Understanding ‘Pashtunwali’

Published: November 27, 2015

SOUTH WAZIRISTAN: Nations and peoples of the world have rules and codes of conduct through which they are identified. The Pakhtun living in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world, likewise, have a code of conduct called ‘Pashtunwali’, which is strictly practised by every proud Pakhtun. Pashtunwali literally means the way of the Pakhtuns, and is a tribal honour code that has governed the Pakhtun way of life for centuries. To understand the culture, tradition and customs of the Pakhtun community, firstly one should understand Pashtunwali. Due to the emergence of the Taliban during the 1990s in Afghanistan, people throughout the world tried to understand Pashtunwali in the negative sense. The reason was that the majority of the Taliban were Pashto-speaking and belonged to Pakhtun tribes. The fact is that all Pakhtuns, whereever they live, are tightly connected through this code of conduct, which dates back to the pre-Islamic era, and that is why, nowadays, every proud Pakhtun in Pakistan says that he or she has been a Pakhtun for the past 5,000 years, a Muslim since 1,400 years and a patriotic Pakistani for the last 67 years.

The key components of Pashtunwali are as follows: 1) Melmastia, or hospitality, is an important component of Pashtunwali. It entails the protection of guests, but not in the Western sense. The Pakhtun will never allow anybody to harm their guest in the company of the host; 2) Badal, or revenge, is the second key code of Pashtunwali. Badal means seeking justice or taking revenge against the wrongdoer. There is no time limit to when the injustice can be avenged. If badal is not exercised, the offended and their family will be considered stripped of their honour. However, this practice has led to much bloodshed; 3) Nanawatai, or sanctuary, is also an important component of Pashtunwali and is still followed by every proud Pakhtun today. It entails a person looking for refuge in the house of another, seeking asylum against his enemies. The host Pakhtun is honour-bound to offer that protection, even if it may be at the cost of his own family.

Understanding Pashtunwali does not offer a road map to control Pakhtun tribes. It does, however, help to understand the Pakhtun culture. Once understood, a framework can be developed to assist in formulating a strategy for engaging with the people of the tribal areas.

Rafiuddin Mehsud

Published in The Express Tribune, November 28th,  2015.

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