Simple weddings gain ground in Kashmir

Rebelling against extravagant ceremonies, one man set up an organisation that encourages Kashmiris to to opt for affordable weddings.

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SRINAGAR, INDIA // When the insurgency was at its height in Indian-administered Kashmir, most weddings were downsized at the expense of the region's traditionally large and lavish ceremonies, which typically involve folk singing, dancing and rich Kashmiri cuisine.

Gunbattles, bombings, protests and the frequently imposed curfews and other security restrictions forced hosts to reduce the number of guests and wrap things up at an early hour, in contrast to traditional ceremonies that could go on for days. The occasions were sometimes disrupted by the death of a relative or friend in fighting; there were even a number of instances when a groom or bride fell prey to violence hours before they were to be married.

But with the security situation improving in recent years, old ways have returned to Kashmiri weddings. Guest lists are growing once more and ceremonies are being restored to their former opulence. At the same time, however, that development has meant the re-emergence of a familiar problem for many Kashmiris: how to afford it all. Parents and guardians of thousands of girls of marriageable age have difficulty finding suitable grooms for their daughters because they cannot afford the huge costs involved in getting them married.

This prompted one Kashmiri to launch a crusade against extravagant weddings - and his approach has gained quite a following. In the summer of 2005, as the security situation started to show signs of improvement and expensive weddings became common once more, Fayaz Ahmed Zaroo set up Humsafar (Companion), a Muslim matrimonial organisation that encourages Kashmiris to swim against the tide and opt for simple weddings that strictly follow Sharia.

As things continued to return to normal over the following years, more and more Kashmiris who found themselves struggling to afford wedding costs turned to Humsafar. Hundreds of couples have opted for the simpler wedding ceremony promoted by Mr Zaroo's organisation, which also provides a matchmaking service and whose activities are supervised by the Islamic Dawah Centre, a donation-funded institute run by a group of local Islamic scholars.

"More than 4,000 eligible grooms and brides stand registered with Humsafar today as our plea to solemnise the marriages with austerity and in accordance with Islamic Sharia has been widely appreciated, particularly by educated youth," Mr Zaroo said. He added that extravagant ceremonies were primarily designed as money-making enterprises by catering companies, jewellers and others and had undermined the sanctity of marriage.

The mufti Nazir Ahmed Qasmi, an executive member of the all-Indian Muslim personal law board, a body of prominent Muslims that aims to help Indian Muslims live according to Sharia, is one of a number of Islamic authorities to endorse Humsafar. "Islam teaches us to perform nikkah, or marriages in the simplest form, without the [financial] impediments we face in Kashmir resulting from the [local] customs," said the mufti, who is also the vice chancellor and head of the department of Hadith at Darul Uloom Raheemiya, Kashmir's largest Islamic seminary.

The mufti said the high cost of marriage - apart from dragging families into debt - often delayed couples from tying the knot and led to a host of problems such as stress, depression, drug addiction, premarital sex, adultery and even rape. Humsafar also runs counselling sessions for its registered members on how to prepare for marriage and how to live a happily married life, as well as sessions for married couples on how to improve their marriage and overcome any problems.

Mukhtar Ahmed Zargar, 34, who runs a cosmetics store in Srinagar's Chattabal area, is a beneficiary of Humsafar's work. When he heard about the organisation and its programme he visited its office to register - membership is available at a nominal fee of 400 Indian rupees (Dh32). But in conservative Kashmir, matchmaking services, such as those provided by Humsafar, are often stigmatised, and Mr Zargar's parents were not happy.

"When I returned home in the evening I told my parents about it. It enraged my father, while my mother started cursing me. Her worry was that it would stain the family's standing in society," he said. After a lot of persuasion, however, Mr Zargar's father agreed to visit Humsafar's office to endorse his son's application (which is mandatory). A few months later Mr Zargar found a suitable bride in Fareeda Khan through the group. The two married in August 2007 and are today convinced they made the right decision.

The total cost of the wedding was less than 100,000 Indian rupees, Mr Zargar said. Mrs Khan said that was far less than what her parents had "regrettably" spent on the marriage of her elder sister. Mr Zargar said a number of his relatives had also benefited from Humsafar's services. "Later, one of my three sisters, Maimuna, found her groom through Humsafar and my other two sisters, Aarifa and Aabida, are getting married in a couple of months, again owing to it."

Humsafar also encourages divorced men and women, widows and widowers to remarry, which is otherwise uncommon in Kashmiri society.