By Rock Ronald Rozario
A Bangladeshi Christian couple recently tied the knot at a Catholic church in Gazipur district of central Bangladesh in the presence of 10 relatives.
The wedding Mass was followed by a simple reception including lunch attended only by a handful of relatives from both sides. The whole program came to an end before sunset.
This was a Covid-19-protocoled marriage ceremony allowed under government-mandated health guidelines. There are many such weddings in the pipeline. In normal circumstances, it would have been unthinkable.
In South Asian nations including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, weddings are often week-long extravagant events full of unnecessary grandeur. They have little in common with culture and traditions.
It is in striking contrast to the staggering socioeconomic situation in South Asia, home to one third of the world’s poor who survive on less than US$2 per day.
India’s super-rich businessmen and industrialists have taken lavish weddings to such a new height in recent times that “big, fat Indian wedding” has become a catchphrase.
India’s richest industrialist, Mukesh Ambani, broke all records when he spent US$100 million on the wedding of his daughter, Isha Ambani, in 2018.
A similar inclination for fancy weddings is also seen in Pakistan, where it can cost up to 7 million rupees ($42,000) for various events related to weddings for the sake of keeping riwaj (tradition), researcher Aminah Mohsin wrote in 2018.
In recent decades, expensive weddings in Bangladesh have also become a common trend. It is not that people are more conscious about rituals related to social customs, culture and traditions today but mostly they are going with the flow of rising competition in showy wedding ceremonies.
In Bangladesh, a wedding includes three to five programs including home visits, engagement, wedding reception and post-wedding reception ceremonies. Even at the lowest scale, families of the groom and the bride need to spend on average 300,000 to 500,000 taka ($3,500 to $5,900) each to cover the costs. If the families are rich, the budget could be higher by three to five times.
In 2017, a Bangladeshi businessman-turned-politician made headlines when he invited 4,000 people to his only son’s bash. He wanted to make the wedding an unforgettable event for people in the area.
Christians are a minuscule minority in Asia except for predominantly Catholic Philippines and Timor-Leste. Yet they are not immune from lavish weddings that cost as much as they can afford.
For example, an average wedding in the Philippines can cost between 113,120 and 443,150 pesos ($2,250 to $8,840), according to iMoney Philippines. The expenses include 3,150 pesos for a marriage license from the church and other necessary documents and 7,000 to 25,000 pesos for a wedding ceremony in the church, it estimates.
This is so un-Christian and ridiculous in a Christian country where about 17 percent of the population live below the poverty line and cannot afford to have a proper wedding in a church.
The Church and authorities need to rethink seriously and revise such anti-poor and unacceptable wedding norms.
A wedding is supposed to be a celebration of life, love and possibilities, but many times it is just an excuse for image building in an increasingly capitalist and competitive social system in Asia.
The question remains about how much emotional investment is made to ensure a happy and successful married life for the couple. A rising number of conjugal disputes, divorces and family breakdowns in Asian countries illustrates that posh and pompous weddings are just a waste of time, energy and money.
Hefty amounts of money are spent on expensive, one-time-use wedding dresses, gold jewelry, heavy make-up, a rich array of dishes, pricey liquor, musical and dance shows and photo and video coverage. Hundreds of event management companies are engaged in a million-dollar industry to cater to fairytale weddings.
In 2019, a media report claimed that Bangladeshi immigrants in England spend on average $37,352 for weddings, but they have one of the highest divorce rates.
Too often traditional rituals and cultural elements are put forth to justify expensive weddings, but in most cases these are simply exhibitionist, self-imposed, self-gratifying and useless.
It is common in middle and lower-middle class families in South Asia to save money for years or take out loans from banks and cooperatives to pay for the weddings of sons and daughters.
There are ample examples of how financial burdens from weddings caused years of anxiety, suffering for families and ruined their lives.
The Catholic Church, with respect to local culture and tradition in line with teachings of the Second Vatican Council, does not meddle much in family expenses when it comes to weddings.
About a decade ago, several Catholic dioceses in Bangladesh issued guidelines for parishioners to be followed during wedding programs with a provision for fines for violations. The decree aimed mostly to curb disputes and quarrels originating from too much fanfare and alcohol during the wedding. Little has been achieved compared to what was expected, so alcoholism and quarrels are still rife during Christian weddings, especially in rural areas.
Recently, an elderly Catholic expressed shock over the huge amount of liquor served during a wedding ceremony: “This money could provide food for a poor family for one year.”
It might be too much to expect the Church to have a strong influence on marriage norms in wider societies in Asia as it is a minority entity. Yet it can adopt common policies to discourage Catholics from fancy weddings.
Our church leaders need to brainstorm how to sensitize people on the matter with a comprehensive plan to change their mindset. Catholic parishes and church organizations need to be involved to spread the message, and it can be included in marriage preparation classes as well. If Catholics want to build an image with their wedding, they should do it by saving money and donating to the poor.
It will not be easy to change what has been customary for decades, but the Church must give it a try. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced people to do the unthinkable and accept what was once considered unacceptable. It might be a catalyst for the Church to introduce simple weddings.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.