‘Doing Pashto: Pashtunwali as the ideal of honourable behaviour and tribal life among the Pashtuns’ – this new thematic report by Lutz Rzehak provides an overview about the way of life of the Pashtuns, often called Pashtunwali. The term features prominently when civilian and military actors in Afghanistan discuss ways of engaging the civilian population in the southern half of Afghanistan. Most recent writing about this issue can be found in papers about the role of customary law, the Taleban or arbaki. A comprehensive account of the subject itself has been missing in English literature for some time – a void this report attempts to fill.
In current Afghanistan, the way of life of the Pashtuns is often viewed through the prism of the idiosyncratic interpretation of Islam presented by the Taleban. This perspective hinders the recognition of certain cultural values and rules of behaviour, which had been determining the way of life of many Pashtuns for a long time before the rise of the Taleban, and which remain of considerable influence today. In the Pashto language, these values and rules of behaviour are often summarised under the word Pashtunwali – which can be translated as ‘Pashtunness’ or, in a freer translation, ‘the way of the Pashtuns’.
Pashtunwali signifies a concept which can be interpreted as an ethnic self-portrait of the Pashtuns. It includes all traditions by which the Pashtuns, according to their understanding, distinguish themselves from other ethnic groups: their tribal spirit, a sophisticated code of honour, moral and ethical rules of behaviour, the demand for martial bravery, reasonable actions and consultation, a system of customary legal norms and not least, faith in Islam. But: Like many other concepts which are aimed at shaping ethnic identity, Pashtunwali describes an ideal. Among the Pashtun tribes, these values and rules of behaviour have been transmitted orally for centuries. Written accounts are of a later date.
With this paper, the author and AAN want to present a renewed overview of what Pashtunwali means in its ideal form. It is important to stress, however, that the society of Afghanistan, including Pashtun society, was subject to fundamental change in almost every respect during the last three decades of war. As a result, today the ideals of Pashtunwali compete with other value systems which gained influence during that time. The question how important Pashtunwali still is in modern Afghanistan cannot be answered in a general way and still needs to be researched more comprehensively. But it seems to be clear that the transformation of its formal and organisational aspects (principles of decision making, role of elders, art of warfare, inner coherence of tribal units and others) is more obvious than changes within the system of values. There is no doubt that ideals of Pashtunwali still continue to present an attractive and sometimes binding option today.
AAN Thematic report 01/2011. The full report can be downloaded here
The executive summary can be downloaded here
Date of publication: 21 March 2011.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020