Here comes the bride (plus a maximum of two hot dishes, a three-hour party & a four-car convoy)

Emomali Rahmon the eccentric leader of Tajikistan, has introduced laws designed to restrict how much families can spend on weddings and funerals. It has divided a poor population that is used to lavishing life savings on such rituals.
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The Independent Online

The musicians have arrived – drummers, trumpeters and accordionists. The bride's family have spent years scraping together an acceptable dowry. Over five hundred guests sit patiently at long tables, waiting to tuck into a lavish feast, painstakingly prepared over several days. And finally, the bride and groom arrive at the front of a long, snaking motorcade, fresh from saying their vows. They enter triumphantly, and the festivities can begin – the first of many days of parties, rituals and gatherings make up the traditional wedding in Tajikistan.

But this year, brides and grooms in the mountainous former-Soviet country that borders Afghanistan and China will have to bid farewell to such opulence. In 2008, less is more. As the start of the Tajik wedding season looms, loved-up couples find themselves juggling a raft of new government restrictions. No more than 150 revellers at the wedding, no more than four cars in the convoy that collects the bride, no more than two hot dishes served at the reception, and a strict three-hour time-limit on the festivities.

Troubled by the fact that Tajiks spend £750m a year on private ceremonies he deemed "unnecessary and unaffordable", President Emomali Rahmon brought in legislation to curb his country's excesses. Government officials have been empowered to carry out spot checks on nuptials and anyone found to be breaking the new rules could find themselves facing a £1,500 fine.

The legislation, introduced last year, has split Tajik society, with some bemoaning it as an outrageous state intrusion into the private lives of individuals, and others saying that it is exactly what's needed to stop ordinary Tajiks building up giant debts because they are scared of putting on a poor show and getting a bad reputation among their peers.

Poverty is endemic in Tajikistan, where the average wage is around £10 a month. When the Soviet Union broke up, the country was plunged into a brutal civil war, and though a peace accord was reached in 1997, the country is still the poorest of all the former Soviet states. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that more than 600,000 Tajiks – one-fifth of the adult population – leaves the country each year to work in Russia, usually to do low-paid manual labour. The money they send back from Russia is a fortune compared to salaries inside Tajikistan, but there's a problem. The money, earned by working long hours in difficult conditions with few safety or labour rights, doesn't get spent on setting up small businesses, or on furthering educational opportunities for children in the family. It gets spent on weddings.

"Many people I know come here to earn money so that they can afford to marry off their children or siblings," said one Tajik citizen working in Moscow, who didn't want to be named. "I myself gave a month's salary to my cousin last year because his brother was getting married but couldn't afford it."

Weddings are taken very seriously all across Tajikistan, from the dusty capital of Dushanbe to the most remote villages in the Pamir Mountains near the border with China. The wedding season runs from March to October, and the whole process lasts over a month and can cost thousands of pounds. There are the local equivalents of stag and hen nights, a ceremony where well-wishers come and "view" the bride, and then further celebrations to mark 7 and 40 days after the wedding vows.

The centrepiece is the wedding ceremony itself, which can last up to three days and involve extended family, friends, acquaintances and neighbours. In smaller towns and villages, the entire population can turn up.

Ordinary Tajiks are divided over the new wedding laws. "So much is forbidden now," Mavdzhuda Samiyeva told Russian television. "My friend's wedding was a very sorry affair. Before it was much more fun – we had a hen night, we had a ceremony to view the bride.Now the parents don't want to do any of this, because they're worried they could get found out and fined, or fired from their jobs."

But for other citizens, it's a big relief. "I've already had to marry off three daughters and I know how difficult and expensive it can be," another mother, Gulbanshi Rizoyeva, told a Russian broadcaster. "If it wasn't for this new law, my son would have had to wait at least five years before I'd let him get married."

The marriage restrictions are part of a raft of legislation that has come into effect in Tajikistan over the past year. After the president complained about overspending on public celebrations, a limit of 80 people could attend a funeral, which reduced to strictly no more than 60 circumcision parties.

"On the face of it, it's not a bad idea," says Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, a moderate political opposition force. "Such big spending on weddings is pointless. But it's not something you should do with laws. The government should be increasing educational work to improve knowledge among the population."

