The Pashtun code of honor is known as “Pashtunwali”, or the way of the Pashtuns. It is an ancient and absolute set of rules that defines: 1) how a host must care and protect guests and their property, 2) the chastity of married women and the way men must defend women’s honor; 3) rules of restraint accorded those regarded as weak (namely Hindus, women and boys); 4) defense provided for those who seek refuge; and 5) how killings should be avenged. “Pashtanwali” has precedence over the law of the land and even Islamic law. It is regarded as an ideal, which Pashtun may not be able to meet but they should try to live up to and is so strong and prevalent in some areas it negates the need for a government.

Central to adherence to the male-centered pakhtunwali code of conduct is the notion of honor, nang, which is articulated in a starkly black-and-white, all-or-nothing manner. Without honor, life for a Pashtun is not worth living. Honor demands the maintenance of sexual propriety. Complete chastity among female relatives is of the essence; only with the purity and good repute of his mother, daughters, sisters, and wife (or wives) does a man ensure his honor. Thus women are restricted to private, family compounds in much of the province. Census takers, invariably male, are constrained not to ask about the women in another man's home, and the number of men in a household is often overstated because sons and brothers are a source of strength. Accurate enumeration of the population hence is not possible. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]

Among the three most important obligations of “Pashtanwali” are 1) “nanawatai”, or giving asylum to a refugee, even a mortal enemy; 2) “melmastia”, extending hospitality to strangers, even enemies; and 3) “badal”, or obtaining revenge for a slight, which are usually over “zamin” (gold, land and women). [Source: Bern Keating, National Geographic, January 1967].

The punishments for breaking the code are very harsh and often involve death. The penalty for illicit sexual behavior, for example, is death. Death is often regarded as preferable to dishonor. This code allows for, even encourages, revenge killings. Pakhtunwali in some cases contradicts and generally takes precedence over Islamic law. It is enforced by strong social pressure. Violations of law outside of the activities the code encompasses are dealt with by the jirga or the government administration.

One Pashtun saying goes: “He is not Pashtun who gives a pinch for a blow.” Ellis observed a five year old boy make five trips across the border in less than an hour to get cooking oil for an Afghan merchant who filled up a large tank. On his last trip the boy was slapped by a border guard. "He was Pashtun," wrote Ellis, "But being only five or so, the spirit of Pashtunwali had not taken hold of him. So he cried."*

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: Hospitality (Milmastia) is important to Pashtun, as is a reliance on the tribal council (jirga) for the resolution of disputes and local decision making. Other Pashto codes include: courageousness (Tureh, which is also the word for sword in Pashtu); the spirit of taking revenge (Badal); protection of honor (Ghayrat); and nanawati, a method of terminating hostility, hatred, and enmity (i.e., when a person, family, or tribe goes to the hostile people through elderly people, they will accept their apology and the feeling of hatred and enmity are dissolved). Important elements of Pashtunwali code are personal authority and freedom. Political leadership is based on personalities rather than structures and ideologies. [Source: revised by M. Kerr, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Pashtun Fighting Spirit

Violence and guns are a way of life for the Pashtuns. It is not uncommon to see a Pashtun boy beating up on his sister while their mother looks on laughing or a father to whack his son hard if he looks the other way while the father is speaking. In many Pashtun areas it is not safe to travel at night unless you are surrounded by an armed convoy. A Pashtun poet once wrote: “The eyes of the dove are lovely, my son. But the hawk rules the skies, so cover your dove-like eyes and grow claws.”

Rivalries and alliances are often based on the closeness of blood relations. According to one Pashtun proverb: “We are only at peace when we are at war.” Another goes: “My brother and I against my cousin; and my cousin, brother and I against the rest of the world.” Pashto is the only known language in which the word for cousin and enemy are the same.

In his 1838 book “A Journey to the Source of the River Oxus,” British explorer Capt. John Wood wrote, the Pashtun's "showed their deep-rooted hatred of the Sikhs, by cruelly murdering two defenseless grass-cutters, and making off with a herd of camels...The bodies of the murdered men were brought into camp, one with the throat fearfully cut, the other a headless trunk."

Winston Churchill nearly lost life while stationed in the Northwest Frontier. One Pashtun old-timer told Schultheir, "The British were good to fight. They were honorable men. When they were about to bombard our villages, they always warned us before hand so we could move our women, children and old people to safety. When the fighting was over, we could sit down and be friends. The “shorawi” [Russians] are not like that."

