Afghan Culture

Core Concepts

  • Resilience
  • Stoicism
  • Independence
  • Loyalty
  • Tribalism
  • Honour
  • Compassion
  • Hospitality

 

Afghanistan is a landlocked south-central Asian country bordering Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It is a multi-ethnic society, containing diverse ethnic, linguistic and tribal groups. The government is an Islamic Republic and Islamic values, concepts and practices inform many social and behavioural norms throughout society. Afghans generally have a strong sense of personal honour and are highly aware of their community’s opinion of them. Hospitality, loyalty and modesty are highly valued. However, Afghan culture and daily life have been significantly impacted by constant conflict. Resilience is now an essential trait that has become instilled within the Afghan character as a result of these experiences.

 

National Identity

The relentless conflicts of the late 20th and 21st century have produced generations of Afghans who have rarely experienced peace. They have resisted invasions from Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and continue to persevere despite the ongoing insurgency by the Taliban and others. Consequently, many Afghans think of themselves as survivors. Further, people are often strongly opposed to outside interference in internal politics. This has translated into a prevailing national attitude that strongly favours independence from controlling bodies. However, the assertion of the country’s independence has not necessarily resulted in national cohesiveness. Afghans tend to hold a stronger sense of loyalty for their kin, tribe or ethnicity than their national identity (see Ethnicity below).

 

Some older Afghans may see the hardship and political turmoil of the past few decades as a recent devastating chapter in a much longer peaceful history. Prior to the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was widely considered to be a peaceful country in the Asia region. For example, the country remained neutral during World War II. People may express disappointment or dismay at the fact that most Western perceptions of their country are formulated around news of terrorism and turmoil without insight into the geopolitical factors that caused such conflicts.

 

Such perceptions overlook many of the positive aspects of the culture, such as its respect for artistry and intellectualism. For example, the Afghan artistic style is very decorative and embellished. Many Afghan items are beautifully embroidered in woven finery, including those that are used for everyday purposes (e.g. grain bags). Embellishment is also noticeable in the language, with poetry being one of the most admired art forms. Respect is shown to those who have proof of expertise and can speak eloquently.

 

Community Organisation

According to the most recently available estimates, over 60% of the Afghan population is under 25 years of age.1 This young age structure reflects the impact of decades of conflict, widespread poverty, political instability, displacement and the lack of substantial infrastructure. Most reside in rural areas, as Afghan culture is traditionally agricultural. Many people are produce or livestock farmers living at a subsistence level. Generally, all Afghans have to work very hard to make ends meet (child labour is common from the age of five and involves both genders).

 

Most villages and rural regions tend to govern themselves. In small villages, there is a lack of schools, stores or government representation. There may be three authority figures: the village head man (malik), the master of water distribution (mirab) and the teacher of Islamic laws (mullah) whose role is to make judgements as to whether someone’s behaviour is observing of the Qur’an. Often a village will have a large landowner (khan) who governs by assuming the role of both the malik and mirab. However, an assembly of men (jirga) usually vote on the important decisions that affect the whole village or tribe.

 

Dependence upon kin and community is particularly crucial to survival as there is a broad absence and mistrust of government involvement in people’s personal lives. This is exacerbated by the underfunded social services that are often unable to meet basic needs due to corruption and lack of security. Therefore, if an Afghan is in crisis and essential needs must be met, they usually have no choice but to turn to those of the same family, village/community, tribe or ethnicity for assistance (in that general order of preference).

 

Ethnicity

One’s ethnicity is an instant cultural identifier in Afghanistan and usually defines people’s social organisation. The most common ethnic groups are the Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras. However, there are also significant populations of Uzbeks, Nuristani, Aimak, Turkmen and Baloch (among others).

 

Pashtuns

The Pashtun are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Most speak Pashto and are Sunni Muslims. Pashtun culture and social organisation have been traditionally influenced by tribal codes of honour and interpretations of Islamic law. This is recognised as ‘Pashtunwali’ – a moral and legal code that determines the social expectations one should follow to honour Islamic and cultural values. Pashtunwali, in its strictest form, is mostly only followed in rural tribes. However, its influence can still be seen in much of Pashtun behaviour. For example, values such as honour, loyalty, hospitality and protection of female relatives remain important principles of social responsibility throughout Afghanistan.

