obligation in our culture that if someone does not follow this, she is not given respect by the new family. Although i always fail to understand that why respect to a girl by the new family is directly proportional to how much dowry she is bringing with her. Can those non living things replace the love and warmth she’s bringing with her for them? It is small minds of people who think of giving more importance to the dowry than the girl who is sacrificing her home, her freedom for them.Recommend

  • Talal

    These people ask the women to give dowry for marriage, their women dance in their weddings, they go to graves and pray to the dead. Not to forget, honour killings and wishing for sons instead of daughters. Are they Muslims or is Islam a facade behind which they continue their Hindu traditions and culture?Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    Well in the by gone days , the family property was bequeathed to only sons. So weddings were the main time when ‘something’ like gold / ornaments / money etc was handed ( bequeathed) to the daughter. It was supposed to be ‘ giving her , her share of property ‘ . Plus a portion of this ‘giving’ is actually stree dhan and not dowry. Meaning its hers for ever to keep. If tomorrow its required, she can mortgage these ‘own things’ and run her house hold till it become stable again . Of course these rituals are slowly fading away .Values change with time rather , they SHOULD.Recommend

  • just_someone

    Absolutely. Dowry is evil to say the least. Its sad how parents of girls have to save for their whole lives and suffer just because of this stupidity.Recommend

  • Fanarl

    its a cancer in Pakistan. Recommend

  • sana

    @zahra, i guess there are thousands of pundits out there already with a keen eye on govt spendings. Feel free to have ur hopes that society can be made good only wen the govt is honest n has a danda in its hand for every tiny little evil present among us. and by the way that CHOICE of spending is nothing but a total shame and a reflection of a pathetic approach towards realizing the dream of a happy life.Recommend

  • Agnikul

    The issue is that the poor guy does NOT have a choice because of peer pressure.
    Freedom of choice is desirable except where it’s exercise promotes a huge social evil. Society should frown on showing off.Recommend

  • Hass

    Nice piece. I discussed the dowry issue with my parents
    already and will not accept it even though I’m not even thinking about getting
    married for some time. I just think the issue is very complex, and refusing
    dowry actually puts more burden on the prospective groom regardless of how well
    intended the principles on which they refuse them.

    Most guys in Pakistan simply DO NOT make enough money to
    save up for a decent wedding let alone take on the responsibility of buying
    everything for themselves when they start their new life. Marriage is not
    supposed to be one sided, and most couples in the west save together to put a down payment on their house or buy a car or whatnot. This kind of support is not always possible in Pakistan because the bride may not be financially independent (this is another issue about women’s participation in the work force and how many
    people have negative attitudes toward working women). So to make up for this
    gap, the family (usually the father) of the bride (and often time the groom) has
    to bear the burden etc.

    Even on an above average salary of 60,000 pkr/month, if a
    guy saves 30,000 a month, it will take him more or less 4 years just to have
    enough for an average wedding( functions, clothes, gifts etc.) And this is a conservative amount. In reality, you can’t do jack **** with 1000000 pkr. Add to that the responsibility of getting a new house and a car and furniture etc, the guy won’t
    even be able to save enough to get married by the time he is in his late
    twenties let alone think about saving for his honey-moon/children/hobbies/investments etc. Getting married in Pakistan is a nightmare. And girls think they have it bad with their wheatish complexion or weight issues.

    The truth is, our society simply does not accept personal freedom
    and independence and hence, your family background and where you are from plays such an important
    role in getting hitched. It’s all very disturbing. If a guy doesn’t want to
    rely on his parents or a girl’s parents and still wants to uphold “tradition”
    he most likely has to wait longer before he can even begin to think about
    settling down. And to top it off, this gesture may not always bode well with
    the family and the bride herself, who may either find something suspicious in
    someone in Pakistan who willingly REFUSES things worth hundreds of thousands of rupees, and the girl who may not respect your decision to deny what she thinks
    is her right.

    It’s not going to be easy to play the white knight for most Pakistani
    guys. But I do agree with you, a guy who refuses dowry may not be the groom
    Pakistan deserves but he is the one they need right now. (amidoingitright?)Recommend

  • Glenn Ryall

    Dude, quite agree with you. I am tying the knot in Jan but really we have just kept aside the dowry thing out of the entire event. Kudos for the great write up :)Recommend

  • Syed Mubeen Hussain Sabzwari

    Dowry is still a controversial topic! lot of ifs and butsRecommend

  • Dante

    I’d rather have a simple marriage that is conducted within just one day. Save money, and spend on planning for the future instead of being indebted to some financial institution.Recommend

  • Ghufran Bala

    Agreed with every single word of the article, very well written Rizwan MumtazRecommend

  • zahra

    So then speak out about the crux of the matter, the society pressures and what not, rather than talking about an outcome. If I have a wound, or am sick, i should take medicine for it, yes, but i should also take not of the fact that my symptoms may be present due to a deeper issue. Such is the case with dowry, theft, opportunistic approach, bad traffic, etc. My post was meant to consider getting to the root of the evil, rather than keep cutting its branches..I was talking from a deeper angle, something which you probably missed out on :)Recommend

  • Sana

    I think what you said earlier was a typical top down approach of fixing the wrong things. That is, fix the govt, and everything all evils will just walk away. Frankly, everyone here with that sort of opinion is basically doing nothing but laying back praying for times when miracles would happen and all will get better. As if the Hamid Mirs and the Luqmans and the Talats are not enough for all the time they put to focus on lavish acts of our govt and their corruption, you want just a social writer here also to write about exactly the same thing most of our precious air time and print media is dedicated to. What the author here is trying to argue is the importance of the small acts each of us, the inviduals in the society, can perform and take a step forward towards the prgressive change of social philosophy, priorities and social values. The topic here is a social norm. And you fix a social norm by urging the society not the governments.Recommend

  • Sana

    The deeper issues that you are referring to here are more than obvious. Are you not aware of why lavish weddings and the trends of dowry and give-aways exist in the first place. Two, the classic situation is the other way around. Most of us just point out the problems don’t we? There could be thousands of articles written on why and how the disgraceful practices of extravagent weddings and dowry got it roots in our social culture. Very few speak about pragmatic steps to eliminate it. This guy is doing exactly this in this article. He is just trying to pursuade men, his own gender, to step up against the evil of dowry because they are the one who can and who should. I think he has done a fabulous job proposing a difficult but possible small act that can ripple through our society attracting people to follow.
    Perhaps some of us at least would try to stand up and do what he proposed. But if you don’t agree, you should write an article addressing the root causes, propose nothing and then see on how many lives your effort had an effect on.Recommend

  • Minahil

    I agree with you. But whenever i have a debate on this topic at my home. I always get to hear….
    “Kehnay ki baatein hain sub, har koi deta hai, hamaray hazoor ne bhi tou apni beti ko dia tha. sunnat hai”
    One month ago i attended a wedding of an uneducated family, he was actually our butcher’s daughter’s wedding and he invited us wholeheartedly, and because we have been his customer for many years we couldnt refuse. I took few snaps at that wedding :D I couldnt stop laughing. Its a must for all of you to see,Recommend

  • Hala Syed

    it looks like the set for a game show
    marry our daughter and this is what you win!Recommend

  • bp

    We have no v. You should spell the word walima, not valima.Recommend