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Pashtun Traditions versus Western Perceptions

Leo Karrer

1. The Pashtun Element in Afghan Society

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1.1. Ethnic composition of Afghanistan

1Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country with an estimated population of about 30 million (World Fact Book, 2012). Current numbers suggest that roughly 42 per cent of Afghans consider themselves Pashtun, whereas the rest of the population is constituted of Tajik Sunni Persian-speakers (27 per cent), the Shiite Hazara (also Persian-speakers, but of another, presumably Mongol ethnicity, at 9 per cent), Uzbeks (9 per cent), as well as Turkmens, Nuristanis, Baluch and others. Pashtuns live in the South and East of Afghanistan, where they occupy the Afghan part of the ‘Pashtun belt’, where the two most important Pashtun cities, Kandahar and Jalalabad, are located. The Persian-speaking ethnic groups, as well as the Turkic minorities, live in the central and northern parts of the country. Though Kabul is traditionally a Persian-speaking city, it is now populated by members of all ethnic groups.

1.2. The Pashtun ethnic group

  • 1  The only exception was Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik usurper, whose short reign lasted for most of (...)

2It is important to emphasise the importance of Pashtun culture in Afghan society, even if ‘modern’ Afghanistan is keen to demonstrate (both to itself and the outside world) its multi-ethnic self-image. Pashtuns have traditionally dominated Afghanistan, so the extent that the term ‘Afghan’ was originally used as a synonym of ‘Pashtun’. Afghan emirs (referred to as ‘kings’ or ‘shahs’ since 1926) have all been members of the (Pashtun) Durrani ‘tribe’, whose geographical heartland surrounds the city of Kandahar.1 This Pashtun element is essential to understanding Afghanistan’s history, including the last fifteen years period, dominated by the rise, fall and steady resilience of the Taliban movement. The latter is, of course, perceived as an extremist movement belonging to the totalitarian end of the spectrum of political Islam, but reducing the Taliban simply to its religious driving forces would be shortsighted. Indeed, Pashtun nationalism is a key element of the Taliban movement (Sinno, 2008). Though this fact is well known, it is comparatively unacknowledged by global media coverage, whose main focus is factors that overlap with Al-Qaida, such as ‘terrorism’ and ‘backwardness’, thus amalgamating the two in the common perception.

3The Pashto language belongs to the Eastern subgroup of the Iranian subfamily of the Indo-European language family. It is believed to be the mother tongue of approximately 50 million people (Ethnologue, 2009). Although precise censuses are not available – and in spite of both the numerous native Pashto speakers whose ancestry is largely multi-ethnic (inter-ethnic marriage is frequent in the region) and non-Pashto speakers claiming Pashtun heritage – this number is likely to be a reasonable approximation of the size of the Pashtun ethnic group. Roughly two-thirds of Pashtuns live in Pakistan (known as ‘Pukhtuns’ or ‘Pathans’), where they constitute an important minority (15-20 per cent). One-third of Pashtuns live in Afghanistan, where they often claim to constitute the national majority, although data suggests that though they are the strongest group, they do not make up 50 per cent of the population. The remaining Pashtuns are dispersed in a wide diaspora, with communities in the United Arab Emirates (constituting a cheap source of labour), India and various Western countries (Monsutti, 2009).

1.3. Elements of Pashtun tradition

4This section provides a short overview of some of the main features of Pashtun traditions. It would go beyond the scope of this paper to give a more complete picture. Correspondingly, the traditions are discussed with respect to their relevance to cross-cultural interaction and especially negotiation. Some of these features, such as the ‘tribal’ element, remain very much specific to the Pashtuns. Others, such as the jirga, influence Afghanistan to an extent that they may be seen as a ‘national institution’ (Wardak, 2003). Pashtun traditions are emulated, at least to some degree, by the non-Pashtun ethnic groups of Afghanistan (Carter and Connor, 1989).


  • 2 According to the German scholar Bernt Glatzer (d. 2009), this stereotype was first formulated by Am (...)
  • 3  For a detailed explanation of this concept see Geller, 2008.