Pashtun Revenge and Blood Feuds

Closely related to the notion of honor is the principle of revenge, or badal. Offenses to one's honor must be avenged, or there is no honor. Although minor problems may be settled by negotiation, murder demands blood revenge, and partners in illicit sexual liaisons are killed if discovered. Even making lewd innuendos or, in the case of women, having one's reputation maligned may mean death. The men involved sometimes escape to other regions, where they may well be tracked down by the woman's kin. When a woman is killed, the assailant is, almost without exception, a close male relative. Killings associated with sexual misconduct are the only ones that do not demand revenge. Even the courts are accustomed to dealing leniently in such cases. Vendettas and feuds are an endemic feature of social relations and an index of individual and group identity. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “As noted, the rivalry with father's brother's son for property, power, and wives is a constant source of conflict, as is Pakhtunwali itself, since even petty quarrels can escalate to a point where honor is involved. Efforts to encapsulate the Pashtun into political systems seen as alien are also a source of conflict. It is frequently at such times of external threat that religious leaders assume political importance since resistance takes the form of a holy struggle or jihad. Conflict resolution is done through the jirga or through the intervention of Religious figures. [Source: Akbar S. Ahmed with Paul Titus “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1996 |~|]

The Pashtun code of honor requires a fatal retribution for sometimes the smallest slight. Blood feuds often begin with small slights that are answered with insults that in turn lead to tit for tat exchanges of violence that often expand and involve entire tribes. The causes of Pashtun feuds are usually women, land boundaries or water rights. A typical one involves a young man who vows to kill a neighbor that killed his father in a land dispute. Revenge is essential; a weak man may soon find others taking advantage of him.

Once a blood feud gets going it sometimes endures for generations. Some tribesmen spend their whole lives at war. It is not uncommon for a man to have his throat slit over an offense that occurred 30 year earlier. The Pashtun have a saying, “Revenge is a dish which tastes better cold.” Journalist William Ellis heard some men talking about a shooting he asked them how many died. One man said, "Forty."It is not uncommon for a man to show up at his own house occasionally and secretly out of fear of being shot by his cousin, whose brother he murdered. Once a six-year-old boy was turned a local hero for avenging his father’s death by killing his assassin.

The only time Pashtun take a break from battling rival families if when they join together to battle a rival family or fight an external threat. The Pashtun have a saying, “Me against my brother, my brother and me against our cousins, we and our cousin against the enemy.”

Most blood feuds end with a payment of blood money. “Pashtanwali” provides a family of a victim the choice of seeking revenge through death or accepting “blood money” as compensation. In most cases the families take the money. Sometimes they are settled with a promise that young teenage girls will be married to men in their 60s and 70s. Sometimes they are resolved with the help of religion leaders.

Pashtun Hospitality and Refuge

Pashtuns are as legendary for their hospitality, or melmastia, among strangers as they are for their bellicosity among themselves. They share the contents of their water pipes with anyone who pulls up a seat. Every village or neighborhood has a “hujra” (guest house) to entertain casual guests. Special guests are given the best bed in the house and presented with a gift when they leave. Hospitality has precedence over revenge and blood feuds.

Hospitality is expressed through commensalism, a means of showing respect, friendship, and alliance. A complex etiquette surrounds the serving of guests, in which the host or his sons, when serving, refuse to sit with those they entertain as a mark of courtesy.One traveler told journalist Rob Schultheis that he befriended a Pashtun chief by buying him a pot of tea. The chief returned the gesture by providing the traveler with an armed escort from Afghanistan to India. The escorts came in handy when some people tried to take their seats on a train. The Pashtuns pulled out their pistols and had little trouble getting the people to move.

Closely related to melmastia is the requirement of giving refuge to anyone, even one's enemy, for as long as the person is within the precincts of one's home. These codes, too, are related to the concept of honor, for the host gains honor by serving his guest, and the person who places himself under another's protection is weak, a supplicant. Refuge must extend to the point of being willing to sacrifice one's own life to defend one's guest, but a person who demeans himself so much as to plead for mercy should be spared. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

If a Pashtun is being attacked by a group that outnumbers his own group he can seek refuge in the house any Pashtun even those who are attacking him and he will be granted asylum and protected. Once a Pashtun encampment fought off a Mughal hunting party after the wild boar they were chasing ended in the camp and was thereby granted "asylum." [Source: Bern Keating, National Geographic, January 1967]

Pashtun area, it is said, is best avoided by travelers unless they happen to be on the run from police or authorities. Another important element of the Pashtun code is for tribes to grant asylum to anyone escaping the law. Pashtun tradition of “panah”, or asylum or refuge. A Pakistani politician told the Washington Post, “It’s ingrained. The guest is a very honored commodity; we have to look after them. Even if I know this person had committed 20 murders across the road if he asks for protection, I’m sorry, I have to give him protection — until someone comes for him and we sit down and talk.”

