Purdah - How to Win Friends
and Influence People...Afghan Style
Please study the pages on Purdah and Afghan culture before coming to Afghanistan and after you have arrived. You will find this will greatly ease your transition into Afghan culture.
One way to build trust is to adopt forms of the culture. By doing this we build respect with the people we live among.
Since there are a variety of ways purdah is expressed (practiced) in the country, outsiders should adopt an expression suitable for their position in society; however, they should adopt other varieties of expression when conformity to those expressions would facilitate trust-building. This is especially true with purdah.
Expatriates do not want to appear to their communities as if they are challenging purdah. The appearance of challenge will impair their ability to build trust with Afghans.
It is hard for postindustrial, justice-oriented, Western expatriates to accept aspects of cultural and social systems that appear unjust like purdah. However, the most effective model of effective relational bridge building is for the expatriate to become a “student” by entering the world of the host culture and understand that culture.
When trust-building becomes the foundation of expatriate involvement in society, it prepares the way for meaningful dialogue with the host community.
Even though the society functions on a pessimistically-inclined relational trust paradigm, the society has a built-in mechanism for trust-building. This is done through extended relationships.
As outsiders adopt their lifestyles to purdah, and as they build trust in their communities, the path is open for meaningful dialogue. Within that dialogue, outsiders can be intentional and graciously challenge accepted norms.
Respectful, challenging, constructive dialogue can facilitate the community in adopting new ideas. It also authorizes them to experiment and formulate new ways of applying behaving, especially with regard to the issues relating to gender.
In a Muslim household the ‘man of the house’ expects his wife and his family to ‘make his name great and to make him a great nation’. Wives and daughters especially, have to be very careful of their conduct to not soil the husbands/fathers good name. Thus women and girls live with the burden of keeping the families good reputation and maintaining purdah.
In the home women have a bit more freedom in conduct but the position of wives and daughters is the one of serving the rest of the family. The sphere of the public belongs to men. With purdah, women should not be in the men’s sphere, especially not alone.
If a woman dares to venture forth alone into the men’s sphere, she must not be observing purdah and is a loose woman and therefore men can call out to her, play with her, touch her…Such a woman will, no doubt bring shame on her family.
It is helpful for us foreigners to be aware of this kind of world view, and to show respect for the rules of purdah.
What do Muslims think of us foreigners?
Generally they will think of us non-Muslims as people who do not know what is proper and decent behaviour, and that we are not interested in understanding or maintaining purdah.
In their thinking, the West is a place where there are no moral rules and standards - there is no purdah. Thus, we have to work extra hard on establishing a good reputation by behaving the way they see as being proper.
For this reason it is very much discouraged for a foreign woman to walk on the streets alone. It is safer to walk at least in groups of two, be this with male or female colleagues, friends or family. Two are definitely better than one.
It also makes sense to drive rather than walk. If you have a family, you will probably want to buy a car. Some expatriates have a special taxi that can be booked. Project vehicles can also be borrowed after work hours and on weekends.
Men have more freedom in public. With the present security situation though, we do not even encourage foreign men to be walking on their own.
In contact with Afghans, be it in the office, in the projects, with neighbours, it is important to be respectful, be in an attitude of humility and a spirit of wanting to learn.
Don’t state your opinions strongly like back home but listen carefully to what people are saying and try to understand what they mean.
Don’t be argumentative. If you would like people to consider a different stance, put your suggestion in the form of a question. Also ask questions to find out what people think and to learn about opinions and traditions.
Tarof, is the Persian tradition of politeness. If you come to a door, always invite the other person to enter first. If you are offered food or drink, do not accept it right away. State that it is not necessary, it is too much trouble etc.
Usually after the second offer it is alright to accept it. (If something is only offered once, then it was only thought to be polite, without actually meaning it. For example, should you drop an Afghan friend off at his home after having gone for a drive, he/she will always ask you to please come in and have dinner/tea. This is not usually meant seriously and so, after stating a reason for not being able to do it (no time, too late etc) this invitation is not given a second time).
Also if you are in an Afghan home, you will choose the seating area near the door, which is a lowly place, and the host will urge you, as the guest to please move to a position of honour, toward the other end of the room, away from the door.
Connected to this is also the tradition of greetings. The Qur'anic injunction that one should outdo the others with greetings is a big influence. When meeting a person one does not only say: Hello, how are you? Further questions are asked like, “How is your health, how is your household (meaning family) Do you have news of your parents, are they alright? Etc.
Hospitality is very important in the Afghan culture. Afghans take much care to prepare a big spread when inviting guests. Their interest in food though is pretty much restricted to their own traditional dishes. When inviting Afghan guests, the best is to serve them Afghan food rather than risk serving them foreign food, which they may not eat.
The superstition about the ‘evil eye’ is very deeply ingrained in society. There are various things people do, or don’t do, to not attract the evil eye. It starts with the baby after birth, as the Mullah or possibly the head of the household whispers the confession of their faith into the baby’s ear.
Black kohl applied around the eyes is also to protect the child against any harm done by the evil eye. One should never praise a child’s beauty or health as this would attract the evil eye.
This does not only relate to a child but also to adults, possessions, etc. If Afghans ever make a complement, they will exclaim: nAme khUdA, ‘in the name of God’. On newly erected houses you can see a banner with the Arabic phrase: MAshAllAh, which means the same thing.
Also, do not admire possessions people have, otherwise that your ‘jealous’ eye is attracting bad luck, which for Afghans it means they have to give you that article to avert the evil eye (avoid bad luck).
Because of the strict moral codes here, socializing among single expatriates takes a bit of extra planning as well. It is not acceptable for one or even several men to visit at a woman’s house. It is also not acceptable for women to visit a man’s place. The meeting place will have to be either a family home or a restaurant.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN PUBLIC
- to be quiet and subdued
- avoid meeting men's eyes
- avoid laughing or speaking loudly
- be serious when speaking with men
- Don’t shake hands with men
- women may greet women with a kiss or they may shake hands (kiss rather at the home than in public)
- cover the head and upper body with a chaddar (shawl) or a scarf
- wear the appropriate clothes, keeping your legs and arms covered
- in public be aware that you will be stared at
THE ROLE OF MEN IN PUBLIC
- local men may be seen walking hand in hand with one another as an expression of friendship
- men may greet each other with a handshake, kiss or hug
- never greet women by name in public
- avoid looking at women
- don't ask men, or male friends about their wives, daughters or other women
- there are still plenty of opportunities to be a gentleman
GENERAL BEHAVIOR IN PUBLIC
- greet people if you know them
- avoid blowing one's nose in public
- avoid pointing the soles of the feet towards people
- avoid resting your foot across your knee
- be security conscious for others - do not give out addresses or home telephone numbers: take messages for the person asked about, who can then respond
- do not make unnecessary introductions
- take off shoes when entering homes - if that is the practice of the home
- eat with your right hand (the left is considered defiled)
- NEVER put religious books on the floor
- Never put nan (bread) on the floor or ground where it can be stepped on.
Men should to be prepared to assist women – be it to accompany them on shopping trips, to do business with male officials, etc. A single man can escort groups of single women. Single women should try to go in pairs.
Author Patrick Krayer has lived among Pashtuns for twenty years and holds a PhD in Intercultural Studies.
So how should Expatriates approach the differences they encounter in the Afghan Culture?
Introduction to a Shame and Honor Culture
How Should Expatriates Behave?
What an American Mom wants you to know...Download the Free Planning Guide with More Culture Tips
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