Up Close & Personal: What Happens When Pakistanis Marry

At the end of this week, our oldest child – a son – will marry. As our minds have been filled with wedding details, I felt this piece on weddings and marriage in a very different culture came to mind. We hope you will find it enlightening.

When Pakistanis marry, the promise of fidelity echoes that of the Western marriage. But the process differs a great deal. My friend Jamila shared with me what she expected ahead of the one-month journey she was about to take back to her native Pakistan. She would be participating in her younger sister’s wedding.

As she helped me understand the ceremony in her country, she painted a scene of vivid color, texture and detail. I felt immediately transported.

Three Days Of Celebration

“The marriage ceremony is actually three days long in my country. I know you can’t really imagine it, but it is common for us, whether people are rich or poor.”

The first day begins with a ceremony called the Nikkah. This is the sealing of the marriage through a document that comes from the local mosque. The local Imam will arrive at the bride’s home with the document. The groom with be in one room with several males, while the bride is in another room with the other women.

“The Imam first asks the man three times if he wants to marry the woman. This practice comes from the Koran. The groom will sign the document, along with two witnesses. Then the Imam goes to the bride’s side and does a similar thing. The bride can also get a male witness to sign on her behalf.”

I then learned that the two women’s signatures equal one male’s signature. Immediately, my American cultural values of “equality for all” and “gender equality” bristled. Wasn’t that just unfair?

Women Valued

“Actually, the document lays out certain money matters and a woman’s right to divorce. If the man signs, then he is saying that even if the woman files for divorce, he is responsible for payment [of alimony]. The document includes many clauses for a woman’s security."

As I listened to Jamila, I better understood how the system in her country, on the whole, values the woman and her well-being as they enter into marriage. “Many women simply sign this document without paying much attention to it," she explained. "But I looked over it with other family members to understand the details, what I was getting into.”

This document is not unlike the prenuptial agreement that many use when they marry in the West. But while the western document has a legal basis, in contrast, when Pakistanis marry, the ensuing document has deeply religious roots. "And it champions the rights of both parties to the union," Jamila asserted.

Pragmatic and self-assured, a woman of elegance and intelligence, Jamila recognized beforehand that marriage is both sacred but hard work. I could not imagine this woman letting any man denigrate her; she resonates authority.

Mendi, Shaadi & Waleema

“We call the first day of the marriage ceremony Mendi,” Jamila shares. Mendi is actually the name for the henna decorations that adorn the bride’s hands and arms for this special occasion. Part of the day is dedicated to the actual application of the mendi, and the other part is spent both conducting the Nikkah and enjoying lots of dancing and music, usually segregated male/female. The bride usually wears yellow on that day.

The second day when Pakistanis marry is known as Shaadi. It is the actual marriage ceremony. The bride’s parents pay for this day, and most of the guests are from her side. Everybody dresses up in their best. But the bride is the centerpiece, cascading with gold and diamonds, wrapped in a heavy embroidered dress.

“People want to marry in March and April since June and July are so hot,” she adds. “This is also the day that the bride goes off with the groom. We consider it the official wedding night.”

The third day is called the Waleema. This is the ceremony for the groom. The groom’s family arranges and pays for everything. Whereas the Shaadi can sometimes be tinged with a hint of sadness, as the bride’s family feels she is leaving their fold, the Waleema is a time of welcoming and gladness, as the bride is “brought into” the groom’s family.

Whether Rich Or Poor, Relative Cost Is Similar

Jamila admits that, especially when upper-class Pakistanis marry, the three-day marriage ceremony involves a lot of materialism. In all, the bride's parents probably spend $10,000 or more on her garments alone. Dinners typically have 12+ different dishes. It's not uncommon to spend over $5,000 on each of these dinners. The arrangements for the Shaadi and the Waleema are different, the halls are different, but it is all part of a time-honored progression.

Lower-class and village families still put out much for the three-day ceremony. Their feasts may be simpler, their halls less ornate, but the relative amount of cost for them is often similar, as is the time and ceremony.

Weaving Family Ties

“After this, the official part is all over,” Jamila shares. “But there is also a tradition we have where the bride and groom go to the bride’s house and stay for one or two nights. There is also another tradition where the bride’s family takes a heavy breakfast to the groom’s parents’ house as an expression of appreciation.”

Then comes all the visiting of relatives. Jamila and her husband went to about 13 of these extra dinners before the “unofficial” marriage ceremony was complete. “Receiving the blessings of the extended family this way is an important part of establishing yourself as a couple in our society, as well as connecting yourself to the greater family structure that now binds you with your husband’s family,” she added.

Whereas the emphasis in most Western societies is on the couple establishing themselves apart – and separate – from their respective families, we find that when Pakistanis marry, the opposite is the case.

How do you think what we’ve learned here might inform the marriage process in your own cultural context?

Image Credit: Rakeshkoiri007 on Pixabay


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