The Pashtuns

Since 9/11, the world has become aware of the existence of the people group known as the Pashtuns, the largest Muslim tribal group in the world. Pashto is their language.

There are two tribal sub-categories – settled and tribal.


Those who have settled in Pakistan probably number between 15 and 20 million people, out of which about 12 million live in the “settled areas” of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan. These are considered “settled” because they have generally left the traditional tribal system and its harsh way of life.

As opposed to tribal Pashtuns, the settled group are generally better educated, better informed, and somewhat more open to outside influences. They are also integrated fairly well into Pakistani society.

Although their society is relatively “open,” they still adhere to many aspects of traditional life. Pashhtunwali, their honor code, is prevalent among settled them, but it has been moderated somewhat by Pakistani civil society.

Islam is still fundamental to the life of the settled Pashtun. Most women still remain sheltered in homes, although more and more women are getting a university education and some are allowed to work in select fields such as education and medical work.

As H. Edwardes wrote in 1886 about them “[they are] a busy and thriving population of war-like people all armed with knives and daggers, and naturally inclined to think little of pointing their arguments with the sword.” Today, though settled Pashtuns are more peace-loving, nevertheless most households own at least one AK-47.


Other ethnic groups in southern Asia depict them as unruly, uncouth, and uneducated. They are independent to a fault. Though staunchly Muslim, even their tribal code of conduct called Pashtunwali takes precedence over religion.

A Pashtun is first a Pashtun and secondly a Muslim. They have always prided themselves in their independence from outside domination.

One way they have historically exerted their independence in the face of regional and global powers has been to harbor and protect notorious outlaws who come to them seeking sanctuary.

They have been natural fighters and joined Turkic, Mogul, and British armies as hired mercenaries. It was quite natural for them to take up arms and join the ranks of the Taliban.

Having been fed propaganda that the West wanted to destroy Islam, they willingly gave sanctuary to Osama, the high-profile defender of Islam from Western “tyranny.”

They became the hosts of al-Qaida with its fanatical global agenda. However, Pashtuns have never had grandiose empire-building designs. They have preferred a more “wild-west” style of freedom, fighting over turf and honor.

Moreover, many are growing weary of their stereotypical image of all brawn and no brains. The forces of modernization are slowly penetrating their lives and awakening new ambitions, hopes and dreams, For many even Osama has lost his appeal.

Those of Pakistan’s tribal belt (and of rural Afghanistan) are stereotypical of the “traditional Pashtun.”

The tribal belt is a mountainous area along the Afghan border encompassing 7 districts with a combined population of more than 3 million, nearly 100% of whom are Pashtun and staunchly Muslim. Traditionally they made a living by highway robbery. Today both legal and illegal trade forms the basis of the economy of this region.

What makes them different is their preservation of their traditions. Tribal Pashtuns accept no law except Pashtunwali, an unwritten law that has been etched in the hearts and minds of its people for generations.

It requires that a man be prepared to kill to maintain his honor. Practices such as taking revenge, hospitality, and the “protection” of women are major aspects of Pashtunwali.

Women are heavily sheltered from non-related men by a custom known as purdah. In some places a young wife must cover her face even in the presence of her father-in-law.

Girls are allowed to go to school, if at all, only until fourth or fifth grade, after which they must remain in seclusion. Life is harsh and tough, not only on women but on men as well.

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