 

The Pashtun are widely regarded as the most politically influential and dominant group in Afghanistan.2 Successive governments have formed via the political expansion of Pashtun tribes with international assistance. Members of minority ethnicities have argued that the national identity of the country is exclusionary of non-Pashtun ethnicities. “Afghanistan” actually means “Land of the Pashtun” in Dari. Indeed, “Afghan” exclusively referred to Pashtuns before it came to refer to the citizens of the state.

 

Nevertheless, while Pashtuns have continuously held advantage in the political domain, many do not see or receive the privileges that come from being a member of the most dominant ethnic group. Political power and economic wealth definitively lies in the hands of the few. Many Pashtuns earn subsistence-level or very modest incomes as traders, farmers, livestock breeders and merchants.

 

Tajiks

The Tajiks have Persian heritage and are Afghanistan’s second largest ethnicity. Unlike most other ethnicities, they are not tribal and do not organise themselves by tribal association. Instead, their loyalty revolves around their family and village (or local community for those living in urban areas). This is evident in the way many Tajik last names tend to reflect their place of origin, rather than their tribe or ethnicity.

 

Tajiks are majority Sunni Muslim and generally speak a dialect of Persian found in Eastern Iran. The Tajiks tend to be more urbanised than many other ethnicities and are relatively less rigid in their adherence to provincial attitudes. Some reside in Kabul or the north-eastern part of the country. Many also live in the west, close to the Iranian border. Those who live in the cities are usually traders or skilled artisans. However, the majority are farmers and herders.

 

Tajiks commonly have a high level of education and wealth (in comparison to some of Afghanistan’s more impoverished ethnicities), which has seen them be widely considered to be among Afghanistan’s elite. According to Minority Rights Group International, this accumulated privilege gives them quite a high social status as an ethnic group. However, the Tajik political influence is not very dominant. Many Tajiks have been persecuted amidst the unrest of the past 35 years and discussions over their political representation in government continue.

 

Hazaras

The Hazara people are widely understood to be one of the most socially and politically marginalised ethnic groups in Afghanistan. They speak a dialect of Dari known as ‘Hazaragi’ and make up the largest Shi’a Muslim population in the country. Most Hazaras live in the central mountain region (called the Hazarajat) and in certain districts of Kabul.

 

The Hazaras have been persecuted by Pashtun leaders, civil warlords, the Taliban, ISIS and others due to their Shi’a Muslim beliefs. For example, government policies have excluded them from public service and capped their ranks in the military. This has resulted in their systemic lack of political power and influence in a Sunni Muslim majority country. The persecution of Hazaras has been particularly fierce as they have hereditary features (from distant Mongol ancestry) that physically distinguish their ethnicity from other Afghans.

 

Many Hazaras have lived through raids and massacres of their people, both in past and recent years. Some have escaped this danger in neighbouring Pakistan where other Sunni extremists have also sought to target and kill them. Consequently, many have been left with no choice but to flee to more distant countries. As a result, a large portion of the Afghans in Western countries are Hazara refugees who have sought asylum from this situation.

 

The Hazarajat region remains very poor, meaning many Hazaras are economically supported by a male family member who has journeyed to a city or neighbouring country to find work. Being at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy has also stigmatised Hazaras in the minds of most other ethnic groups. This is acutely reflected in the lack of inter-ethnic marriages with Hazaras. Nevertheless, more recently, Hazaras have been pursuing higher education and political positions to represent their people and become leaders in the newly emerging democracy.

 

Tribes

Within many ethnic groups, there are long-standing tribal clans formed through kinships. These tribes often live as local communities in villages. Most tribes inherit the land and means of production from their ancestors. Others may continue the nomadic lifestyle their forebears lived. In small villages and rural areas, there is usually little social mobility between occupations as people are expected to take over their parents’ form of economic contribution, which may also be circumscribed by tribal positioning.