Observers credit the relatively minimal tension that initially existed between Pakistani Pashtuns and the large number of Pashtun refugees from Afghanistan to the deeply felt obligation of Pashtuns to obey the customary dictates of hospitality. However, Pakistani Pashtuns' frustration with the refugees escalated after the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Many Pakistani Pashtuns were upset that the internecine violence resulting from warring clans in conflict in Afghanistan was overflowing into Pakistan. In 1994 Pakistani Pashtuns were as eager as other Pakistanis to see the refugees return to Afghanistan. *

Pashtun Marriage

Marriages tend to be arranged and couples generally go along with the wishes of their parents. The union is generally sealed with the payment of a bride price to te bride’s family, who in turn uses the money to create a dowry for the bride so the newlyweds have some financial security. Wives are sometimes bought and sold. exchange marriages are common, and involve the trade of a sister or daughter between families. [Source: Akbar S. Ahmed with Paul Titus “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1996]

Pashtuns have very rigid rules about marriage. Polygamy is allowed in accordance with Muslim law but most unions are monogamous and generally take place within a clan or clan subsection. Pashtuns are strongly discouraged from marrying non-Pashtuns. Although divorce is easy to obtain with Islamic law it is unusual among Pathans because it involves the loss of a bride price and the man’s honor if the wife remarries.

Marriages are often between cousins, partly so any problem can be handled within the family. Parallel cousin marriages with the a man marrying his father’s bother’s daughter is preferred. . Many women get involved in arranged marriages at 15. After marriage the couple generally moves into a separate unit within the compound of the groom’s family.

Pashtun Families

A Pashtun household (“kor)” is generally defined as a group that shares a hearth or is comprised of a man and his sons,. The three main kinds of domestic units are: 1) the nuclear family; 2) a compound family made up a patriarch are his sons and their wives and children, all of whom share expenses; and 3) a joint family, the same as a compound family except that each family takes care of its own expenses. Property is inherited equally among sons, with he oldest son given a little extra property in return for taking care of the family guest house. Rivalry and even blood feuds develop between brothers and, in the next generation, cousins over the inheritance of land. In opposition to Muslim law, neither wives nor daughters inherit property. [Source: Akbar S. Ahmed with Paul Titus “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1996 |~|]

Men value "insouciant mountain man machismo." They are expected to stand up for themselves and not be pushed around or insulted by anyone. Children boys are scolded harshly. This is viewed as a way of training them for the rigors of the Pashtun code for adults, when the slightest sign of disrespect can be grounds for killing, and teaching them to be tough so they won’t be pushed around. Akbar S. Ahmed wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ With the separation of the sexes inherent in Islam, children are raised primarily by their mother and elder sisters. In the segregated atmosphere that prevails there is a great deal of competition for attention and affection, though men tend to be indulgent toward children. Boys are circumcised by their seventh year.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: The Pashtun extended family “household normally consists of the patriarch and his wife, his unmarried children, and his married sons and their wives and children. It is a patrilineal system in that descent is through the paternal side, and family loyalty is to the paternal line. A married woman must transfer complete allegiance to her husband's family. Married sons live in their father's household rather than establishing homes of their own. The eldest male possesses complete authority over the extended family. [Source: revised by M. Kerr, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

“Economically, the Pashtun family is a single unit. Wealthy family members contribute to the support of those who are poorer, and the family maintains an appearance of well-being. Old people depend on their children for care and support, and the whole family shares the expense of a child away at school. Obedience and respect for elders are the main points of an Pashtun child's upbringing. Almost everything an individual does is a matter of concern to the family, for in Pashtun society the family is judged by the behavior of its individual members.” *\

Growing Up Pashtun in Modern Pakistan

Raza Wazir wrote in New York Times: “I was born in the late 1990s in Khushaly, a village in northern Waziristan circled by blue and black mountains about 30 miles from the Durand Line, which messily demarcates the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Most people in the area were subsistence farmers, cultivating wheat in winters and corn in summers. Some ran small stores in Mir Ali, a nearby town of about 20,000. The economic precariousness forced a substantial number of men to leave for distant lands as migrant workers. I was 5 when my father left for Dubai to work as a laborer. [Source: Raza Wazir, New York Times, March 9, 2018]

“I lived with my mother, a sister and a brother in a mud-brick house. Our days began with the morning call to prayer. After the prayers we returned home and drank tea with milk. Pakistan might have had a nuclear bomb, but my people couldn’t afford breakfast. Over the years, men from Waziristan and other tribal areas like my father sent home remittances and nourished dreams of a better life for their children. Thanks to these remittances, thousands of students in Waziristan in the mid- and late 1990s were able to enroll in modest private schools, which were an improvement on the abysmal government-run schools.

