A General Summary of the Pashtun People

The Pashtun People are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and comprise the largest ethnic group in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan.

One can only guess at their number, the highest estimate given at present is 40 million. If this estimate is true, it puts the Pashtuns in good stead for being the largest Muslim tribal group in the world.

Besides being so numerous, the Pashtun people have a strong sense of identity. Though a few groups in history may have subjugated them, their self-narrative is that they never have been subjugated by anyone.

This enables them to live free from the feelings of insecurity and inferiority that seems to affect those ethnic groups who have been subjugated by others for long periods of time.

Many people nowadays associate the Pashtun people with the Taliban. Though the Taliban are primarily a Pashtun movement, and though Pashtuns tend to be more conservative than the other ethnic groups in the South Asian and Central Asian regions, the Taliban only reflect certain aspects of the overall Pashtun character.

There is a reason why the British were enamored with the Pashtun people in the 1800's and 1900's. There is and has been a special aura around them. Maybe it is because the lands in which they reside are so rugged, or maybe it is due to their firm dedication to keeping their traditions alive.

Whatever the reason, the Pashtuns ignite the romance of international travel in those who have the privilege of spending time among them.

For example, if you travel in the cities of Pakistan, you come in contact with a distinctly South Asian, but contemporary and globalized culture. However, when you enter the Northwest Frontier Province and journey to Peshawar, you connect with a world that projects images reminiscent of centuries past.

In Kabul, you encounter a delightful blend of ancient and modern Central Asian influences with a touch of European. However, you only get only a small taste of Pashtun culture. You have to travel to Kandahar or Jalalabad to immerse yourself in the traditions of the Pashtun people.

The drawback of Kandahar at present is that you will encounter a somewhat uncomfortable dimension of Pashtun culture. The many years of conflict and its consequent isolation has caused the people to become somewhat xenophobic.

(Xenophobia is found in many parts of the world where there has been a strong need to protect oneself. In these situations, one must clearly define who is an insider and who is an outsider. In conflict zones, it is essential to define who is an insider because you need to know whom you can trust.)

However, the Pashtun people in Jalalabad are more relaxed and are freer to practice the traditional hospitality for which they are renown.

As you can now imagine from what you have read thus far, two words describe Pashtun culture: traditional and tribal. You cannot spend much time among them without encountering their traditions which are rooted in their tribal ways.

First, Pashtun people often wear the traditional shalwar-chamise. This is the name for the earth-toned, baggy, pants-shirt outfit that you typically see in photographs. Many Pashtuns also wear a turban and vest (waist coat). Most if not all Pashtun men sport a thick mustache or a beard of various lengths.

Women wear a variety of coverings as they walk the streets. They may wear the shuttlecock covering called a burqa, or the black veil and coat, called the niqab and <jilbab, which leave only a slit revealing the eyes.

Or the women may simply wrap themselves with a long sheet of cloth, called a chadar. This tradition of women covering themselves possibly dates back to pre-Islamic times. It certainly is a tradition that is supported and sustained by the sacred writings of Islam.

The Pashtuns have an idealized code of conduct called Pashtunwali. This code dates back centuries and it contributed to the shaping of their tribal traditions. Since Pashtuns are in transition, moving from tribal to civil societies, the code is often not followed. However, it plays an important role in enabling Pashtuns to create their strong, corporate identity.

An integral aspect of the code is ghayrat, or honor. Tribal societies are often honor and shame based.

If someone shames a person from an honor-shame society, that person should proceed with caution. The dishonored person is bound to uphold his honor and dignity in some way.

The English word honor does not portray all that ghayrat entails. Ghayrat is a word that includes one’s emotions as well as one’s honor. A story of a young man who excelled in medical college exemplifies the meaning of ghayrat.

This student was in the top position of his graduating class. When the certificates were being handed out, the planners of the ceremony decided to hand out the certificates in alphabetical order, not in the order of the students’ final scores.

When the young man saw that his name was not called first, he stood up, and stormed out of the ceremony. He never received his diploma and he never practiced medicine. This was all due to his perceived affront to his honor in not being properly recognized as the top student.

Another aspect of the code is revenge. Civil societies have justice systems that investigate crimes, make arrests, try the accused, and punish the culprits. These justice systems are meant to restrict crime. Tribal societies do not enjoy such an infrastructure. Thus, people themselves have to make justice happen to deter crime.

Due to this, revenge is a crucial aspect of the tribal justice code. For example, if someone kills a man, only the relatives of the slain will seek justice. The twist in Pashtun culture is that retaliation is not restricted to the culprit.

Any member of his extended family can be killed in order to avenge the murder. This can extend down to the second or third generation. There is a Pashtun proverb that says: “After one hundred years I got my revenge, but I got it quickly.”

Another aspect of the code is loyalty. A Pashtun is loyal to his friends and relatives, even to his own detriment.

For example, if a man is poor and his friend comes to him and asks him for a loan, even if the man has no money in the house, he find a way to give his friend the money. He will do it even if he has to take a loan from others. This undying loyalty is partly the reason why Pashtuns have gained the admiration of so many throughout the ages.

This has been a very brief introduction to the Pashtun people. There are a number of interesting books that give much more detail. Here are some of these resources if you would like to refer to them:

Author Patrick Krayer has a PhD in Intercultural Studies and has worked in South and Central Asia for over 20 years.

Pashtun People: A Bibliography

Allen, Charles. 2000. Soldier Sahibs: The Men Who Made the North-West Frontier. London, UK: Abacus.

Caroe, Olaf. 1958. The Pathans 550 B.C. - A.D. 1957. 1983 Reprint ed. Karachi: Oxford University Press.

Edwards, David B. 1996. Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier. Edited by B. D. Metcalf. 21 vols. Vol. 21, Comparative Studies on Muslim Societies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pennell, T. L., 1975. Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier. Second ed. Karachi: Oxford University Press.

Spain, James W. 1972. The Way of the Pathans. Second ed. Karachi: Oxford University Press.

I'd like to know even more about the Pashtuns from experts who have lived among the Pashtuns for decades.

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