5Pashtuns are often described in the academic literature as being the ‘world’s largest tribal society’2, and lineage elements do in fact play a key role in Pashtun identity and social organisation. The English word ‘tribe’, however, connotes a certain primitiveness that does not resonate when used (in English) by the Pashtuns themselves (Glatzer, 2002, 265). Rather, the word (in Pashto: قوم; qawm and خیل; khel)3 is used with pride, and most educated Pashtuns are able to recite their patrilineal list of forebears back to a common Pashtun ancestor. It would, however, be simplistic to consider the tribal element to be the only significant normative parameter in Pashtun society. As German scholar Bernt Glatzer stresses:

‘…The tribal system is usually not the only structural principle of a tribal society. The example of the Punjab (both Indian and Pakistani) makes it clear that tribe or tribal structure is only one guideline of social orientation in a complex network of different principles and patterns of the social landscape. The society or societies in which Pashtuns live are not much simpler. In Afghanistan which recently has sunk into chaos and turmoil and where tribes have gained considerably in importance, the tribal system is only one component within a much more complex social and political web. This is true as well for areas populated homogeneously by Pashtuns’ (2002, 266).

6Besides the tribal framework, two other elements play an absolutely central role in the Pashtun social order: Pashtunwali, a code of honour common to all Pashtun ‘tribes’, and Jirga, an important decision-making assembly.


7Pashtunwali ښتونوالی) is an ethical-normative frame of reference that applies to all Pashtuns. The word can be translated as ‘pashtunness’ and is often referred to as ‘the way of the Pashtuns’ (Rzehak, 2011, 1). The specific term, unlike the concept, is not commonly used by Pashtuns (Glatzer, 2000, 93-102). Pashtunwali is sometimes described as legal system, sometimes as code of honour, and occasionally as the entire tradition (Janata and Hassass, 1975, 84).. Pashtunwali’s fundamental concepts all focus on the central notion of nang (ننګ), or honour. Pashtunwali is unwritten and comprised of a large set of tenets, rules and concepts, which may be understood as the ‘customary law of the Pashtuns’. As customary law, pashtunwali is designed around the narkhcomplex. Narkh (نرخ) is a Persian word meaning ‘price’, and the narkh system is based on a specific set of compensations to be paid to a victim, or his or her family, following any given offence. The unit compensation is the khun (خون; Persian for ‘blood’).

8The legalistic definition of pashtunwali as customary law, however, is slightly too narrow, however, as pashtunwali comprises more than rules. Rather, it is a moral ‘grid of parallels and meridians’ to be used by Pashtuns, who, being devout Muslims, attempt to make it compatible with Islam. As German Iranologist Lutz Rzehak points out, ‘…today the ideals of Pashtunwali compete with other value systems that gained influence [during the last three decades] … but there is no doubt that among the competing value systems the ideals of Pashtunwali still continue to present an attractive and sometimes binding option today’ (2011, 2). Pashtunwali’s main aspects relate to melmastia ېلمستیا; hospitality), nanawatay (ننواتی, forgiveness), badal (بدل; revenge), tura(توره bravery), musawat (مساوات; equality), bawar (باور; trust) or wisa(ويسا; trust), ghayrat (غيرت; self-honour) and namus (ناموس; the honour of women).


9A jirga is an assembly of various dimensions, and thought to be ‘one of the least researched aspects of Afghan culture and society’ (Wardak, 2003, 3). The assembly can be convened at various levels of the community. An important feature of jirga is that its decision, once made, is authoritative and binding. A jirga takes decisions by consensus, not vote, creating a strong propensity for compromise (Labastie-Dadouh, 2004). A jirga is convened whenever a problem arises and, in principle, is open to all adult males. Jirga (جرګه) is a Pashto word derived from ‘jirg’ (جرګ),meaning ‘wrestling ring’. The interesting etymology of the word is worth noting; jirg is related to a very old Indo-European root (*sker) that bears the idea of ‘turning; round’, illustrated by the Persian (چرخ, charkh) and Pashto (څرخ, kharkh) words meaning ‘wheel’ (Pokorny, 1959). The corresponding Latin circus (derived from Greek κίρκος) became the English ‘circle’ and originally referred to a ‘group of persons surrounding a center [sic] of interest’ (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2011), a meaning which closely approximates that of a jirga. This is relevant not only for the geometry it implies, but also for the symbolic value of the circular, equidistant arrangement in denoting the equivalence of all those (men) partaking in a jirga. This is linked to a core principle in Pashtun culture – musawat (مساوات), or equality. There is no chairman at jirgas, and all members of the jirga are equal.