“My father worried that I would get caught up in the war. In the spring of 2004, I left my village with him to attend high school in Peshawar, the largest city in northwestern Pakistan. Every day I wondered whether my family and friends back home were alive, whether they were safe. Newspapers ran cryptic reports about the violence and the deaths in Waziristan. Phones remained cut off for weeks. “The war continued. After graduating from high school in Peshawar, I moved to a public college in Lahore in 2010 to study literature. The seductive, sprawling metropolis of Lahore was strikingly different from the war-ravaged Peshawar and Waziristan.

“My Pashtun ethnic origin, my being from Waziristan, would turn me into a target for racial profiling. The prejudice and suspicion against ethnic Pashtuns like me intensified after the tribal areas became the base for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, whose bombing campaign killed hundreds in Pakistan’s cities. One night several policemen barged into my dorm room, which I shared with three other students, ethnic Punjabis. After the policemen looked at our identity cards, they took me aside and rifled through my books and my belongings for incriminating evidence. Yet I made new friends, found inspiring teachers and went to diverse social and academic gatherings in Lahore. A new world seemed possible.”

“An operation by the Pakistani Army against militants in the tribal areas in 2014 displaced around a million people. The process of return began in 2016, and military authorities formulated new rules of passage. To visit or to return to live in Waziristan and a few other districts, you needed more than a Pakistani national identity card. You had to produce identification called a Watan Card. I got my Watan Card last March. On it, apart from my biographical details and a photograph, there is a drawing of the Khyber Pass and the abbreviation N.W.A., for North Waziristan Agency. It marks me and other residents of the region as separate from the full citizens of Pakistan.”

Pashtun Women

Pashtun women are rarely seen and their lives are defined by the concept of purdah and Muslim veiling. They are expected to stay indoors to raise children and maintain the household. When they emerge from their homes there are usually covered head to foot in burqas or chaddars. Tribal customs prevent them from owning or inheriting land or property. They often are not consulted about their own marriages and can not ask for a divorce, even if they are being abused. Decisions about their welfare are made by husbands and male guardians not themselves.

Charles Lindholm, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Within the patrilineal system, a woman comes into her husband’s family and gains power as she produces sons. Her daughters will marry elsewhere, but her sons will stay close, bringing in wives who may seek to displace her by winning her sons’ affections.” A mother “is pleased to see her young son keeping his sister in place, just as she hopes he will later keep his wife in hers.”

In the 1970s, strict observance of purdah kept Pashtun women from doing most work outside the house. Some women were not even allowed to leave the house to go shopping and most of the shopping was done by men. Even field work that has traditionally been done by women in other ethnic groups was done by men. In places where women did do work in the fields, men who were not male relatives were supposed to keep their distance. While visiting the Pashtun area at that time journalist Mike Edwards wanted to interview some women working in the fields. His guide told him he should think twice about doing it: "Their men would shoot you." [Source: Mike W. Edwards, National Geographic, January 1977]

Pashtun Women and Purdah

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “Women have traditionally had few rights under the strict code of Pashtunwali. Purdah, or separation of men and women, is traditionally practiced. At times throughout history, such as during the years of Communist rule, women were encouraged to take part in society more openly. [Source: revised by M. Kerr, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]

However, during the years that the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, women were restricted from participating in almost every form of public life, forced to adhere to a strict dress code that included the wearing of the burqa, and were restricted to their homes unless accompanied by a male family member. Since the Taliban were removed from power, such restrictions have been lessened, and some Pashtun women have regained their careers and even hold public office. However, many continue to follow these restrictions due to social pressure or because of their own choice.

Women usually accept the rules of purdah. Charles Lindholm, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Women are the wombs of patrilineage , which is the source of all honor and continuity. They must be kept secure and chaste, so that lineage itself remains pure...In maintaining the household and staying in seclusion a woman shows her own pride and honor, since she too identifies with the patrilineage of her father and then of her husband. For her, purdah is a badge of her status. She is content to let her husband do battle in public while she dominates the household.”

