Pashtun are traditionally pastoral nomads (herders who move frequently to find grazing land) with a strong tribal organization. Each tribe is divided into clans, sub-clans, and patriarchal families. Pashtun are made up of about sixty tribes of varying sizes and influence.
Each tribe, consists of kinsmen who trace descent in the male bloodline from a common tribal ancestor. Tribal genealogies establish rights of succession and inheritance and the right to use tribal lands and to speak in tribal council. Disputes over property, women, and personal injury often result in blood feuds between families and whole clans; these may be inherited unless settled by the intervention of clan chiefs or by tribal council.
Pashtunwali is the Pashtun code of morals and manners. Some examples of of the code include: milmastia (a strong sense of hospitality), tureh (courage), badal (revenge), and ghayrat (protection of one’s honor).
Pashtun society is largely communal (group-oriented) and attaches great importance to this unwritten code. Pashtunwali defines the way members should behave to keep the tribe together. Hospitality is important, as is the use of the tribal council (jirga) to resolve conflicts and make decisions. Another part of the Pashtun code of conduct is nanawati, a way of resolving differences through the group’s elders.
The eldest male holds complete authority over the extended family. Married sons live in their fathers’ households, rather than establishing homes of their own. The household normally consists of a man and his wife, his unmarried children, and his married sons and their wives and children. When young women marry, they join their husbands’ households and transfer their loyalty to their husbands’ families.
Economically, the Pashtun family is a single unit. Wealthy family members contribute to the support of those who are poorer. Old people depend on their children for care and support. The whole family shares the expense of having a child away at school.
Women and Purdah
The lives of Pashtun women vary from those who reside in conservative rural areas, such as the tribal belt, to those found in urban centres. At the village level, the female village leader is called qaryadar. Her duties may include witnessing women’s ceremonies, mobilizing women to practice religious festivals, preparing the female dead for burial, and performing services for deceased women. She also arranges marriages for her own family and arbitrates conflicts for men and women. Though many Pashtun women remain tribal and illiterate, others have become educated and employed.
In Afghanistan, the decades of war and the rise of the Taliban caused considerable hardship among Pashtun women, as many of their rights were curtailed by a rigid interpretation of Islamic law. Modern social reform for Pashtun women began in the early 20th century, when Queen Soraya Tarzi of Afghanistan made rapid reforms to improve women’s lives and their position in the family. She was the only woman to appear on the list of rulers in Afghanistan.
Pashtun women these days vary from the traditional housewives who live in seclusion to urban workers, some of whom seek or have attained parity with men. But due to numerous social hurdles, the literacy rate remains considerably lower for Pashtun females than for males. Abuse against women is present and increasingly being challenged by women’s rights organizations.
Many women however, are happy with the difference in roles and environment for men and women in Pashtun culture. This separation, called Purdah, is intended to protect both men and women from danger and temptation. The underlying belief for this separation is that there is a strong sex drive in men, and a nearly irresistible one in each woman. Therefore, for purity’s sake, they should remain separated.
In Purdah, men is king over all public places and he is free to come and go to bazaars, tea houses, businesses and so on. Women on the other hand are free in the private spaces of the home. Women need to be covered at all times outside of the home but need not wear a head covering or burqa inside the house. They are free to visit each other and be welcomed into each other’s homes. In contrast, the men are only allowed on a guest room outside the house when visiting their friends.
Education and Work
Education throughout Afghanistan has been disrupted, first by the Russian invasion and occupation (1978), and since then by continuing civil warfare. Traditionally, education took place in religious institutes and madrassas (religious schools). As of the late 1990s, there were boys’ and girls’ schools for Pashtun children in almost every village.
Pashtun work at a variety of occupations in agriculture, business, and trade. Women and children also play roles in agricultural work. Many Pashtun of Afghanistan are poor agricultural workers. Working conditions are generally better for Pashtun living in Pakistan than for those in Afghanistan.