For many countries, COVID-19 has been a grim wake-up call. The ongoing crisis is holding a mirror to society’s problems, while the devastating effects are testing government systems in unprecedented ways. In Uzbekistan, the primary focus has been on the resilience of the economy amidst a downturn, and the stability of health care systems to handle a second wave of infections. But the country is also changing rapidly on one significant cultural front: In its relationship to weddings.
Wedding mania has long been indicative of deep-seated problems in Uzbekistan. The toxic culture of Uzbek families staging lavish weddings to demonstrate and gain social status gave rise to class ranks and deepening materialism. When wedding ceremonies were limited in size due to the pandemic, many Uzbeks rejoiced, as it lifted the pressure to host large, expensive weddings. And now as lockdown measures are loosening, the country is standing at a precipice of long-lasting change – eradicating toxic wedding culture for good – if it takes the plunge.
During lockdown, Uzbek wedding celebrations were limited to no more than 30 people, vastly different from pre-coronavirus weddings, where over 400 guests plus motorcades with luxury cars were the norm. Most people complied with the new law, and even welcomed it as a way to avoid social pressure to host expensive ceremonies.
“Coronavirus is definitely a tragedy, but in terms of weddings, it’s been a sigh of relief,” says Jamshid Islamov, who hosted a wedding for his nephew during the pandemic. His family abided by the law and kept it to 30 guests, which he said was common among most Uzbek families hosting weddings at this time.
The Uzbek government’s harsh stance against violators of the mandate made it very effective. The administration relentlessly penalized anyone who broke the law. The government publicly shamed and fined several celebrities who threw large wedding bashes, among them Uzbek comedian Ahmad Temurov, who posted photos of his crowded wedding party on social media. However, these kinds of violations weren’t common.
“I think many [Uzbek] people saw for themselves, that weddings can be held in small tight knit circles and it would still be fine. No headache and everything at fraction of the cost,” remarked Islamov before adding that he would like to see the new restriction survive the lockdown.
Whether the nation is ready to make this change permanent, however, remains to be seen. Weddings are the bread and butter of Uzbek society, where they contribute to the economy and play an important cultural role.
The typical Uzbek wedding consists of a morning feast, where the national dish osh (also known as plov) is served, and a nighttime ceremony, where the couple are joined by friends and family to eat and be entertained. The event is further supplemented by rituals that vary from region to region and, through their differences, characterize the different facets of Uzbek culture.
Stemming partly from the Islamic faith and partly from Uzbek people’s love for hospitality, it was only in recent decades that the modern Uzbek wedding took on a sinister role perpetuating a culture of excess. But as Sharoffidin Tulaganov, an independent journalist who reports on culture in Uzbekistan, tells The Diplomat, Uzbek people, in their efforts to upstage their peers in hosting ever grander weddings, lose more than just their life savings.
“Entire lives are being devoted to [weddings]. Health, money, dignity, everything. It’s all come to be about showing off,” he says.
In pre-coronavirus Uzbekistan, the majority of weddings took place in designated venues, where families could expect anywhere from 400 to 1,000 guests.
Tulaganov described the scene saying, “The wealthy invite up to seven artists, that cost thousands of dollars each. Normal people follow suit, inviting slightly less. You have five limos bring the guests, and you have three video makers and two photographers – all for what? It’s just very excessive.”
Although this culture of excess came to a halt during the pandemic, Tulaganov said spending on other wedding related rituals, such as the dowry of the bride, was just as lavish.
He also doubted that the limit on the number of guests was a permanent change, as he felt Uzbek people were “waiting with bated breath” to get back to hosting large-scale weddings.
“It’s because we [Uzbek people] love to do things for someone else’s viewing – in a way, it’s our greatest tragedy,” he said.
While it’s easy to dismiss the wedding mania as a booming, culturally rooted industry that’s finding innovative business models to sustain itself, the reality is that most Uzbek families don’t have the means to stage grand weddings. The average Uzbek household has an income of $100-$300 a month, and modern weddings cost a minimum of $20,000. The number is even higher to host an impressive wedding by today’s standards, which is what most Uzbek families aim to do. Therefore, for most of them, even life savings aren’t enough to marry off one child.
“Average people who’re holding [grand] weddings like that, go into debt,” says Uzbek economist Abdulla Abdukadirov. “Of course, for business, it’s still good. Wealthier families spend to show how wealthy they are and for them it works. But for modest income families, it’s not attainable,” he explains.
But average families still try, for myriad reasons. For some, it’s because as parents they’ve dreamt all their lives about staging a grand wedding for their children, and for others, it’s because they wish to secure important connections for their children or to build a social reputation for their family. Whatever the reason, families try desperately to make ends meet – some take out loans from friends or family, leading one report to call the practice of staging weddings in Uzbekistan a debt trap, and others depend on money from abroad. Expats sometimes work for years to get their children back home married, to realize ultimately that all their earnings vanished overnight in a single party.
As for whether all this spending is helping with the economy, Abdukadirov admits the industry is very large and helpful to internal revenue, even during COVID-19. Weddings, even when staged at home, he explains, have the power to “breathe life into the economy.”
The wedding industry in Uzbekistan is a behemoth structure, though it’s only partially accounted for in the official statistical analyses. Not all related services are included under the umbrella term “wedding services.” For example, the bride’s dowry includes appliances and furniture for the new home, and often these items need to be imported to make a good impression. A whole economy exists on trading imported goods to be included in bride dowries.
A whole slew of small businesses also provide services related to weddings but aren’t accounted for in the official industry. Gift wrapping businesses can expect to wrap on average 40 dowry baskets per wedding and tailors may receive several orders for traditional dresses for a single bride. Entertainment for weddings is arguably the largest unaccounted portion of the industry. Uzbek artists are paid directly for their performances, with no recordkeeping of the transactions, and the sums are no small fees – the most popular singers in the country stand to make up to $10,000 per performance at a single wedding.
“Wherever the money is sourced from, it’s good that it’s being spent within the country. But in terms of people, and our moral values, it’s absurdity. It’s a waste,” says Abdukadirov of the wedding industry.
The concept of waste is constantly repeated when talking about Uzbek weddings. In a country where about 13 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the juxtaposition of the wealthy hosting weddings with over 1,000 guests, with every new fad in the industry included, doesn’t sit well with the people or the government, which has severely criticized the practice.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the president of Uzbekistan, called people who staged outlandishly showy weddings “shameless” in a 2018 audio recording. Shortly after, the Uzbek government tried to intervene and limit the size of weddings with a decree in 2019, setting caps on the number of guests — but to no avail. People continued holding large weddings, as the decree proved too hard to enforce when people chose venues that were farther away from their own neighborhoods, where committee members were assigned to keep watch.
Although the coronavirus achieved what the government and many Uzbek people had been looking to do for some time – curb excessive celebrations – long-term change might require more than just laws, especially when the motivation to keep having them is largely cultural.
Tulaganov predicts that post-coronavirus, as fear on the health front dissipates, another all too familiar fear will take its place and enliven the previous wedding culture.
“People will fear that other people will talk,” he said. “And that will be enough.”
While the driving social force behind the toxic culture of weddings in Uzbekistan is clear, what remains to be seen is whether the health crisis facing the world today can be the tipping factor for change.
Ezoza Yakvalkhodjieva is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.