Pashtun Women and Honor

Pashtuns have very rigid rules about what is considered proper behavior involving women. According the concept of honor called nang things as mundane as staring at a woman, singing close enough that she can hear, a woman combing hair in public, can result in a loss of honor and require retribution.

If a woman returns a glance from a man, fails to adequately cover herself or talks too long to a male stranger she is accused of “encouraging” men and can be severely punished. If a woman acts dishonorably, she dishonors not only herself but her entire extended family. If a love affair dishonors a family both woman and her lovers and required to be killed to restore honor.

Cases involving a woman’s honor are called “tor” (black) and require the payment of “shaam namah” (shame money). If the case is considered egregious only blood can wipe out the shame and often requires the woman to be killed by the nearest mae relative to avoid a vendetta.

In February 1998 riots in Karachi that left two people dead were triggered by the elopement of a Muhajir man in his 20s and an 18-year-old Pashtun woman, against her family's wishes. Pashtun elders sentenced the woman to death because she dishonored the family. The man was shot three times with an AK-47 as he arrived at a court to address charges of having kidnapped his bride. He survived and went into hiding. The couple were called the Romeo and Juliet of Pakistan. From a prison cell he said, "We loved each other and they would not allow us to marry, s we did it anyway. I will not leave here, come what may."

Pashtun Violence Against Women

Domestic violence is common in Pashtun households. Men are expected to beat their women if they get out of line. The term for husband who does not beat his wife translates to “a man with no penis.” Women routinely display their bruises and scares with pride.

In the North-West Frontier simply gazing a few seconds too long at a woman is grounds for recriminations In some places, a man kicking a soccer ball with another man’s wife is basis for the husband to kill the man and his wife.

One Pashtun man told the New Yorker about a tailor who was having an affair with the wife of a soldier. The soldier discovered the affair an went his local jirga (tribal council) for justice. The jirga imposed a sentence for the tailor and the woman to be tied to a tree and shot before a large crowd of onlookers. When the man told the story he was asked if an injustice occurred. The man said, “it had been horrible...It was shame for the tree.”

Discriminatory practices of the Pashtuns towards have spilled over to other tribes and led to outright crimes. Kidnapping of women occurs. In some cases the punishment for rape is for the victim to marry the rapist. Women’s self help groups that have been set up in remote villages have been forced to close down after their offices have been attacked with rocks and grenades.

Pashtun Tribal Society

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “Pashtun are traditionally pastoral nomads with a strong tribal organization. Each tribe, consisting of kinsmen who trace descent in male bloodlines from a common tribal ancestor, is divided into clans, subclans, and patriarchal families. Tribal genealogies establish rights of succession and inheritance, the right to use tribal lands, and the right 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. [Source: D. O. Lodrick, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

“Pashtun social groups are well-organized. In increasing size, they are: Qabila, Taifa, and Khail. The males are the dominant members of a household. For example, if a husband dies, the widow is required to marry someone within her husband's family, even if the only person available happens to be only one year old. In this case, it appears that culture is given more weight than religion. Pashtun leaders convene to discuss and to solve major problems in the community. The jirga is the community assembly that is used to solve disputes and problems. The shura is an Islamic council that is also relied upon by Pashtun in Afghanistan for organization. Respect for the elderly is very important to the Pashtun.

The power of tribal leaders is regarded as absolute. In places where the honor system is strong there is no caste system or sharp divisions between wealth, rank or status. In the Swat and Mardan valleys, Pashtun clans observe a custom of equality known as “ wesh” that included periodically redistributing land and belongings among the rich and poor. In places where the traditional landowning system is defined by wealth and land mullahs and sayyeds (descendants of Mohammed) have their own special place in society and given special respect.

Pashtun Egalitarian Individualism

An intensely egalitarian ethos exists among Pashtun men in a clan; the tribal leader is considered the first among equals. No man willingly admits himself less than any other's equal. Nor will he, unless driven by the most dire circumstances, put himself in a position of subservience or admit dependency on another. This sense of equality is evident in the structure of the men's council, composed of lineage elders who deal with matters ranging from disputes between local lineage sections to relations with other tribes or with the national government. Although the council can make and enforce binding decisions, within the body itself all are considered equals. To attempt or to appear to coerce another is to give grave insult and to risk initiating a feud. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]

Charles Lindholm of Boston University wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Pashtuns live in a social universe of egalitarian individualism where no overarching authority is recognized. There is no police force; no central government intervenes to enforce contracts or laws. Instead it is all personal responsibility of all individuals to stand up for themselves and their patrilineal relatives.”

