When it comes to culture, nobody can match the Pashtuns, also referred to as Pakhtuns, in terms of rigidity and resistance to change. Their 1,000-year-old culture, which dates back to 330 BC, around the time Alexander the Great discovered Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent, still mystifies historians whose search for answers still continues.
According to Dr Muhammad Javed Khalil, a senior researcher at the University of Peshawar (UoP) Pashto Academy, the origin of Pashtuns, settlers of eastern Afghanistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Balochistan, has remained a debatable subject among historians and researchers for the last 100 years. “Pashtuns have an old, unique culture but unfortunately historians of that era did not preserve it in writing,” states Khalil. “Some writers say that Pashtuns are Aryans while some have written that they are the lost tribe of the Jews. Unfortunately, Pashtuns did not give importance to preserving their history and culture in sculpture,” he mentions. He further explains that Pashtun culture is based on Islamic principles and Pakhtunwali, an unwritten ethical code of traditional lifestyle of the tribes.
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In Professor Raj Wali Shah Khattak’s book titled Introduction to Pashtun Culture, however, the unwritten code of conduct has been documented. Khattak, the former dean at UoP, writes, all the codes are passed on through word of mouth from one generation to another. “One reason why Pakhtunwali has never been written is its significance as Lowz – a promise or a pledge given by one person to another – which is stronger than any written document,” he writes.
In one chapter Khattak states Pakhtun traditions are responsible for the fall and destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. They refused to abandon the most wanted person to the USA as they considered it against their tradition. “Abandoning someone who asks you for pana (shelter) is against the Pakhtunwali,” he pens.
However, over the years some traditions have changed. Dr Khalil mentions, earlier when a baby boy was born family members would organise a musical programme. But the trend has changed, and now, people celebrate it according to Islamic principles with simplicity. Another tradition that has been altered over the years is the demand of dowry. Today, the groom’s family has to arrange everything themselves. In fact, in Afghanistan the groom pays walwar (bride price) to the head of the bride’s household.
Despite a few dying traditions, the importance of a Hujra (social club) still persists. In the month of Ramazan, neighbours take food to a Hujra and break their fast together. At the end of the month, people come there to look for the new moon and when someone spots it, they convey the message to others via aerial firing. On other days it is used as an informal institution for the young and a place where various issues, including resolving community disputes to wedding ceremonies, are discussed by elders.
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Globally, their unique style distinguishes them others and their food is widely acknowledged, says Dr Khalil. Even though there are a variety of dishes cooked on different occasions, kebabs, such as seekh, chapli and shami kebabs, are always a hit. Most Pashtuns work in agriculture, a reason why they are fond of simple food, says Dr Salma Shaheen, former director of Pashto Academy. “Inhabitants of southern areas of K-P, north and south Waziristan and the troubled agencies of Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), like to serve Painda to their guests. A word that means gathering family members to eat lunch or dinner in a big pot together, it is also called ‘saraid’ in Arabic,” she adds.
When discussing women rights in their culture, Dr Shaheen states, even though the Pashtun culture has many positive and Islamic aspects, some characteristics are against human rights and the teachings of Islam. “In most families, fathers, brothers and husbands do not give shares of inheritance to the females, which is against Islam. Some people do not allow their daughters and sisters to get education which is the basic right of every individual. Most women are confined to their houses and they are always busy in household chores,” she adds.
She further mentions, in Pashtun societies, the number of arranged marriages is higher than love marriages. Owing to cultural limitations and norms, if someone falls in love they cannot express it openly.
Abdur Razzaq is a Peshawar-based radio and print journalist. He tweets @TheAbdurRazzaq