Musawat: Equality in Pride and Dignity Within a Hierarchical Power Structure

  • 4  12 out of 16 stated Afghans had almost always a chairperson when negotiating as a group.

10The principle of equalityis highly significant to interacting with Pashtuns. Despite the persistence of social differentiation, understanding the centrality of the belief in the equality of all Pashtuns is critical. This is due to the fact that equality is linked to the idea of brotherhood, which, in turn, is a consequence of the genealogical pyramid (leading back to a common ancestor) that forms the ‘tribal’ structure (Rzehak, 2011, 12). Is it important to note, however,  that this sense of equality born of common kinship does not necessarily imply Pashtun society is egalitarian in the Western sense of the term. In the survey of foreign workers with experience in Afghanistan, the overwhelming majority (14 out of 17) stated that they perceived Pashtuns to be  hierarchical, rather than egalitarian.4 This finding seems to contradict the principle of musawat, and may be due to several reasons, some of them inherent to the (not strictly egalitarian) Pashtun social system, and others to recent shifts.

11The equality conveyed by musawat should be considered an ideal rather than reflective of some ‘really existing egalitarianism’. As stated by Rzehak, ‘equality as conveyed in the concept of musawat is the equality of brothers, but it does not contradict social inequality, difference in age or differences by other hierarchical principles’ (2011, 12). Equality in dignity (which relates to the right to preserve and defend one’s personal honour (ننګ; nang) does not imply the absence of a power pyramid. Leadership in Pashtun society derives from seniority and experience. As in English, the term ‘senior’ (مشر; meshr) often has a connotation of age or prestige (Rzehak, 2011, 13). Pashtuns distinguish between two main groups of elders: a khan (خان) or malik (ملك) is a hereditary elder whose prestige stems from land ownership and economic strength, whereas a spinzhiray (ﺴﭙﯿﻨﺯﯿږﻱ; literally a ‘white-bearded’) derives his position from personal, ‘meritocratic’ attributes such as knowledge, wisdom, bravery and rhetorical skills (Rzehak, 2011, 13). Respectful and honourable behaviour towards the elderly is mandatory. Other criteria for status differentiation include marital status, wealth, leadership skills and general nang (honour).

12Another factor contributing to less than egalitarian nature of Pashtun society is what may be described as the recent, widespread breakdown of traditional social structures in Afghanistan, primarily due to the ongoing conflict. As observed by Ruttig:

‘Traditional social and political relations have increasingly been weakened and dissolved. […]. As a result, the jirga as a major conflict-resolving mechanism of the Pashtuns has lost much of its authority. Might often trumps pashtunwalai and even Islamic law. In many Pashtun tribes, the more permanent shura has replaced the jirga. [Most shuras] are convened by the new strongmen. This makes them hierarchical in structure, in contrast to the egalitarian jirga where ideally all male members of a certain tribe find a consensus about a certain conflict’ (2010).

13Last but not least, it is important to distinguish between in-group and out-group behaviour. The survey respondents experienced Afghan/Pashtun society as hierarchical in its interaction (as an aggregate) with foreigners. The presence of outsiders is likely to give rise to behaviour distinct from that characterising in-group interaction.  


1  The only exception was Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik usurper, whose short reign lasted for most of the year 1929. Contemptuously called the ‘son of the water carrier’ because of his modest and non-Pashtun extraction, he was hanged in October of that year.

2 According to the German scholar Bernt Glatzer (d. 2009), this stereotype was first formulated by American diplomat and author James Spain in The Pathan Borderland (1963).

3  For a detailed explanation of this concept see Geller, 2008.

4  12 out of 16 stated Afghans had almost always a chairperson when negotiating as a group.