“Anarchy is avoided by the operation of the lineage system and the tribal code that demands generosity, hospitality and absolute obligation to avenge any slight. One who can not live up to the tribal standards is held in contempt — a fate worse than death in a culture where one’s very existence depends on the presence of one peers, relatives and allies. Order in this world is precarious, life is dangerous and one only relies on the tribal structure and the principals of honor for stability.”

Clan and Kinship Among the Pashtun

Pashtuns are organized into segmentary clans (called khels), each named for a first migrant to their area to whom they trace their ancestry. Membership is tied to landownership as well as to descent. A person who loses his land is no longer treated as a full (adult) member of the community. He no longer may join or speak in the tribal jirga, or council of tribal leaders, at which issues of common interest are debated. But because brothers divide property among themselves, rivalry builds among the children of brothers who may have to subdivide increasingly unequal portions of an original estate. Hence, a man's greatest rival for women, money, and land (zan, zar, and zamin, respectively) is his first cousin — his father's brother's son — even though the same man may be his staunchest ally in the event of attack from the outside. Lineages themselves have a notable tendency to fragment; this tendency has contributed to the existence of a number of well-established clans among the Pashtuns. At every level of Pashtun social organization, groups are split into a complex and shifting pattern of alliance and enmity. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]

Pashtuns society is organized on many levels by kinship based on clan and patrilineal ancestors. Things like alliances, inheritance, obligations and rivalries are defined by clan subsection, which is generally defined as the children of one ancestor four or five generations later. Land and rights go to sons, brothers and cousins on the paternal line, The eldest son is usually in charge of the extended family. Villages are made up of men from common paternal lines. Women marry into the clans although many are of them belong to same clans as their husbands.

Clan loyalty is important to the Pashtuns. There are eight major clans. Large clans include the southern Durranis and eastern Ghilzai. Most of the top Taliban leaders and supporter of the Afghan monarchy have been Durranis. Durranis and Ghilzai have traditionally been bitter rivals. Sometimes bloody feuds broke out between them. Tribes and clans often fight among themselves and often only unite when they are faced with a common enemy.

The smallest unit of the Pashtun clan system is the “kor,” or household. It is characterized by a group that is led by a senior patriarch or grandfather. It members are the most basic and fundamental social unit. A household may share a single compound, live in a village together or form a nomadic group/

Pashtun Governance

Pashtuns have traditionally been more loyal to their ethnic group and tribe than either Afghanistan or Pakistan. As one 25-year-old Pashtun told the New Yorker, “I have been a Pashtun for 6,000 years, a Muslim for 1,300 years and a Pakistani for 25.” Many Pashtuns want their own nation forged from the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pashtuns have traditionally ruled the Afghanistan government. In Afghanistan, the state itself evolved from the tribal system, and has historically exerted only loose control except in the major cities. In Pakistan, the Pashtuns in areas outside government control pay no rents or taxes to the government. Political power is in the hands of landlords, known as Khans, and tribal leaders, who often exert great power on village councils and municipal boards and local governments. Ordinary people have little power.

The tribes serve as local government and provide social welfare, In the tribal agencies, people only have the right to elect candidates to the national parliament not local assemblies. Tribal leaders are opposed to local elections in part because it threatens their power. According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: A. S. Ahmed has identified two principles of social organization among the Pashtun, nang (honor) and qalang (taxes or rent). In areas where nang prevails traditional values are practiced, there is little social stratification, and there is no Central political authority. In qalang areas landownership, not lineage membership, gives status and social stratification is prevalent, along with political centralization in the hands of an aristocracy. In both contexts mullahs, Sayyids (descendants of the Prophet Mohammed), and occupation groups play their special roles in Pashtun society but stand outside Pashtun genealogy. [Source: Akbar S. Ahmed with Paul Titus “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1996 |~|]

Pashtuns and the Pakistani Government

The central government of Pakistan has generally only exerted only loose control over the Pashtun tribal areas except in the major cities. From the point of view of villagers, the government has generally had little interest in them other than extracting taxes and conscripts. Pashtun have traditionally been uncooperative and hostile to government representatives. Politically, conservative Islamic parties dominate. Pashtoonkhwa Mili Awami (Pashtoon National People’s Party) is group that support an independent “Pashtinstan”

The government has traditionally dealt with tribes in the frontier areas through their councils of elders. The government system for combating tribal crime dates back to the British era. Local officials called agents issue draconian punishments against entire tribes for crimes committed by their members. The agents are regarded as very corrupt.

