Pakistan Diaries: Weddings

We reluctantly left Peshawar with a long list of things to do when we returned some time in the future and headed for Karachi.  Karachi is our final city and the location of my cousin Shan’s wedding.  Weddings in Pakistan are an extremely complicated and drawn out affair.

Shan is the biggest Pakistani you’ve ever met.  Tall and strong, he’s not the little kid I meanly tortured when he and his father Sabir lived with my family in St. Louis when I was 12.  Thankfully, for my own safety, Shan doesn’t remember much of what I put him through and bore me no ill will.

Shan’s marriage to Naheen is an arranged marriage.  When I was a kid my parents discussed arranged marriages for my sisters.  Needless to say I was appalled.  So when I started meeting people in Pakistan who had arranged marriages, and in fact, happy arranged marriages, I began to realize I may have missed something.

Over and over again I met people whose marriages had been arranged by their parents and who, as adults, seemed non-resentful.  I concluded that such a system works on a population of people who haven’t any role models for Western-style marriage.  In other words, if all you’re exposed to are people who have marriages arranged, then it doesn’t seem so horrifying when you’re parents set it up for you.

Even still, the many happy couples I met didn’t seem to contain the remorse I assumed would go with an arranged marriage.  Where were the beautiful women married to troll-like men purely for their money?  Where was the plethora of marital infidelity that goes with having a sham marriage? 

I’m sure all of these things exist, but I didn’t see them in the quantities that I would have expected.  The result seems to be that in a culture where arranging is the norm, and where the bride and groom have a right of refusal, it works.  If it suddenly becomes fashionable to elope, or if there’s some sort of generational war, I’d suspect arranged marriages to come to a quick end.  But for the most part, they appear to be a fact of life in modern day Pakistan.

One thing that Sarah and I asked of young people was, "Who makes the decision, your mother or your father?"  The answer of course is both.  It’s your father who screens your future spouse for their financial impact on you as well as on the rest of the family.  However its your mother who generally was the last word on the character of said spouse.  And of course, most bride or grooms have a right of refusal.

Shan’s bride was screened by his parents, then he met her and they were quickly married.  Shan was headed for grad school in Arkansas to get his MBA.  Because he and his wife were now married, he was allowed to call and e-mail her.  In Pakistan (at least in my family) dating is frowned upon, so this behavior was not allowed before marriage.  Though some kids do it anyway, it requires specifically high quantities of sneakiness to pull off, and is usually secretive.

As Shan went back to Arkansas to finish his MBA in record time, he and Naheen spoke via phone and e-mail and, as Shan described it to my father, became "crazy for each other".  Finally in the last week of 2004, it was time to go through the marriage ceremonies.  "Marriage" in Pakistani culture is at least a week-long shindig involving no less than 300 guests.  I’m going to describe only the three big events we were invited to.

The Mehndi

The Mehndi (also described here) was thrown by the bride’s family at the Officer’s Club on the military base where they live.  Our family brought over the dowry, which included the bride’s wedding dress that she didn’t see until the wedding day.  As we entered we were given sweets, rose petals were thrown at us.  Not on us, or above us, but directly at our faces.

As the women and girls of the family file in, they sit in front of the dais and chant and sing insults to each other’s families.  It’s all in good fun, of course, but in a very Oscar Wilde way, the point is to be clever, not cruel.

Then the bride and groom sit up on the dais.  Depending on how conservative the families are, they may be up there together, or they may be up there in shifts, never seeing each other.  For our family, they were up in shifts.

The customs differ from family to family based upon how conservative they are, but generally there’s some music, some dancing, and then everyone brings up some money and blesses the bride or groom by putting henna in their hands, a sweet in their mouth, and giving some money charity in their name.

Then, if the family is having the event somewhere private or is not fearful of a raid by the police, they serve a meal.  Depending on how conservative a family is, the men and women have identical but separate buffets.

My family had separate buffets.

And that’s it.  You can expect a million photo stagings, but no dancing and no alcohol.

The Wedding

A Pakistani wedding is a mystery to me.  Honest to god, this is what happened at Shan’s.  Since Shan and Naheen were already married, Shan arrived with us and we all took our seats about 7 or 7:30pm.  People then began taking pictures of Shan with every possible configuration of family members you can imagine.  Then Naheen and her family showed up about 11pm and this process continued.  We drank some sodas and the hall staff began shutting off the lights at 1 or 2am.  Right before the bride and groom made their very public exit together, the bride’s sisters stole Shan’s shoe and made him pay 10,000 rupees to get it back.

No music, no dancing, no alcohol.

The Velima

The Velima is a party after the wedding thrown by the groom.  Shan and his father closed the street outside the family house and hired caterers who setup tents to create a shelter for us.  Caterers assembled seperate buffet lines for men and women and began cooking that afternoon.  One employee was in charge of the bread and brought a portable Tandoori oven which he used to bake the bread for dinner.

This time it was our family’s turn to welcome the bride and her family.  Sweets were stuffed in guests’ mouths, roses were thrown at their faces, and younger people were insulted by giving them rose necklaces worn only by old people.

Next, millions of photos were taken with every possible configuration of family members while everyone started to gather.  Dinner was served, but Shan and Naheen had to sit for photos.  Some kind soul finally brought them a couple of plates.

Near the end of the evening a man and a young boy showed up and started singing.  I was told this was typical; guys, or sometimes bands of drag queens show up at big parties celebrating weddings and births and sing until you pay them to leave.  My uncle Sabir, being a generous sort, finally gave them 200 rupees (about $3.50) to leave.

There was one other event I missed, where Shan went over to the bride’s house and they pelted him with eggs.  I didn’t get an account of that day and I wasn’t there, but I don’t doubt Naheen’s sisters took every opportunity to torture Shan.

Continue reading: The trip home


  1. Shahmeer Rafiq on December 23, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    Hey, i was reading through your blogs and they are pretty interesting, atleast they help me get through the day at my office as I am ususally bored. This blog about Pakistani marriages brings back memories for me when I was in Pakistan and attended marraiges. The culture in Pakistan is very different than the western world.