Mr Kabiri says that evidence shows that the better educated people are, the less money they spend trying to keep up with their peers in the wedding stakes. "A lot of people in the villages think that the seven- and 40-day parties are Islamic traditions, when actually they have nothing to do with Islam."

In fact, these traditions predate Islam and come from the distant past when Zoroastrianism was practised in Tajikistan. The small communities of Zoroastrians that still practise the religion today – mainly in Iran and Mumbai, India, partake in similar rituals.

"We need to explain to people that spending so much money is unnecessary," says Mr Kabiri. "But at funerals, for example, people usually come without an invitation. They just arrive to pay their respects and offer their condolences to the family. What are the family supposed to say to the 81st or 82nd person who turns up?"

Many put the new laws down to the personal whim of Tajikistan's eccentric president, Emomali Rahmon. A short man with a puffy face and a swept-back shock of dyed black hair, he is a Communist turned nationalist, like most of the hardman rulers of the Central Asian republics. He became president in 1994, and has won a number of elections that were condemned by international organisations as unfair. After the September 11 attacks, he was courted by the United States because of the country's proximity to Afghanistan, but his democratic credentials are thin to say the least.

Over the past year, Mr Rahmon has introduced a whole range of laws limiting what Tajiks can and can't do, as part of a drive for Tajiks to rediscover their roots. Although their Soviet past means that almost all Tajiks speak Russian, and even write their own language using the Cyrillic alphabet, they have a distinct, Persian culture and their language is very similar to Farsi. Mr Rahmon, although keen to keep a strategic alliance with Russia, has long advocated that Russian cultural influence should be minimised.

One of the most striking manifestations of this was the ban on Russified surnames ending in –ov or –ev. Since Soviet times, most Tajiks have used Russian versions of their names, but last year Mr Rahmon decided it was time they went back to their Tajik roots, and made it illegal for newborn babies to have surnames with Russian endings. Mr Rahmon led by example – until last March his surname was Rahmonov.

Other legislation has placed restrictions on school and university students – during the past year they have been banned from driving cars to university, using mobile phones and having graduation parties. "Teachers and students sit together and drink alcohol. What kind of behaviour is that?" asked Mr Rahmon last year. Female students in the mostly Muslim country have been banned from dressing both conservatively and in a more racy fashion – the authorities outlawed both headscarves and mini-skirts on university campuses.

Mr Rahmon has also attacked teachers, saying: "Teachers complain about their salaries, but they all have gold teeth." Average salaries for teachers in Tajikistan are around £10 per month. Witchcraft and fortune- telling have also been banned.

Government critics say the authorities should concentrate their energies on more pressing issues. The country's proximity to Afghanistan means there is a huge problem with heroin trafficking and drug addiction, and most of the country only receives electricity at sporadic intervals. The more sceptical say that the government's focus on petty issues is a ploy designed to distract attention from weightier and harder-to-solve dilemmas.

"Of course these things are now law, so we have to follow them," says Mr Kabiri. "But when you start regulating this stuff it's absurd."

World's most extravagant weddings

INDIA

Indian weddings have always been lavish affairs, but buoyed by a roaring economy, the industry has ballooned to an estimated $10bn (£5bn) a year. One of the most extravagant was that of the daughter of Britain's wealthiest man, the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who was said to have spent £30m on nuptials which included a performance by Kylie Minogue. But even the most humble unions boast hundreds of guests, days of festivities and cost thousands for the hosts, traditionally the bride's parents. Although dowries were outlawed in 1961, many flout the law. As such, daughters can be seen as financial burdens, and it is not uncommon for female foetuses to be aborted. Unicef estimates that 7,000 are aborted a day.

AFGHANISTAN

Banned under the Taliban, opulent weddings are booming in one of the world's poorest countries. An important measure of social status, they are held in decadent wedding halls all over Kabul. Moderate guest lists can top 600, while the truly decadent will host more than 2,000. Grooms pick up the bill. Costs regularly outstrip salaries and the average wedding can cost a middle-class Afghan man £10,000.

UAE

Weddings in the oil-rich federation cost an average of £40,000. To avoid the cost, many young Emirati men have chosen to wed foreigners, or to postpone tying the knot. The government has established a marriage fund that throws in as much as £10,000 to help.

GREECE

Traditional Hellenic unions include plate-smashing, dancing and parties which last through the night. The couple wear crowns linked with a ribbon and guests pin money to the bride's dress.

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