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    South Asia
     Sep 10, 2010
Taliban winning hearts - and more
By Habiburrahman Ibrahimi

Abdullah, 27, sings under his breath as he waters his pomegranate farm, his face shining with sweat and happiness.

Explaining the reason for his good mood, Abdullah says that after years of struggling financially, he is looking forward to getting married at last.

Three years ago, he leased out his land to get the US$5,000 he needed to pay for the engagement ceremony. That left him with no money for the actual marriage. He went to Iran to look for work, but was arrested as an illegal immigrant and imprisoned for four months before being deported.

Now his money worries have been resolved thanks to a local

 

decree from the Taliban restricting the cost of weddings.

"With God's grace, the Taliban have imposed a new rule that the bride-price rate should not exceed $3,800," he said. "I have already gathered that much money and if God wills it, I will sell my pomegranates and get married.

"Now my father-in-law can't charge me too much because this Taliban order isn't like one from the [Hamid] Karzai government - it's a strict order which no one can disobey.”

Grooms in Afghanistan are customarily required to pay money to the bride's family, the amount typically varying from $2,000 to $20,000. The husband's family also has to pay for the engagement and marriage ceremonies, often costing $4,000 or $5,000 each.

Such sums are difficult to find in this cash-strapped society, and many young men go abroad to work, risking imprisonment, deportation and even death.

The Taliban edict, issued some two months ago in the Tagab district of Kapisa province, north of Kabul, reflects the growing presence of the insurgent movement in areas that until recently were deemed relatively secure.

As in other areas, the Taliban are seeking to boost their credibility by offering their own form of Islamic justice and governance as an alternative to the Western-backed government.

The marriage payment edict has gone down well in an impoverished area where most people survive by growing pomegranates.

Walking on crutches, Gul Ahmad, 25, recounts how he tried to cross illegally to the Gulf in search of work. "When I got engaged, the girl's father demanded a bride price of $7,000 and I decided to go to Dubai [in the United Arab Emirates], like many other young men. We faced lots of problems - hunger, thirst and illness. One of my colleagues died in the desert, and I broke my leg."

Sighing deeply, he said, "Now, thanks to the Taliban, they have decided that no one can demand more money. This is a very big help that the Taliban have given young people."

As well as setting the highest allowable bride-price at $3,800, with offenders facing a $2,000 fine - the Taliban have banned other costly practices surrounding marriage, including one known locally as takbir, where up to 50 people visit the bride's family to receive food and presents, and the gahwara or "cradle" custom by which the bride's family offer expensive gifts when she has her first child.

"In the Sifder area, a family decided to take gifts to the girl's family on Shab-e Barat [Muslim holiday, this year July 26]," said Tagab resident Mohammad Idris. "They took a big healthy sheep with them, but on the way the Taliban stopped them, destroyed the gifts, fined the family $50 and told them to go and eat the sheep in their own home."

Idris added, "A family living near the center of Tagab district practiced the old custom of takbir. The Taliban sent them a warning and the family paid $100 and apologized for violating the new rule."

Local government chief for the Tagab district Abdul Hakim Akhundzada said that even if the Taliban ruling was not strictly in line with sharia or Islamic law, there were benefits in curbing excessive customs.

"I too believe that eliminating certain unnecessary customs that create problems for people is a good thing," he said.

Mohammad Akbar, a religious scholar, said that Islamic law did not prescribe maximum limits for the bride price.

"The lower limit for the payment in Islam is 10 dirham or $150," he said. "But the top limit is not defined. It isn't a sin if both families agree on a higher payment, but the money should be given to the girl, not to her family. If the family gets the money, that's against sharia."

A Taliban representative in Tagab, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision was made after consultations with religious leaders.

"We saw that many young people were unable to get married because of the high bride price, and were therefore getting involved in criminal activities like gambling, adultery, robbery murder and so on," he said. "So we placed a limit on the bride price to ease the burden on people."

Habibullah Rafai, a political and social affairs analyst, argued that whatever the social impact of the Taliban ruling, it was essentially a tactic to build local support.

"This move by the Taliban also has a political aspect to it," he said. "They want to gain the support of unmarried young men and thus win over the hearts of the people," he said.

Rafai said the Taliban ruling could have been pre-empted if the Afghan government had taken the initiative and clamped down on superfluous traditions.

For some Afghan men, the high cost of weddings means they can never marry.

Abdul Ahmad, now 70, is among them - after his father's death, it was left to him to raise his brothers and sisters. By the time they were grown up, he says, it was too late for him to marry.

"I still harbor huge regrets in my heart about marriage," he said. "I wish everyone was able to get married."

Abdul Ahmad has lived in his brother's home ever since, but it is not his own. "If I'd married and had my own home, my own son and daughter, I wouldn't be at such a disadvantage now," he said. "It's over for me, but let other young people's wishes come true. I wish there had been Taliban like this in our day."

Habiburrahman Ibrahimi is an IWPR-trained journalist.

(This article originally appeared in Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Used with permission.)


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