The Muslim Wedding Celebration

Although the Islamic marriage ritual is simple, many Muslims stage colorful, multiday festivities

Updated 12/06/06

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Although many Muslims stage a multiday celebration to mark a wedding, the traditional marriage ritual itself, called a nikah in Arabic, is simple and brief. It generally follows these steps:

At the wedding, which can take place pretty much anywhere, the bride and groom are separated in different rooms. They may or may not be able to see each other, depending on how conservative the families are.

An officiant, who can be any man familiar with Islamic law, heads to each room separately. There he asks the spouses-to-be if they consent to the marriage and if they are marrying of their own free will (a representative called a wali answers the officiant's questions on the bride's behalf).

The couple signs the marriage contract or license, with witnesses observing.

The officiant brings the pair together and pronounces them husband and wife.

A Muslim Wedding Celebration

Days of lively parties often surround the nikah, and that's just what Shaila Khan plans for her wedding. In her Pakistani culture, Khan explains, marriage becomes a big issue once a girl hits post-college age, and women are often expected to wed within their own ethnicity. Khan's Mr. Right happens to be from Pakistan, and she admits that his background helps prevent conflict. "It's nice to have someone understand who I am and where I come from," says Khan, a New York investment analyst in her mid-20s. "And I don't have to worry about my family accepting him." Though far from a typical South Asian, Khan now finds herself looking forward to a typical Pakistani wedding, featuring a week of singing and dancing, including the following events:

Dholki: The wedding celebrations begin with the dholki (named after the dholk, or drum) one to two weeks before the actual three-day wedding ceremony. During this event, young guests sing and dance while beating on the dholk.

The bride and groom traditionally hold their own dholki. Friends and family gather at their respective houses to practice songs and dances for the upcoming mehendi ceremony during the week of the wedding. "There's usually a whole week of back-to-back dholkis before a wedding. I've had so much fun attending them in the past," Khan says. "It's just an excuse to get together with friends and family to dance." The women closest to either the bride or groom usually choreograph the dances, and it's mostly women who perform. The couple's families prepare dinner for the revelers, and the party goes late.

Mehendi: The mehendi ceremony takes place on the first night of the three-day wedding. Usually the most festive part of the event, it's filled with noise and color, with women dressed in bright formal shalwar kameez outfits and saris, and with unmarried girls sporting long skirts and blouse outfits called lehengas. The mehendi can either be held separately for the bride and groom or jointly. A joint mehendi lends to friendly guy/girl competition while each side takes turns to outdo the other. In more conservative families, the women are kept separated from the men.

The bride traditionally wears a formal yellow outfit, and, as the name of the ceremony implies, has wet mehendi (henna paint) applied on her hands that day. "The bride, along with all the women on both sides of the family, has henna designs put on her hands and sometimes her feet," Khan says. "It's basically a bridal shower, but a lot more colorful. It's definitely my favorite part of the wedding festival and I plan on having a lot of fun on mine."

It's customary for the bride to be escorted onto the stage under a yellow color dupata, or large scarf, held up by six female relatives or friends. Her head is covered and bowed, and she doesn't have much makeup or jewelry on at this event. In joint mehendi ceremonies the groom arrives at the ceremony after the bride with his entourage of guests, called the baraat. The baraat typically plays loud songs while entering the ceremony hall and is greeted by two parallel lines of the bride's family and friends.

Nikah: The main wedding day is less eventful than the preceding days. The bride typically wears a bright-red ghaagra, a heavily pleated skirt with a long blouse embroidered in gold. The dupata is hung low over her bowed head and wrapped around her shoulders in such a way that her heavy gold jewelry is not hidden. This outfit is the most elaborate of all the ones the bride will wear. "With all the gold the bride wears on her wedding day, she looks and feels like a queen," Khan says.

Grooms either wear a traditional sherwani with a turban or a Western-style suit. Some grooms wear a veil of roses on their head before the bride enters. As a game, sometimes the bride's young female relatives and friends will steal the groom's shoes, returning them only when the groom pays a bargained amount of money. At the end of the night, a procession escorts the couple to the wedding car and throws flower petals on the couple.

Valima: The groom's family hosts the valima, or the feast, the night after the wedding. The feast signifies the consummation of the wedding, and is roughly equivalent to an American wedding reception. "Pakistani food is very rich and heavy, so that truly makes for a real feast," Khan says.

Don't get the wrong idea—with all this planning it may seem like Khan is engaged, but she hasn't slipped on the ring yet. Asks Khan with a smile: "A girl's allowed to plan, isn't she?"

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