x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Brides in Pakistan say I do – thanks to charity

Pakistan-born banker and farmer Noor Abid has lived up to a promise he made to his mother by running charities to help poor women in his native country. One group, Sayeban, pays for their dowries and group weddings, with the latest having 1,400 guests.

The mass wedding at Bagh-o-Bahar village in Pakistan’s Punjab state last month saw 70 brides from poor families married, thanks to the Sayeban charity set up by Noor Abid.  Photos courtesy Adil Abid
The mass wedding at Bagh-o-Bahar village in Pakistan’s Punjab state last month saw 70 brides from poor families married, thanks to the Sayeban charity set up by Noor Abid. Photos courtesy Adil Abid

The idea of helping to educate poor children and giving girls a more dignified life in Pakistan came from Noor Abid’s elderly mother.

In 1986, the two were visiting Medina and she told him she would like him to spend some of his wealth on the young in their native Pakistan.

His mother died the same year and, to honour her wish, Mr Abid set up charitable organisations to educate, train and develop women. One of the organisations was Sayeban.

“Sayeban means a temporary roof over your head, a form of protection in calamities,” Mr Abid says.

Last month, it also meant something more for 70 women living in Bagh-o-Bahar, a village about 30 minutes from Rahim Yar Khan city, in the Punjab province of Pakistan – a wedding day of which they could only have dreamt.

Mass weddings are part of the work of Sayeban, which has been operating since 2000, offering training in areas ranging from handicrafts and embroidery to computers and beauty treatment.

“Invariably, poor women in Pakistan remain unmarried until someone can pay for their dowries. If they are too late, the chances of their marriage become remote,” says Mr Abid.

He is a retired managing partner of accountancy group Ernst and Young for the region and now works with his wife, Tabassum, helping people they will never know.

Mr Abid is still a board member on banks in Bahrain and Pakistan, and runs a 160-hectare farm that provides employment in one of Pakistan’s poorest areas.

On December 22, dressed in the traditional red shalwar kameez and jewellery, the brides embarked on their new journey.

He says that too often unmarried women lead lives of desperation, dependent on their close relatives or working as farm labourers.

“In some cases they become victims of abuse,” Mr Abid says.

Sayeban’s committed team is dealing with a society where female illiteracy is still prevalent and women face many restrictions on their lives.

Its aim is to empower women to better take part in the development of their society and help to restore their self-esteem.

The number of mass weddings Sayeban has sponsored has been growing. Last year’s was the largest, with about 1,400 people attending.

Among them was the founder’s son Adil Abid, who lives and works in Abu Dhabi. “I was blown away by the setting,” Adil says.

Sayeban pays the bill but does not find suitors for the women. Otherwise it ensures that the wedding is perfect, from preparation to decoration.

“Any women wanting to get married need to have a national identity card that proves they are 18,” Adil says.

The next step is an application form that includes details of their families’ circumstances, such as their monthly income. The organisation gives priority to the poorest candidates.

Details of each application are checked by asking other people in the village.

Before the marriage contract is signed, the women are asked twice to confirm that they are happy with the arrangement and are not being forced into it.

The couples are allowed to meet and talk in the presence of a guardian. Each girl is given 4,000 Pakistani rupees (Dh139) as a mahr, or dowry.

“Four thousand rupees might seem a small amount for some people, but for these women it’s a treasure,” says Adil.

Everyone is accommodated at the weddings. Food is cooked and served to guests by members of the community. Men and women are seated separately based on the Islamic rule.

Sayeban provides every bride with four bridal suits, shoes, a shawl or headscarf and make-up. The groom is also given a suit, rumaal shawl and shoes.

On the day of the wedding, each bride is dressed by volunteers chosen from Sayeban training centre.

The organisation also donates 66 items to help the couple start their lives together, including cooking utensils and bedsheets.

“Most suppliers know us, so they give us everything for low prices,” Adil says. Some supply the goods free. “They appreciate the cause we are working for.”

The 79 weddings have cost the organisation Dh143,285.

“The contributors are largely the Pakistani diaspora living in the Middle East, United Kingdom and my family members,” Noor says.

Sayeban also provides medical treatment and has set up 13 primary schools in remote villages where children have no access to education.

“The schools are running very successfully. Each school has 35 to 40 children and we teach the government syllabus,” he says.

The next mass wedding has been set for this December. Anyone wishing to contribute can do so through sayeban.org

aalhameli@thenational.ae