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Published in the 1-15 December 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

ISSUES

Pakistan shows the way!

By Salil Kader 

Our neighbour Pakistan usually figures in our print and electronic media for all the wrong reasons. Reports on issues like Pakistan’s support to terrorism in Kashmir, sectarian violence in Karachi, honour killings in Sindh and Baluchistan or the much reviled madrasas which train the future ‘terrorists’, keep appearing in the media in India. However, The Hindu newspaper dated 7th November carried an interesting news report, quite different from the kind of news we are used to hearing from across the border. B. Muralidhar Reddy covering news on Pakistan for the Hindu reported that the Pakistan Supreme Court had banned serving of meals at hotels, clubs and marriage halls for marriage ceremonies. The Court, in its order, specified that ‘no meals or edibles other than hot and cold drinks could be served to guests.’ 

Interestingly, it was the Union Government of Pakistan under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that first came out with the Marriage (Prohibition of Ostentatious Displays and Wasteful Expenses) Ordinance, 2000 prohibiting meals at the valima (a reception organised by the bridegroom's family a couple of days after the nikah or wedding). The basic objective of the Union Government's ordinance was ‘to curb ostentatious expenditure and give relief to poor people.’
The Supreme Court ruling, while upholding the Ordinance passed by the Union Government, also effectively struck down the Punjab Assembly’s Punjab Marriage Functions (Prohibition of Ostentatious Displays and Wasteful Expenses) Act 2003, which allowed one dish food to a maximum of 300 persons on the eve of marriage and valima. 

The Union Government’s ordinance clearly delineates the dos and don’ts of a wedding ceremony. Section 4 of the ordinance states that no person celebrating his, or the marriage of any other person, shall serve or allow any one to serve meals or other edibles to persons participating in the marriage in a club, hotel, restaurant, wedding hall, community centre or any other place except hot and cold soft drinks. However, the ordinance allowed eating of meals within the house by members of the family celebrating the marriage or the houseguests. 

Section 5 of the same ordinance was directed towards those running hotels and restaurants. "No person owning or running a hotel, restaurant, wedding hall, community centre or club being the site of marriage ceremony or any caterer shall serve or allow anyone to serve any meal or edibles to the persons participating in the marriage ceremony other than hot and cold soft drinks."

The Pakistani society, which is seen by many as feudal and patriarchal in nature, isn’t very different from our own society when it comes to customs and mores associated with marriage. Dowry and ostentations, which have become synonymous with weddings of all communities across India, also typify marriages in Pakistan. 

However, the Ordinance of 2000 and the recent judgement of the apex court contradict the general perception that one has about the governing establishment in Pakistan. After all, they too are products of the same society, which accepts and encourages extravagance and vulgar displays of wealth under the pretext of celebrating wedding ceremonies. Laudably, both the judiciary and the executive have come together and disapproved of the reckless spending and excesses that were ‘against all norms and values known to a civil society.’

The decision of the apex court of Pakistan has important lessons for India too. Let us take a look at the most common case scenario in a middle class family in India. Most matrimonial alliances are finalised only after the terms for lena-dena (a figure of speech for dowry) have been settled. The bride’s family ends up taking loans against steep interest rates to ensure that the demands of the groom’s family are met. Add to this the pressure of accommodating a huge guest list and an elaborate, rich menu. The wedding passes off well but the father of the bride spends the remaining part of his life repaying the loans. Imagine a situation where parents with meagre income(s) have to marry off more than one daughter.

The insidious practice of demanding dowry from the bride’s family has left many families on the brink of suicide. And the pressure from society and relatives to organise weddings with fanfare and ostentations forces families to spend a great deal on flower decoration, lighting, clothes, bridal jewellery and most importantly on the wedding feast. One often comes across cases where the groom’s party has left in a huff because they were not served the type of fare they expected! One wonders if invitees to a wedding are there to bless the couple or test the quality of food. Ironically, most people remember weddings not because it was a special day for the bride and the groom but because of the type of fare dished out at the feast! 

It is here that the decision of the Pakistan Supreme Court becomes so important for us. Why can’t the Government of India too bring about a similar legislation that puts restrictions on the ostentations involved in weddings? Such legislation would automatically take the pressure off both parties involved, as they wouldn’t be obliged to spend money wastefully. Moreover such a move would bring a semblance of parity across class lines, as all weddings would be following the same course. Another consequence of such legislation could be that parents would stop looking at the girl child as a burden, which could then result in the decline of the abominable practice of female infanticide.
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