Kalash women dance during a festival in Bumburate valley. — Dawn
Kalash women dance during a festival in Bumburate valley. — Dawn

Kalash women continues to be the victim of malnutrition due to poverty and the rigid religious beliefs which force them to abstain from eating a number of food items known for being rich sources of protein, vitamins and minerals, says Ms Said Gul, the first Kalash woman attaining a master’s degree.

“A stale piece of maize bread and a cup of tea is what a Kalash woman gets in her breakfast, for lunch as well as dinner. Meat of he-goat and bull and honey are taboo for her as per religious beliefs. Drinking a glass of milk is unknown to her as she stores it to prepare maximum amount of cheese. Chicken and eggs are not considered a pure food and avoided by all Kalash people as part of their belief and no Kalash family has ever raised poultry,” she explained.

Kalash people living in the picturesque valleys of Bumburate, Birir and Rumbur situated in the south of Chitral, with a population of about 4,100, are famous for their primitive culture and ways of life. A Kalash woman is essentially weak and feeble by her physique and can be easily discerned from the women of other people in the valleys and poor food can be cited as the chief reason for this pathetic condition.

Generally, Kalash people are marred by poverty, which causes food insecurity, and it becomes more complicated in the case of womenfolk who face the prejudiced treatment which is intrinsic in their culture and religion.

Though the Kalash culture has undergone a good deal of transformation over the years, Kalash women continue to be affected by scarcity of food having the ingredients necessary for the body strength.

Livestock farming is the main source of sustenance of each household who raise goats in a large number and there is a galore of milk and associated products and natural honey is also extracted in large quantity in the valley, but the women remain deprived of them.

Red bean, which is produced in large quantity in the valley, is the only ‘luxury’ that a Kalash woman avails herself of, while a big part of the produce is sold in the market to earn hard cash for fulfilling other necessities of life. Bumper crop of grapes is obtained, but almost whole of it is used to produce wine and the women and children are left with a modicum of it to consume for body health. Walnut, another bumper produce of the Kalash valleys, is sold for cash without leaving a part of it for household consumption.

Malnutrition among Kalash women is said to be associated more with the sociocultural and religious conditions than with wealth as the Kalash lavishly spend their income on festivals and ceremonies which are part and parcel of their life. The ceremony arranged in case of someone’s death in Kalash valleys could be cited as an example where they spend almost all of their produce and earnings to show off their opulence and ostentation.

The Kalash people keep body of their dead at Jastakhan (the dancing place) for three days during which dancing and singing continue around the body. The family of the deceased continues arranging food for thousands of Kalash people coming from all the three valleys for three days and it is the occasion for which they earn and save.

The marriage ceremony is all simple in which a boy and girl enter into matrimony by mutual consent without making any special arrangement of feasts and similar is the case with the occasion of the birth of child.

About the lavish spending of Kalash people in death ceremony, there is an old saying that ‘the death of a Kalash is the death of the whole family’ which signified that this ostentatious ceremony leaves the surviving members with nothing in the end. In year 2018, on the death of Tor Khan Kalash in Bumburate valley, 30 goats and two bulls were slaughtered while 110kg of cheese, 95kg of desi ghee, 30kg of honey and 100kg of wheat flour was used in the feasts that continued for three days.

Zareen Khan Kalash, another educated youth, termed the lavish spending on the ceremony as ‘devastating’ for the Kalash people. He said that every rich foodstuff ranging from milk products (cheese and ghee) to honey and mutton to beef and even wheat flour is stored for this occasion.

“When my father died, I slaughtered as many as 15 goats to feed the people for three days,” he said, adding that he did not give mutton or beef to his ailing father when he needed it badly. “How better it would have been if a goat was slaughtered for him during his illness,” he added.

Four of the festivals held in a year by Kalash people also cause a great burden on their pockets who spend a lot of money on their clothing and feasts. A Kalash man generously spends on the clothes of his wife and daughters, but never thinks of spending a fraction of it on buying nutritious food for them.

A doctor who performed duty in a hospital in Bumburate valley told this scribe that the Kalash women were found highly vulnerable to different diseases due to malnutrition as they constantly missed eating some basic ingredients in their food. He said that they consumed mutton on rare occasions while eating chicken and eggs were forbidden in their society which was one of the necessary food items for the nourishment of human body and warding off diseases.

The womenfolk do not find any special attention of their male partners during pregnancy and after delivery of child, during which no proper food is served to them. The women go to a separate home in the village reserved for them during menses and delivery, which is called bashaleni locally. One can easily guess the pathetic condition of a woman who spends 10 days in bashaleni after delivery. Due to the poor food during these days, the Kalash women contract a number of illnesses while mortality rate of the pregnant women and newborns has been high in Kalash valleys.

Giving suggestions to overcome the issue malnutrition, Ms Said Gul said that Kalash must be properly educated as they were unaware of nutrition and its importance. She said that the day Kalash people learnt about the vitality of food for their future generation, they would mend their ways for which extensive awareness campaign is needed in all the three valleys. She said that different varieties of vegetable could be grown in all the three valleys for local consumption while mushrooms could be introduced here as alternative to chicken and eggs.

Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2020