Even two days after the wedding, Vakhobiddin Radjabaliyev’s family was still busy clearing away the detritus of the party.
His freshly acquired daughter-in-law, Nilufar, busily swept the courtyard at their house in Qarshi, a town in southern Uzbekistan. When a family elder walked by, she drew the veil over her face and bowed three times.
The courtyard is small and there were tables and chairs randomly heaped in one corner. A pile of drying bouquets laid in their shiny, colorful wrappers at the entrance on the floor. In the summer kitchen, boxes of empty bottles of vodka, wine and champagne awaited removal.
The wedding party, to celebrate the nuptials between Nilufar and Radjabaliyev’s son, cost about $6,000. For a country where monthly salaries average about $200, that is a fortune. All the same, Radjabaliyev, 55, a teacher at a local school, is in high spirits.
“About 500 people were invited for the evening party, and 300 for the morning plov. Part of the celebrations took place at our home. Family and friends said the wedding was fun and that there were a lot of refreshments. I am very glad that the guests were satisfied,” Radjabaliyev told Eurasianet.
Morning plov is a long-standing Uzbek wedding tradition. The traditional venues are wedding halls that can accommodate hundreds, if not thousands, of guests.
The owners of these enterprises can always be assured of work, regardless of the time of year. Slots need to be booked months in advance. Plov is usually served a short time after daybreak. Parents of the newlyweds often send out anywhere between 300 and 500 invitations. Another 400 to 600 guests are summoned to the evening banquet.
Radjabaliyev is especially satisfied that he managed to have the wedding before the end of the year. As of January 1, there will be new government-imposed rules on weddings, and they could spell an end to big blowout bashes.
Under the new rules, wedding motorcades may consist of no more than three cars – not the dozen or so one often sees today. Only up to 250 people will be permitted to attend the banquet, while 300 can go to the morning plov.
Those found in violation will face fines worth hundreds of dollars. Wedding halls too can be penalized.
The lawmakers who backed these amendments to the law said the restrictions are needed to avoid people of modest worth being plunged into debt by peer pressure. The onerous cost of weddings forces countless Uzbek into labor migration, sometimes for years, to earn the money needed to cover one day of feasting.
Objectors note that such measures are both heavy-handed and yet still ineffective in countering a practice that is deeply embedded in the fabric of Uzbek culture. It is a commonly held view that parents should work all their lives to ensure that their children can be married off, and married off with class.
Attempts to regulate this area of private life began in the days of the late President Islam Karimov. In October 1998, he promulgated a decree to ban what authorities termed wasteful wedding celebrations, a phenomenon that Karimov deemed a “remnant of the past.”
This measure had no effect.
So, a second, similarly themed decree was adopted in 2008. That too was ignored.
Ravshan Nazarov, a historian, argued that legislation will always be ineffective in countering the traditions around weddings.
“We need to consider the objective circumstances. There are several categories of people who must be invited to an event. These are relatives, who can number several hundreds of people, and then colleagues, people who invited you to their own wedding, those who have already invited you to the wedding, neighbors, the guests of the bride and groom. That way, more than 400 or 500 people are invited,” Nazarov told Eurasianet.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came to power following Karimov’s death in 2016, has proven as unable as his predecessor to pass over the wedding issue.
The strength of his feelings became known in March 2018, when Uzbek media shared an audio recording in which he was heard forbidding senior government and regional officials from attending lavish weddings.
In early March 2018, the Uzbek media disseminated information based on an audio recording of one of his speeches. If cars with government plates were found outside the reception halls, he warned, the official in question would be fired and prosecuted.
“I’ll send them to prison the same day,” he thundered.
To the skeptics, this sounds like hot air. Turdikul Normatov, a professional toastmaster, said the government will only be able to tackle the problem once officials set the example by eschewing immodest celebrations.
“Weddings have become a kind of competition. Who can summon more guests for plov? Who has a more festive spread? Who has the most expensive and best gifts for the newlyweds? And lavish weddings are usually held by government officials and businessmen,” Normatov told Eurasianet.
Still, for all that people talk about big weddings as a feature of Uzbek popular culture, the phenomenon only began to be observed sometime in the 1970s. Before then, most people in what was then the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic lived in relative poverty. Money was in short supply, and so were basic commodities.
Even in pre-Soviet times, luxury was something only a very limited circle of people – court nobility, senior officials and large landowners – could afford.
Grand feasting came with the relatively free market that was ushered with the fall of the Soviet Union.
“For a long time, wedding celebrations were not held for a very large circle of people. They were limited mainly to the confines of one mahalla [neighborhood] and only a limited number of guests would attend,” Nazarov said.
The Culture Ministry waded into the wedding debate in early November, when one senior ministry official proposed holding festivities to a standard script. The apparatchik even proposed the script could be drawn up after consultations involving academics.
This proposal drew considerable mockery.
“Every parent has been preparing for this event for years. They want their child to have something new at their wedding, something that others did not have,” journalist Gulbahor Kamolova told Eurasianet. “A wedding is something personal. There is no need to regulate it at the government level. Let people in government hold weddings to a script!”