Maliha Mohsin illustrates how many young couples today carry the burden of debt for years to have a grand wedding ceremony according to society’s expectations
Photos by SOURAV LASKAR
Illustration: MEHEDI HAQUE
Model: JAAMI FAROOQ AND MEHNAZ MOHSIN
A nthropology says that our culture is a collectivist one: values of family, traditions and honour take centre stage. Unions like marriages are not born of personal decisions of an individual as much as they are born of social ones of the families.
There are politics of it where the eligibilities and qualifications of a bride/groom-to-be are largely decided by socio-economic classes of the families, prejudices and social expectations.
In a cultural setting like ours, a marriage is a social symbol and obligation more than a union of love.
It would be a gross error of judgment to say that this is the case only in Bangladesh. But in a nation where 16 year olds are now legally permitted to marry under special circumstances, one needs to recognise what a powerful social institution marriage is in Bangladesh.
And when someone has to succumb to so much social pressure, the lengths they can go to for a ‘perfect marriage’ is most often risky and so, so very expensive.
The grander the perfect-er
Sheikh Jamal is a vendor of flowers and wedding decorations, and his is one of the many businesses queued up famously at Shahbagh. He claims to cater to as many as eight clients a week on an average, and his biggest work orders can go as high as Tk 500,000 to cover entire walkways, artificial ceilings, vehicles and stages.
Of course, these orders are rare. As Jamal says, ‘These are orders for those who can afford these luxuries.’
Jamal says that the average work order for a wedding decoration comes to Tk 30,000-40,000. And for the average wedding stage decoration, at least 600 flowers are required.
However, Ata Mohammad Adnan, one of the co-founders of the popular wedding photography service provider, Reminiscence Photography, thinks that the decorations ‘have almost no value’.
Adnan, an award winning street photographer, founded Reminiscence Photography to document weddings as stories instead of posed portraits. His team’s documentary-style photography aims to capture the intimate essence of the unions. Their most basic package, ‘Standard’, costs up to 95,000 takas for three days and 35,000 takas for a single day, and Adnan believes that the cost is worth the photographs.
‘In my opinion, I think it’s worth it since the photos are the only thing that stays with you year after year. I feel clients pay way more for things that have almost no value the next day after wedding, such as flowers,’ he says.
One would think that a wedding photographer would care about the setting and decorations for their photography, but Ata interestingly represents a different opinion. In an effort to shed the mask of ‘glamour, glitz’ from the way weddings are visualized, he’s made an effort with his business to show weddings from a more emotional perspective.
‘Yes, they (weddings) have become unnecessarily expensive. It’s part of a bigger picture of how the society runs (currently). People are seeing/experiencing bigger weddings, new things, and end up wanting to put up a bigger show at their own wedding. It has become a race. I’d say we are lucky in a way to have been part of a few weddings which were actually emotionally enriched- something that you hardly see in weddings these days,’ he says.
It is still ironic though, that in an effort to reinforce the essence of a union over all the indulgence and decadence, their services cost between 95,000 to 195,000 takas.
When asked about the pricing of the services and the affordability of something he believes is essential to the memory of a wedding, he says, ‘…if you are really spending so much money on your wedding, why do we need to compromise on our fees? If a client explains that he or she is having a down to earth or budget wedding and they want us to be part of it, we are open to dialogue.’
And that is mostly the catch: ‘if you are really spending so much money on your wedding.’
The decoration and the photography constitute only a fraction of the expenses of a marriage – luxuries that sell very well. The bare necessities come down to the traditions and customs – the jewellery, the wedding attire for a day, the gifts for the families, the events that precede and follow the actual wedding. It’s an endless tirade of obligations that measure in kilogrammes of food and bags full of clothes and gifts – a scene we have seen too often.
And one leads to another: if you are to present gifts to the sisters, why not the cousins? If you are to send compliments for Ramadan, why not Eid, and then why not the next Eid? Expectations pile up and before you know it, you are left with this one question in your head: ‘if you’re really spending so much on your wedding, why compromise on this one thing too?’
But who pays for it all?
But if your family is not very privileged and if you are a young individual barely beginning to scratch a living out for yourself at a time when you are also expected to start a family of your own and mark it with a grand social event, you have very few options. And such is the most prevalent case in a lower middle-income country like Bangladesh.
Banks recognise the lengths one can go to put together a wedding in spite of the expenses. They understand how strong the institution of marriage is in people’s minds and that in it lies a cashable prospect. And so, marriage loans are now a popular service provided by many banks, aimed at clients in their 20s and with interest rates as high as 16% (IFIC Bank).
Marriage loans from Prime Bank Limited can be anywhere between 50,000 to 300,000 takas, depending on the application. An application requires verifications of the union itself apart from the normal assessments for loans.
Shahin Akter, a junior officer at the bank, works on consumer finance loans and claims that most of the applicants for marriage loans tend to be ‘self-dependent individuals from the urban middle class background without much financial support from their families, holding occupations as service-holders.’
As someone who spends a lot of time understanding clients’ needs and scopes for loans, Md Ariful Islam, a senior officer at Bank Asia, says, his experience gives him reason to believe that most clients prefer to take personal loans instead of marriage loans for their weddings. His own marriage loan was taken as a personal loan. The process for verification that goes into accepting an application for a marriage loan is often avoided for the sake of privacy, as it includes confirmation of the union and details of the families, which can cause discomfort in a cultural setting as conservative as ours. This makes it difficult to know exactly how many people are seeking loans for their marriages, overtly or covertly.
Golam Sarwar Shamim, a 28-year-old merchandiser for an RMG business, had no other option since he could not fall back on his family for the expenses. Procuring a loan proved to be difficult for him and his application was initially rejected. But his need was such that he eventually managed to procure one via a friend’s account. Having married less than only six months ago, he has paid back only three of 15 installments of his loan, and to pay them all back, it will take him years.
Were the expenses worth it?
‘There were times when it felt like I was spending on things I didn’t really need, but I had to live up to certain social expectations. My marriage was a small programme; we put together an event that I believe was adequate for us. But I needed the money to meet the expenses. And I’m happy with how things have turned out,’ Shamim says.
Does Ariful Islam, who has taken a marriage loan for himself and also helps his clients get them, think they are worth it?
‘Honestly speaking, I didn’t have any other option than to pay for these expenses. And a lot of these applicants and clients don’t either. We can’t tell exactly how much of these loans are going into tangible expenses for the weddings. But who would take a risk like this if they didn’t need it? A car loan gives you a car, a house loan gives a house and these are tangible assets you can mortgage when and if the need comes. But a marriage loan is a risk that gives you nothing tangible,’ he says.