Afghan Culture

Family

One’s family is the single most important aspect of life in Afghanistan. Afghan culture is very collectivistic and people generally put their family’s interests before their own. This means that family responsibilities tend to hold a greater importance than personal needs. Loyalty to one’s family also generally supersedes any obligations to one’s tribe or ethnicity.

 

Throughout all of Afghanistan, family matters are kept strictly private. People are often reluctant to share personal issues with non-family members as community knowledge of a family’s struggles can bring shame on the household (see ‘Honour’ in Core Concepts). Women may be slightly more likely to open up to other women about their personal life, but usually family matters are kept within the family.

 

Household Structure 

Afghan households are generally large and multigenerational. It is customary for women to move in with their husbands’ family at marriage. Adult children usually live in the family home of their parents or in-laws throughout their life. It is rare for married couples to move out into their own home due to economic circumstances in Afghanistan. In 2010, the average size of a household in Afghanistan was reported to be 7.8 people.1 Traditionally, this is made up of a husband, wife, their unmarried daughters, and their sons and sons’ spouse and children. 

 

In extended family households, three or four generations may live together. This may be in walled compounds in which small domestic units (such as couples) have their own room, but the entire extended family shares a courtyard. In these communal living spaces, all the women work together to raise, discipline and educate the children.

 

Family Dynamics

Family roles vary between ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses and regions. Nevertheless, a traditional patriarchal age hierarchy prevails throughout all. The eldest male has the most authority and decision-making power and usually controls all family spending. Every decision has to be approved by the husband or father.

 

Men carry the economic burden of the family and often have to single-handedly support the entire household. For a husband and father in Afghanistan, this can mean having to earn enough to support himself, his wife, his children and any parent or in-law living with the nuclear family. Brothers and sons must also help to economically support the family, protect the family honour and discipline any misbehaviour. 

 

Women are largely in charge of the domestic chores, cooking, raising the children, entertaining guests and catering to the needs of the man of the house. It is seen as the woman’s duty to ensure guests are properly entertained and catered to in the most hospitable way the household can afford. The senior woman will also be in charge of portioning a family’s supply of food for the year.

 

Children are to show reverence and deference to their parents and elders. Disobedience of an elder’s words is seen as extremely disrespectful and punishable behaviour. This expectation of social compliance loosens as people gain adult independence. However, even at a mature age, an Afghan is expected to respect their parents’ wishes and take advice from those older than them. The Afghan educational system is limited, especially for those living rurally. Many young children learn entirely from the village mosque and religious leader (mullah), or their parents (usually the mother while the father works). This supports the cultural idea that parents are to be revered for their wisdom and mothers should be greatly admired.

 

Gender Roles

Gender roles are highly patriarchal and rigidly defined in Afghan culture. The men are viewed as the main income earners, while women are seen as the homemakers. Husbands are expected to provide economically for their wives and children throughout their lives. Therefore, it is generally believed that a woman does not need to be financially independent, as her husband or father’s earning power will support her. Under Islamic inheritance law, females receive exactly half of the wealth that their male relatives receive. This division is based on the idea that it is a man's duty to care for the women in his family. 

 

Broadly, men dominate the public sphere and women only have authority in the domestic realm (over their children and other women). There was some progress towards women’s rights during the 20th century that modernised the attitudes of many Afghans. However, when the Taliban came into power, they placed extreme restrictions on women, resulting in their seclusion and exclusion. Many bans were enforced that limited their involvement in the public sphere, tightened their moral code of dress and denied them an education. Such restrictions have eased but remain stricter than what most Afghans desire. However, as they are also founded on a religious and moral basis concerning a woman’s role and place in society, they are widely upheld.

 

According to the religiously based conservative view, a woman should not be available to anyone but her family – meaning generally she can only leave the house if she has a male accompaniment and is completely shielded from the public eye (usually by a burqa, chador or niqab). This depends on family attitudes and is not always adhered to in practice, but it can still create an impassable obstacle for many women who wish to work, study or access health care. Some Afghan men may feel it is their duty to accompany women anywhere in public. Rural villages are usually less strict about this rule, as the burqa often hinders a woman’s ability to work and contribute to the domestic economy. Some more progressive families or tribes see females as equally deserving of opportunities (e.g. to get an education or participate in public life). However, women are still likely to be secluded from most public decision-making and are expected to be modest and obedient to their fathers, brothers and husbands. Ultimately, the only male a woman can have true authority over is her son while he is young.

 

A breach of these expectations of social seclusion is seen as extremely shameful for the woman and reflects poorly on her husband, father or brother’s ability to keep her in check. Thus, as a woman’s misstep can bring intense shame on her family, she is often seen as the guardian of her family’s honour. The senior male of the family has the authority to make decisions that control his female family members’ behaviour in order to prevent certain behaviour and preserve the honour. An independent woman that is not quickly submissive to her husband’s rules is seen as particularly dangerous. In this sense, many Afghan men may see women as ‘powerful’ for they can damage family prestige through subtle unconventional behaviours. 

 

Separation of the Genders

Most Afghans observe a public separation of the genders that is legally enforced in some cases. Mixing of males and females only really occurs within families or closely knit village communities. In professional or educational contexts where both males and females may be employed or taught, people are cautious to maintain a physical distance from the other gender. In rural areas, men and women tend to have a closer familiarity with one another as they are often involved in making the same product but contribute in different ways to the production line (e.g. a man shearing the wool off a sheep and the woman spinning it).

 

Marriage and Dating

Marriage is considered an essential component to life in Afghanistan and all relationships are presumed to lead to marriage. ‘Dating’ is almost totally limited to getting to know the person one will most likely marry and usually occurs in the company of others (such as family members). Any meetings are usually considered a period of acquaintance prior to engagement. It is rare for an unmarried couple to be permitted time to see one another alone; however, some youth in the cities are pushing these boundaries.

 

The institution of marriage is seen as the merging of two families. Parents often arrange the marriages of their children to ensure the families are compatible. A couple’s attraction to each other is not always an important consideration. Commonly, the relationship between the husband and wife is endogamous (with parallel and cross-cousin marriages preferred). However, while marriage between kin is common, families may also try to marry outside of their family to diversify their assets.

 

People tend to marry within their tribe or ethnic group. Strong consideration is also given to the prospective spouse’s status, network, wealth and family background. Marriage can be a means to broaden a family’s access to resources or, in some cases, resolve disputes. Young girls can sometimes be married off to a debtor to satisfy a family debt.

 

The first contact between a couple is typically made by the male’s family. His female family members usually approach the girl discreetly to avoid public dishonour. The female’s family rarely approaches a male’s family to avoid being perceived as “too desperate”. Once the prospective wife’s family has agreed, the two households will then negotiate the finances of the couple and the dowry. When the engagement is announced, the two families will celebrate with a big engagement party. The groom’s family pays for the wedding celebration. It frequently lasts a night or a day, but can last for three days. During this time, the marriage contract is signed. The bride will then move into her husband’s place of residence (which is sometimes with his whole family) at its conclusion.

 

Polygamy is legal if the man can prove he can economically support all wives, but its practice is less common in modern-day Afghanistan. It usually only occurs if a man’s brother dies and his widow is left with no one to support her. In that case, her brother-in-law may marry her into his family (wife inheritance). One may find in families where there is more than one wife that each wife usually has her own room, belongings and perhaps her own kitchen.

 

Divorce is rare and stigmatised in Afghanistan. Couples that seek to end their marriage usually face huge family and societal pressure to reunite. Female widows and divorcees can easily become economically destitute if her in-laws do not inherit her.

 

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1 Central Statistics Organization, 2010
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