Pervez Musharraf, the leader of Pakistan from 2001 to 2008, tried to introduce taxation. local elections, and the rule of law to he Tribal Area but was met with sharp resistance. The tribal leaders have members of their tribes in Karachi and Islamabad and can stir up trouble there if their interests are threatened,

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “In Pakistan several different systems prevail that are largely the legacy of British imperial administration. Although most Pashtuns live in Districts where Pakistan's civil and criminal laws prevail, some tribes, such as the Mohmand and Wazirs, are within Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), while others, such as those in Malakand in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province) or those in Zhob Agency in Balochistan, are within Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA). In FATA and PATA tribal and customary law holds sway. [Source: Akbar S. Ahmed with Paul Titus “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1996]

Pashtun Justice and Crime

Pashtuns have a strong sense of what is right and not right. Pashtun tribal law has precedence over Pakistani law and Islamic law. Authority is the hands of “kashar” (elders) and in serious matters a “jirga” (tribal council). Matter can be enforced by a “lashkar” (temporary tribal militia). One tribal leader told Atlantic Monthly, “Much of my time is spent deciding cases that in another country would be handled by the family courts.

Pashtun legal matters are decided by a jirga, a council of elders. It is made of maliks who decode various intra- and intertribal matters based on tribal custom and to a less extent Islamic law. Lovers can be stoned to death. Virgins may be sold as compensation for murders. These actions are often taken to keep a disputes from escalating into a blood feud that can persist for decades, Justice comes with a price. In the 1970s a murder could set a Pashtun back US$3000; the loss of a limp or an eye half that much; a broken tooth, 100 rupees. [Source: Mike W. Edwards, National Geographic, January 1977 ♠]

Many Pashtuns defend their system as being very efficient: "A dispute outside a tribal area might lead to the courts. Here it leads to the graveyard. So a man will think carefully before he acts. In one case a man snuck into the house of a married woman and was promptly killed by her brothers. The jirga decide the shooting was justified and let the brothers go. For her part in the matter the woman was ordered to divorce her husband and was given to the dead man's family. ♠

The jirga can also end blood feuds. One feud, which had gone on for a century and claimed 102 lives, was brought to an end with a “tigah”, or truce. One of the clan members involved in the feud said, "But there is always the chance some hothead will start the killing all over again."♠

Pashtun have a tradition of raiding caravans. Banditry and kidnapping for ransom are traditions. Mines are planted to settle property disputes. I once heard about a German man traveling through the frontier region of Pakistan. He was robbed by a mob that converged on him and took everything he had and let him go. The Wazir tribe is known for hiding and protecting Al-Qaida members.

The Afridi is a large Pashtun tribe. Afridi justice can be very quick and efficient. Once group of outlaws, who had been granted asylum, shot a man on the highway. The seven outlaws were cornered in a wheat field where they were "mowed down as if they had been stalks of grain."♠

Pashtun and Guns

Blood feuds are not as common as they once were but vendetta culture is still woven into everyday life. In many places, a Pashtun never travels alone, unarmed. He will always have five or six gun toting friends with him whenever he goes anywhere. Most men still carry guns in Pashtun towns, and travel in groups to avoid ambushes by rival clans. Even college educated Pashtuns don tribal clothes and oil and load their rifles first thing when they return to their villages. [Source: Bern Keating, National Geographic, January 1967 ♥]

When Pashtun men are on move they have their gun strapped on their shoulder. Some have two to three automatic weapons slung over their shoulders Rambo-style. When they are relaxing they keep their gun resting in their lap. Sometimes, when a Pashtun man visits a friend he brings along five or six bodyguards with him. Efforts to ban weapons are often ignored. One Pakistani journalist told the Washington Post, "Guns are just part of their culture. They eat with them, sleep with them, and they celebrate their functions while firing in the air. Guns are like an ornament, a class symbol, identification." One tribesman told the Atlantic Monthly, “I will not disarm. I do not trust the government to protect me.”

Pakistan suffers from a "Kalashnikov culture," where disputes between political parties, religious groups and clans are settled with automatic weapons even grenade launchers instead words. When the British were trying to rule the North West Frontier they made the Pashtuns check their weapons at the city limits before they could enter the town.

Surprisingly there is very little gun crime in Pashtun areas. Almost everyone carries a gun. To raise a gun in anger invites almost instant retaliation and thus no one does it. One gun shop owner told the Washington Post, "The keeping of arms doesn't mean killing people. The tribe has huge amounts of guns and ammunition but we live in peace and harmony." When asked if all the guns made the place dangerous, one tribesman told the New Yorker, “We have the lowest rate of gun-related deaths here. Now we negotiate disputes in the jirga.”