 

Some Afghans’ affiliations to their tribes have been disrupted as conflict has forced people to prioritise their individual family’s survival. However, those who have remained connected and united with their tribe continue to be extremely loyal. For those people, loyalty to their tribe is secondary only to their obligation to their family. Tribes generally uphold:

  • the right and duty to avenge any wrong against its people;
  • the right of fugitives to seek refuge and sanctuary;
  • the duty to show hospitality to guests and protect them if need be;
  • the need to defend their property and honour; and
  • the need to defend and protect one’s female relatives.

 

Over the centuries, rival tribal groups have constantly competed over rights to land, resources, power and even women. This has engendered a competitive spirit in Afghan culture and has been the cause of a great deal of recurrent violence and disharmony between tribes and ethnicities.

 

Honour

Much social behaviour is influenced by Afghans’ awareness of their personal honour. ‘Honour’ in this sense encompasses an individual’s reputation, prestige and worth. Preservation of honour and community opinion is often at the forefront of people’s minds. It influences people to behave conservatively in accordance with social expectations to avoid drawing attention to themselves or risk doing something perceived to be dishonourable.

 

As members of a collectivist society, most Afghans consider a person’s behaviour to be reflective of the family, tribe or ethnicity they belong to. Thus, when a person’s behaviour is perceived to be dishonourable, their family shares the shame. When the dishonourable behaviour occurs outside of a person’s community, other Afghans can often quickly implicate that person’s ethnic group, tribe and/or religion as the cause of their behaviour. As a result, Afghans can be wary of the fact that they need to give a public impression of dignity and integrity to protect the honour of those they are associated with. To prevent indignity, criticism is rarely given directly and praise is expected to be generously offered.

 

The senior male of a family is considered to be responsible for protecting the honour of the family. They are often particularly concerned with the behaviour of the women in their family, as females have many social expectations to comply with. These relate to their moral code, dress, social interactions, education, economic activity and public involvement (see more in the Family section). A breach of social compliance by a woman can be perceived as a failure on the man’s behalf (her father, husband or brother) to protect her from doing so.

 

Ethnic Relations and Politics

Relationships between different ethnic groups can be tense. Minority ethnic groups have often argued that the national identity, politics and civil service of Afghanistan exclude non-Pashtuns. Pashtun public interests commonly supersede those of other ethnicities that seek greater recognition. This has been exacerbated by the fact that insurgency groups, such as the Taliban, are predominantly made up of Pashtun men. The Taliban is not only a religious extremist group, but also a Pashtun nationalist group aiming to establish an Afghan emirate.3

 

In addition to the mistreatment some ethnicities have suffered under others in the recent decades of war, there are many ethnic feuds that have been passed down through generations. For example, Pashtuns may fault the Uzbeks for the actions of the previous generations, and the violent conflict between Pashtuns and Hazaras can be traced back to the 19th century. Sometimes the Afghan sense of honour means that different groups feel old injustices need to be avenged. The loyalty to blood ties and ethnicity reflects the deep tribalism and collectivism of Afghan society.

 

Current Experiences

More recently, the ethno-linguistic groups of Afghanistan have experienced a degree of unity through the shared experience of unremitting war, displacement and survival. This has given rise to cultural resilience but also national exhaustion. As the source of the world’s largest and most enduring refugee population, many Afghans have a shared experience of exile. Millions have been involuntarily displaced to surrounding countries such as Pakistan and Iran where they reside as refugees in dangerous, marginalising and uncertain conditions. Some have fled to the West to escape capture, torture or death. The majority of Afghan-born people residing in Western countries share this war-torn experience. Today, most people wish for peaceful relations.

 

The Afghan people have also been slowly reclaiming their freedom of expression since the early 2000s. Communications have improved and developed quickly in the last 10 years or so. Today, many people have up-to-date technology and smartphones that allow them to access the internet and media outlets. Social media is also widely used, which has led to a flourishing involvement of youth who are highly politically engaged. The modern aspirations of the younger generation have changed with the arrival of the internet and mass media.

 

_____________________

1 Central Intelligence Agency, 2018
2 Minority Rights Group International, 2018
3 Seerat, 2017
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