Purdah - How Should Expatriates Behave?

Please study these pages on purdah well, both before and after arrival to Afghanistan.

Introduction to Purdah

How to win friends and influence people...Afghan style

Expats should cautiously, sensitively, and intentionally address the Afghan cultural system. This should be integrated into whatever they are doing, whether they are development workers, business people, military personnel, or diplomats.

The boundaries of behavior are part of the Afghan social system. The assumptions and values behind that social system are part of the Afghan cultural system.

A cultural system is an integrated amalgamation of the culture’s worldview, myths/narratives, beliefs, assumptions, values, symbols and rituals and the resulting emotional attachment an insider has to all these.

People do not quickly change aspects of their cultural systems. They generally resist change because change is seen as wrong or socially destabilizing. This is why expats should be cautious, sensitive about initiating change.

Why should we think about initiating change? The purpose of effective development and outside involvement is not to simply increase efficiency and economic gain, the purpose is to enable people to reach their fullest potential as human beings.

Effective intercultural involvement releases people at the personal and communal levels from destructive and limiting ideas and behaviors. Thus, effective intercultural involvement requires intentionally addressing those issues in their cultural system that impair people’s capacity to positively develop themselves.

Effective human development is multi-dimensional. It takes seriously the powerful influence cultural and social systems have on each other. It recognizes that these are “semi-autonomous systems that reinforce each other” (Paul Hiebert).

Some impediments to change are identifiable within the Afghan context.

First, Afghans see their social world in terms of insiders or outsiders. Due to a pessimistically-inclined, relational paradigm Afghans view outsiders with a significant level of suspicion.

Though this suspicion is neutralized over time within the context of personal relationships, this inclination toward suspicion negatively impairs the ability of outsiders in introducing innovative ideas to the society and seeing such ideas diffused.

Afghans’ suspicion of outsiders only intensifies when outsiders try to introduce changes that contradict their assumptions and values. This aversion increases when their values are sanctioned by Islamic sacred writ.

Their aversion also intensifies when any changes touch the way they maintain social order through purdah. In the Afghan mindset, an Afghan has to protect his women and ensure their sanctity (namus). This is non-negotiable.

An Afghan cannot feel threatened in this area. If threatened, an Afghan may respond out of ghairat, which is an emotion that overrides the intellect and demands retaliatory action.

Although there are some urban Afghans who have discontinued holding traditional, demeaning values about women, the data indicates that traditional values exert significant influence upon the entire society.

The fact that some changes are occurring demonstrates that the values are being reevaluated. This should encourage expatriates that change is possible.

However, if the society feels threatened from the outside, any reflective process that the Afghans are engaged in may be hampered. Those who are resistant to change may employ defensive posturing rhetoric (i.e., “we are under attack”) in order to discourage change.

The Afghans’ negatively-inclined disposition toward outsiders causes the society to view outsiders with suspicion. The antidote for this is to build trust through relationships.

Building a platform of trust takes time; however, it is essential if expatriates expect their ideas to gain acceptance in the community. This is especially true when ideas happen to touch upon the values and customs regarding women and purdah.

Author Patrick Krayer has lived among Pashtuns for twenty years and holds a PhD in Intercultural Studies.

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