Weapons in Pashtun Areas

In the old days, the weapon of choice was the British .303. Lee-Enfield rifle. Most of the weapons in the hands of Pashtuns are copies of the original made in back alley factories in the town of Darra. In the remote areas of the North West Frontier many men use muzzle loader weapons that back the mid 19th century. Why? Bullets and cartridges coast about twenty times as much as the powder and balls needed to fire a muzzleloader. [Source: Mike W. Edwards, National Geographic, January 1977]

Other common guns have included sawed shotgun, which are preferred by Pashtun leaders, and machine pistols that can fire 15 shots in one burst. The infamous fountain-pen gun is loaded with a single .32 cartridge and fired by pulling and releasing the spring plunger like a pinball machine handle. With ballpoint pen guns you pull back on the clicker. To use a pen pistol you unscrew the body, insert a bullet, pull down the top and then fire it by pushing the on the clip that is used to attach the “pen” to a pocket.

After the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, Pakistan became awash in modern weapons, supplied by both the Americans and the Soviets. Tribesman were able to get their hands on M-16 and Kalashnikov assault rifles, heavy machine guns, even artillery and surface-to-surface missiles and surface-to-air missiles like Stingers. .

Social Problems and Development in Pashtun Areas

The influence of the Taliban, fighting in Afghanistan, the war on terrorism and differences among Pashtun clans and families have led to much violence and killing both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Narcotics, particularly opium, production is a major industry in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been the largest producer of opium in the world for many years now. Much of the production takes place in the predominately Southern Pashtun areas. Use of narcotics has remained minimal among Pashtuns due to religious beliefs. [Source: revised by M. Kerr, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Since the 1980s, many Pashtuns have entered the police force, civil service, and military and have virtually taken over the country's transportation network. A former president of Pakistan, Ghulam Ishaq Khan (1988-93), is a Pashtun, as are many highranking military officers. The Musharraf government in the 2000s built better roads in the tribal areas in an effort to win support for the fight on terrorism.

A growing number of development projects in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province) have provided diverse employment opportunities for Pashtuns. Notably, the government has set up comprehensive projects like building roads and schools as a substitution for cultivating opium poppies. Incentives for industrial investment have also been provided. However, the government lost much credibility when it proposed in 1991 (a proposal soon withdrawn) to build up the local infrastructure in the Gadoon-Amazai area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province) and to encourage it as a target for tax-free investment. Observers attributed the government's withdrawal of the incentive package to local unrest. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]

Education and Health Care in Pashtun Areas

Many Pashtun have traditionally been — and still are — illiterate Schooling is often provided by madrassas. In the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan and Balochistan there are boys and girls schools in almost in every village and government colleges in every town. The government of Pakistan has established numerous schools in these areas — including ones devoted exclusively to girls — in an effort to imbue Pashtuns with a sense of Pakistani nationalism.

Girls have a legal right to attend school and feminist groups led by Marian Bibi are involved in opening up school for women. They has a been lot of resistance as the case of Malala getting shot in the head illustrates. As one women activist was setting up schools one mullah was quoted by Newsweek as saying, “Don’t allow these wayward women to enter your villages. If you see one of them, just take her home and forcible marry her.”

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “Traditionally, education took place in religious institutes and mosque schools (madrassa or maktab). In addition to these institutions, free secular education was available in most villages, at least prior to 2001. In Afghanistan, the entire educational system was disrupted due to Russian invasion in 1978, and since the pullout in 1989 to 1992, due to the civil war. During the period of Taliban control (1996-2001), education was again restricted to religious institutions, and girls were not allowed to attend school. Since the Taliban were removed from power, many schools have been rebuilt, and many girls have returned to school. However, schools that allow girls are often targeted by the Taliban insurgency. These problems tend to affect Pashtuns greatly, as they make up the majority of the population in those areas most threatened by the insurgency. [Source: revised by M. Kerr, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

There are few Western-style clinics and hospitals in the Pashtun areas. Pashtuns have traditionally sought medical help from mullahs and traditional herbalists. Sometimes jinn possession is regarded as the source of an illness and ceremonies are performed. Common treatments include wearing talismans with verses of the Quran sewn in leather or cloth. Some of their treatment are said to be of Greek origin. [Source: Akbar S. Ahmed with Paul Titus “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1996 |~|]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (, Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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