When Mohammad Imran was planning the dinner for his cousin's wedding reception, he had no excuse to trim the pricey menu down from six entrees. Then the government came to his rescue.
Punjab province's newly elected leaders announced that starting this month they would strictly enforce an often ignored law that limits wedding feasts to one main dish — a measure welcomed by Pakistanis struggling with a sagging economy and rising prices.
At the reception that Imran recently hosted in Lahore, the main dish was mutton karahi. "It saved me around 100,000 rupees ($1,430)," said the 34-year-old real estate dealer.
He said he had to insist on following the rule over strong opposition from other family members, who didn't want to buck social pressures to put on a lavish feast.
"We are passing through a very tough period. Everyone needs savings," Imran said.
Pakistan's economy is slowing, and increases in global food costs have made matters worse. The price of a staple like rice has soared 150 percent the past year and wheat flour is in short supply. Middle-class Pakistanis must devote more of their incomes to basics, while the poor struggle to get by.
It was poor families the national government set out to help by enacting a law in the 1990s limiting wedding meals, giving them a way to avoid a cultural burden without feeling humiliated. At one point, only soft drinks or hot drinks like tea were allowed, but court challenges and amendments now permit one entree, accompanied by a few appropriate side dishes such as rice.
The law has been only sporadically enforced, however, probably because it runs against powerful tradition.
Pakistani weddings tend to be grand, colorful affairs, often lasting several days and involving hundreds of guests. Many families start saving for the wedding the day a child is born. Costs vary, but including dowries and jewelry, the wealthy can spend tens of thousands of dollars on a wedding, while poorer families might spend in the thousands.
The cultural pressure to throw a big wedding cuts across the class spectrum in this largely impoverished country of 160 million people, where the World Bank estimates per capita income is $800 a year. Families sometimes go into deep debt to pay for a wedding beyond their means.
Zakir Hussain, a Rawalpindi dealer in scrap bottles, said that a few years ago he regularly put aside about a third of his income to pay for his older daughter's wedding, which cost about $5,000.
But double-digit inflation is eating away at his wallet. He said the rising price of rice and flour and other items means he is not able to save any money for his son and younger daughter's future nuptials.
"We'll try our best to throw them nice weddings," said Hussain, who earns about $145 a month. "God might be merciful on us."
His 16-year-old daughter, Asma, said she would prefer everything be kept simple anyway.
"But I don't think it will happen," she said. "My parents have to live in this society. They have to face the family people."
Punjab's push to help poor
The Punjab government, installed after February national elections, says it wants to help the poor and is serious about the rule.
In a recent newspaper ad it warned "One Dish, One Rule for Everyone!" A big X crossed out pictures of the offending items, including large trays of food.
While the law applies to all of Pakistan, the only public announcement of a crackdown has come in Punjab, the country's most populous province and its most influential.
Information Secretary Nayyar Mahmood said the government will rely on anyone from police to snoopy neighbors to report violators, who risk fines of $1,430 to $4,285 and confiscation of the food.
Mahmood said he did not know if anyone had been punished so far. But Mian Tajammal Ilyas, joint secretary of a marriage hall association in Punjab, said the government's announcement is already cutting into the profits of caterers.
He said there are plenty of clients who have canceled orders for multiple main dishes. But the wealthiest don't care if they get fined, he said, because an opulent wedding "is a matter of prestige for them."
Ambereen Karamat, a wedding planner, calls the government's move "a lovely idea" and hopes officials will be strict in enforcing the crackdown. "Even these caterers, the menus, the rates are obnoxious now," she said.
Still, Karamat said that even after she explains the law, many clients balk at providing anything less than a grand array of food.
Ayesha Hakki, founder and publisher of bibimagazine.com, an online bridal and fashion portal for South Asians, says the rule will be hard to enforce and is skeptical it will curb families' desires for lavish weddings. She described it as a mentality of "keeping up with the Jafris."
Over the years, families have resorted to ruses to circumvent the rule, including holding the wedding meal in private homes rather than public places.
"People will disguise the event as a birthday, and then just happen to have a bride and groom show up," Hakki said.