ALTERNATE NAMES: Pushtun; Pakhtun; Pashtoon; Pathan; Afghan
LOCATION: Southeastern Afghanistan; northwestern Pakistan
POPULATION: 8–9 million
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)
Pashtun (also spelled Pushtun, Pakhtun, Pashtoon, Pathan) are a people who live in southeastern Afghanistan and the northwestern province of Pakistan. They are one of the largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan. There is no true written history of the Pashtun in their own land. Pashtun are traditionally pastoral nomads (herders who move frequently to find grazing land) with a strong tribal organization. Each tribe is divided into clans, subclans, and patriarchal families.
Pashtun have lived for centuries between Khurasan and the Indian subcontinent, at the crossroads of great civilizations.
Pashtun are made up of about sixty tribes of varying sizes. Each one occupies its own territory. Pashtun are the major ethnic group in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, Pashtun predominate north of the town of Quetta and between the Sulaiman Mountain Ranges and the Indus River.
Pashtu is the language of the Pashtun and one of the two official languages of Afghanistan. It is also the language of twelve million Pashtun in Pakistan. Pashtu belongs to the North-Eastern group of languages within the Iranian branch of Indo-European. Pashtu is written in the Perso-Arabic script.
Some typical examples of the Pashtu language are the words used for parts of the Pashtun code of morals and manners, called Pashtunwalli. These include milmastia (hospitality); tureh (courage; also the word for sword ); badal (revenge); and ghayrat (protection of one's honor). A Pashtun tribal council is called a jirga.
Pashtun have many traditional stories, both in their own language and in Persian. One story tells of a man who wanted to discover how to change his luck. According to the story, a man may be given the opportunity to experience luck, but he must have the intelligence to take advantage of it.
A man asked his lucky brother, "Where is good luck?" "In the forest," his brother replied. So the unlucky man set out for the forest. On the way he met a lion. When the lion heard where the man was going, he begged him to ask why he was ill, and why nothing made him feel better. When the man had gone a little farther, he found a horse lying down, too weak to stand. Next he came upon a tree, who asked the man, "Please, enquire on my behalf, why am I leafless?" When the man reached the place where he found his good luck, he seized it. His good luck said, "You may have good luck, but you still do not have intelligence." The man asked the questions he carried for the lion, the horse, and the tree. His fortune replied, "Tell the lion that he should devour a fool and he will recover his health. Tell the horse that he should take a master who will ride him and he will grow strong. And tell the tree that under its roots lies the treasure of seven kings. If the treasure is dug up, the tree's roots will flourish." On his way home, the man stopped first by the tree. He told the tree, and the tree begged him to dig the treasure from his roots. The man replied, "What good are riches, since I have my fortune." When he reported to the horse, the animal begged, "Please, sir, become my master!" But the man replied, "I have my fortune now, so look for someone else to be your master." Finally, he reported to the lion that he should devour a fool—and he told the lion all about the tree and the horse, too. When the story was finished, the lion said, "You yourself are a superlative fool!" And, with that, the lion devoured the man.
He was a man of no cleverness, who could not recognize his opportunities, so his fortune did him no good.
Islam was introduced to the Pashtun in the eighth century. All but a few Pashtun tribes are followers of the Sunni Muslim sect.
Pashtun celebrate the two major festivals of the Islamic lunar calendar year: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. They also observe the tenth of Muarram, which commemorates the martyrdom of the prophet Muhammad's grandson.
Pashtun are automatically considered Muslims (followers of Islam) at birth. When a baby is born, Pashtun whisper the call for prayer in the baby's ear. The male circumcision ceremony is held at the same time as the birth celebration (at about the age of one week). Children officially join in the rituals of prayers and fasting when they reach sexual maturity, but in practice they begin much earlier.
Pashtun society is largely communal (group-oriented) and attaches great importance to an unwritten code, called Pashtunwalli. This code defines the way members should behave to keep the tribe together. Hospitality (milmastia) is important, as is the use of the tribal council (jirga) to resolve conflicts and make decisions. Other Pashtun virtues include courage (tureh); taking revenge (badal); and protecting one's honor (ghayrat). Another part of the Pashtun code of conduct is nanawati, a way of resolving differences through the group's elders.
Generally, the Pashtun of Afghanistan do not have very high living standards. Many groups of Pashtun along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan live as nomads (people who move frequently, carrying their dwelling with them).
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.
Traditional male dress is qmis, a loose-fitting shirt that reaches to the knees, and shalwar, full trousers tied at the waist with a string. A vest is usually worn over the shirt. Footwear consists of chaplay, thick leather shoes. Most Pashtun adult males wear pagray, turbans. Long strips of cotton cloth are wound around the head, leaving the forehead exposed because it is touched during prayer. The turban is fastened so that one end dangles. The loose end is used as a typ of washcloth for wiping the face. Usually men also wear a long, wide piece of cloth called a chadar on their shoulders.
Rural women wear baggy black or colored trousers, a long shirt belted with a sash, and a length of cotton over the head. City women wear the same type of trousers, a qmis (long shirt), and a cotton cloth to cover their heads. Over their clothing, they also usually wear a burqa —a veil that covers them from the head to below the knees.
Adapted from McKellar, Doris. Afghan Cookery. Kabul, Afghanistan: Kabul University, 1967.
Religious prohibitions prevent Pashtun (and all Muslims) from eating pork and drinking alcoholic beverages. Staples of the Pashtun diet include bread, rice, vegetables, milk products, meat, eggs, fruits, and tea. A favorite dish is pulaw, a rice dish flavored with coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom that has many variations.
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 mosque (religious) schools ( called madrassa or maktab). As of the late 1990s, there were boys' and girls' schools for Pashtun children in almost in every village.
Choral singing is part of the Pashtun culture. Pashtun have a folk song tradition that includes special songs for marriages and funerals. Poems known as matal are very popular. Atan is a famous group folk dance of the Pashtun.
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.
Naiza bazi, a game involving riding horses and throwing spears, is a sport enjoyed among the Pashtun. Some Pashtun also have rock-throwing competitions. Pashtun in the northern regions of Afghanistan enjoy buzkashi, or "goat pulling," a game in which men on horseback compete for possession of a dead goat or calf.
Social get-togethers are the major form of entertainment.
The Pashtun in the city sew unique designs on their clothes and wear small hats made of silk.
Differences among Pashtun clans and families have led to much violence and killing, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.
Ali, Sharifah Enayat. Cultures of the World: Afghanistan. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.
Clifford, Mary Louise. The Land and People of Afghanistan. New York: Lippincott, 1989.
Nyrop, Richard F., and Donald M. Seekins, eds. Afghanistan: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. GPO, 1986.