Updated 31 Jul 2020


Pakhtun women dancing
Pakhtun women dancing

Most historians believe that Pakhtuns — a people who have enjoyed a shared legacy spread over 5,000 years despite geographical divisions over different periods — have kept up their unity as one cultural identity and stand as one nation in terms of social, cultural, traditional and literary backgrounds, despite their unique tribal traits.

Pakhtuns have lived between the coast of Oxus (the Amu River flowing through Central Asia and Afghanistan) and the Indus River since ancient times. Each tribe has its distinct traits and ways, but they collectively remain centred on one focal point: the code of ‘Pakhtunwali’, which includes their history, values and rules governing their everyday lives. It constitutes the very essence from which Pakhtuns draw spirit and potential strength.

The language — Pakhto or Pashto — is crucial in preserving, propagating and promoting Pakhtunwali. Interestingly, speaking Pashto is considered completely different from doing or performing Pakhto. As noted Pashto writer Rokhan Yousufzai explains, “Pakhto is not only a language or tool of expression, but also a practical exhibition of all social, moral, cultural, psychological and traditional values that come under Pakhtunwali. In other words, Pakhto is both a language and code of conduct at the same time, and this characteristic distinguishes it from other languages.”

According to senior research scholar Mushtaq Majrooh, Pashto literature is replete with references to Pakhtunwali. From Rahman Baba and Khushal Khan Khattak, to Ghani Khan, Qalandar Moomand, Ajmal Khattak and Rahmat Shah Sail, scores of Pashto literati have written profusely on various aspects of Pakhtunwali, glorifying its positive shades and also advocating changes to it.

“Pashto poets have a natural propensity to show attachment to Pakhtunwali and even the great Sufi poet Amir Hamza Shinwari composed poems and couplets about it scattered through the bulk of his works,” comments Majrooh. “After Sufism, Pakhtunwali is the second major subject of Hamza Baba’s writings, and every single Pashto poet and writer must make a reference to Pakhtunwali’s code of ethics in his or her literary works. The mention of Pakhtunwali makes up one-third of almost every Pashto writer’s writings.”

Revisiting Pakhtunwali, the code of conduct which encapsulates the rich Pakhtun history and culture, reveals the true status it provides women

Rokhan Yousafzai elaborates: “Pakhtuns have lively literary and cultural traditions. The tapa is a three-line verse that encompasses the entire lifestyle of the Pakhtuns — most interestingly, this literary genre was created by Pakhtun women. Pakhtuns admire their poets, writers, political leaders and social reformers who have contributed to Pakhtunwali.”

Well-known research scholar Professor Abaseen Yousafzai says that “Contradictions and controversies are always there, but Pakhtuns are unanimous on Pakhtunwali.”

One can easily understand the corpus lingua of Pakhtuns — their history and their social, religious, cultural, literary, psychological and political perspectives — in the light of Pakhtunwali, as it is a mirror to Pakhtun lifestyle in its entirety, irrespective of the people’s geographical and tribal divisions. The Pakhtunwali code of conduct is so strong that any Pakhtun found guilty of violating it has to face not only public wrath and humiliation, but is also excommunicated. A Pakhtun could be excused if he fails to fulfil any religious obligation, but violation of Pakhtunwali is unbearable in a typical Pakhtun society.

An ordinary Pakhtun may not mind if someone tells him that he is not Afghan and terms him ‘Pakhtun’ instead; only Pakhtun poets, writers and a few intellectuals will differ and try to prove their identity as Afghans. Similarly, Pakhtuns will be least bothered if someone declares them undeserving of being called Pathan, Sulemani or Rohi. But if a Pakhtun is taunted as being baiPakhto — sans Pakhto, or one who does not practice Pakhtunwali — then he will roll up his sleeves, ready to fight, because a true Pakhtun knows what social repercussions will follow if one accepts he is not doing Pakhto.

According to scholars, the word ‘Pakhtun’ is composed of five Pashto letters: paa, kheen, taa, wao and noon, and each stands for a particular characteristic that embodies Pakhtunwali. Rokhan Yousafzai informs us that paa stands for pat or modesty; kheen denotes khegara or the act of performing welfare or doing good to others; taa stands for tura meaning talwaar or a sword, symbolising bravery; wao shows wafa or loyalty and noon stands for nang or honour.

