Lavish Afghan weddings return to Kabul under Taliban, but only women get to party


The Taliban has banned musical entertainment and singing for men in segregated wedding halls

Sabrina, 19, dances in front of clapping family members at her Dec. 15 wedding celebration. (Elise Blanchard for The Washington Post)


KABUL — The spacious ballroom glittered with lights. Young women in chiffon and satin gowns sashayed among the tables or twirled slowly on the dance floor to tapes of rhythmic music. Amid “oohs” and “aahs,” the bride and groom were lowered from the ceiling in a golden cable car and escorted to a lotus-shaped throne. Tiny drones whirred in the air, recording every moment.

Outside the high-tech fairy-tale setting, the Afghan capital remained firmly in the grip of a strict religious regime that has barred teenage girls from school, prohibited women from traveling without a male guardian, required them to wear shapeless Islamic robes in public and most recently banned them from all universities.

But on this chilly December evening, in the ladies’ hall of the newly opened White Palace wedding hotel, several hundred Cinderellas were free to pirouette, compare hairdos and briefly leave behind the restrictions of Taliban rule that had disrupted their plans for college or careers, and left them brooding at home.

“Outside everything is terrible for us. We cannot imagine the future,” said Halima, 20, who finished high school early last year but has been idle since. Clad in a bouffant pink gown, she greeted other guests and giggled with friends. “Here it’s like a sanctuary where we feel safe,” she said. “We can forget our worries and enjoy ourselves for one night.”

But in a separate, smaller room, where the male wedding guests had been relegated, the mood was one of sullen gloom. A few older men chatted quietly, but most younger ones stared at their smartphones, killing time until they could eat, rejoin their female relatives and head home.

It was not mixed company they missed, because wedding parties have long been segregated by gender in this traditional Muslim society. It was live music, which had become the essential, earsplitting ingredient of Afghan weddings — especially on the male side of partitioned salons — during two decades of democratic rule and exposure to Western culture.

When the Taliban movement returned to power 16 months ago, it set out to re-Islamize society by encouraging piety and condemning vulgar behavior. Over time, rules have hardened. While the regime’s most controversial measures have been directed against women, others have been implemented more severely against men. The crackdown on wedding music is a prime example.

“In Islam, it is very clear. All music and instruments are forbidden except the daira,” a traditional leather tambourine, said Atiq Mojahir, spokesman for the Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, speaking in an interview this month. “We do not want people to be disturbed by wedding music, but in the case of women, we are being a bit flexible.” As long as they keep the music soft, he added, “that is okay.”

As for male guests, Mohajir said, “they can do other things — read poetry, preach, have comedies. They can enjoy the occasion any way they want, except with music.” In recent years, he said, male wedding parties had gone too far, with wild dancing and drug use. “Some families were bothered,” he said.

Beneath Kabul’s surprising veneer of normalcy, a precarious balancing act

That argument has done little to appease either customers or proprietors in the capital’s wedding business, a once-thriving industry of some 150 halls that supports scores of beauty parlors, flower importers, caterers, dressmakers, video and camera crews, car rental agencies, waiters, disc jockeys and singers. Afghan weddings, a staple of social life, often have 1,000 guests or more.

But in recent months, with the economy in dire straits after months of international sanctions and skyrocketing inflation, weddings have shrunk in size and profit — as well as excitement. Families haggle over the price of dinner menus; beauticians offer 70 percent discounts. Grooms buy plastic flowers instead of fresh ones to decorate the white cars that convey each new couple to the wedding hall, a ceremonial duty once performed by white carriage horses.

“I used to get roses from Pakistan for $3 a bunch and sell them for $4. Now I am making only 25 cents, and a lot of them just wilt,” said Sharif Wali, a florist in the middle-class Khair Khana district.

Nearby, a row of beauty parlors close to several wedding halls has been struggling to survive. Storefront images of coiffured brides had been erased, and most salons were dark or empty. In one, two hairdressers waited in vain for customers.

Taliban bans women from all Afghan universities

“I am working here because I have nothing else to do,” said Malika, 21, who was a senior in high school when the Taliban returned. “I wanted to go to college and study political science, but my dream is gone. My only choice now is to stay sitting at home, or get married.”

Even more than cost, a sense of fear and uncertainty is dampening wedding spirits and attendance. With the regime’s total ban on live music, many popular wedding singers have left the country. In the men’s sections, groups of Taliban fighters sometimes appear without notice, scanning the room while conversations die and a resentful chill lingers. Several former guests said they had seen hotel employees and even bridegrooms hustled off to a police station when inspectors heard the forbidden sound of music.

In female sections, the festivities are more lively and the guests relaxed. Mothers bring their children, costumed for the occasion.

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The only males allowed are a few close relatives of the bride and groom, plus photographers and DJs who spin recordings of carefully chosen music, such as lilting ballads from Iran and traditional Afghan melodies that are peppy enough to dance to but not loud enough to carry.

Still, there is a nervous cat-and-mouse vibe in the female sections, too. Hotel managers keep a close eye on things, and guards at the front gates stand ready to alert them of unexpected visitors.

“It’s a bit tricky,” the manager of a low-cost hall said one recent evening, as arriving guests dutifully filed into two separate entrances. “We are happy that the new government has brought peace and security, but their ban on all music makes things difficult. People know it is forbidden by law, but it is an old tradition and it is still in their hearts.”

Two floors above, the ladies’ hall filled rapidly. Women mingled and whispered, waiting for the bride and groom to appear. Word spread that a group of Taliban fighters had entered downstairs, but a while later, the all-clear signal came. The DJ put on a popular Afghan song, with a soft but thumping beat. Outside the door, the sound was muffled; two flights down, it was inaudible. The evening was safe.

Despite financial hardships, weddings have resumed at a steady pace after many halls shut down during the early months of Taliban rule. In modest neighborhoods, halls with worn carpets and soda stands are booked on many evenings. Along a wide boulevard leading to the international airport, an array of luxurious halls, some refurbished and others brand-new, light up the night sky.

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The White Palace, which cost $7 million to build and opened last month, features gold-painted pillars, a soaring central dome and grand ballroom staircases. Its energetic co-owner, Fazel Sultani, is both a strong supporter of business development under the new government and a frustrated critic of its crackdown on wedding music for men.

“A party without music is like a dead flower. We want our guests to be happy, but what can we do?” Sultani said, shaking his head.

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