The late professor Parishan Khattak writes in his celebrated book Pashtun Kon [Who Is A Pashtun] that “Pakhtunwali is a philosophy of life among people who have been borrowing ideas from the ways of ancient predecessors, some thoughts from their surroundings and have drawn some inspiration from dialogue of other nations and religions living in their close vicinity.” He adds that Pakhtuns had originally been Zoroastrians and Buddhists and, after the arrival of Islam, found many Islamic traditions and social norms compatible with those already existing in Pakhtunwali, which is “a moral system that believes in social welfare, justice, equality and humanism, deeply rooted in cultural practices that demand devotion, bravery, hospitality and sense of honour.”

In his Urdu-language book Pakhtun Culture Ke Khadd-o-Khal [The Outlines of Pakhtun Culture], Rokhan Yousafzai writes that melmastia [hospitality], panah [providing shelter to the unguarded], badal [a social tradition in which good deeds are exchanged], jirga [system of consultation], nanawate [reconciliation], tega [ceasefire] and hujra [village guest house] are the very foundations of Pakhtunwali.

However, the problem is that Pakhtuns themselves have misinterpreted these terminologies more than others and even wrong practices in the name Pakhtunwali have replaced the indigenous traditions that were once touted as the glory of the Pakhtun nation. It is also a cultural ideology which is inclusive of women’s rights, contrary to what is widely believed.

Sana Ejaz, a noted rights’ activist and leader of the Pakhtun women’s Waak Tehreek [Empowerment Movement], believes that Pakhtunwali — like other moral and cultural systems — is dynamic and subservient to change. She says that visionary Pakhtun leaders stressed the inclusion of Pakhtun women in political struggles and advocated for women’s participation in all spheres of life.

“Bacha Khan motivated his own daughter to get an education, inspired women to write in Pakhtun — a literary/political magazine that was the mouthpiece of Pakhtuns in the early 20th century against the British Raj — and called for women to form their own political organisations. [Pashtun nationalist and political leader] Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai nominated his daughter — instead of a male relative — to run the affairs of his home while he was in jail [under British rule], and would communicate with her from prison through letters. Things have changed a lot, but Pakhtun women still have a long way to go to bring about a significant change in the overall set-up of Pakhtunwali,” she states.

Ejaz says the main objective of Waak Tehreek is to motivate Pakhtun women to play their role in society through getting access to quality education, healthcare and political posts, so that they change outdated norms perpetuated in the name of honour, and pave the way for young girls to know their social, political and human rights.

Professor Abaseen Yousafzai is of the opinion that Pakhtunwali is not a hurdle in the way of women’s empowerment and Pakhtun women have long played an effective role in almost every walk of life, noting that Malala Maiwand has been a symbol of political struggle from the British era till today. “Three years ago, some women writers approached me for advice on founding a separate organisation of writers and poets. I encouraged them and even suggested a name — Khwendy Adabi Lakhkar [Sisters’ Literary Army]. I am pleased that they have been very active — more than men — as their numbers have swelled from just a few to hundreds. The vision of Bacha Khan and many of our intellectuals encouraged the role and participation of Pakhtun women in the society.”

Regarding revisiting Pakhtunwali, especially the component of jirga, he agrees that some outdated, irrelevant and inhuman practices, such as swara [giving girls in marriage without their consent to resolve conflicts] and ghag [again, forcible marriage without a girl’s consent], need to be discarded because the original system of jirga has been corrupted, as have other values. “Pakhtunwali is open to modern criticism,” he says. “Women’s role must be encouraged and their due rights — including the power to make decisions, right to education and share inheritance — are pressing issues.”

Abaseen Yousafzai admits that, keeping in view the particular environment of Pakhtuns, the role of women was not very significant in earlier times. Still, change is inevitable and must come through, he says. He adds that history is witness to tales of the bravery that Pakhtun women have had displayed alongside men. “Women enjoy a special status and respect in Pakhtunwali. However, revisiting [the code] will widen its scope and significance in today’s modern world.”

The writer teaches English in Peshawar and contributes to Dawn on education, local art, culture and literature

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 31st, 2020