Pashtun people

Pashtun people
Sultan-Ibrahim-Lodhi 140x190.jpg Shershah 140x190.jpg Abdul-Rahman-Momand 140x190.jpg
خوشال خان خټك.jpg Mirwais-Hotak 140x190.jpg Ahmad-Shah-Durani 140x190.jpg
Prince Akbar Khan.jpg MohammadAyoubKhan 140x190.jpg Ameer Abdurahman Khan 140x190.jpg
King Amanullah Khan 140x190.jpg Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan 140x190.jpg King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan in 1963.jpg
Abdul Ahad Momand 140x190.jpg Z Khalilzad.jpg Hamid Karzai 2004-06-14 140x190.jpg
1st row: Ibrahim Lodi · Sher Shah · Rahman Baba
2nd row: Khushal Khan · Mirwais · Ahmad Shah
3rd row: Akbar Khan · Ayub Khan · Abdur Rahman
4th row: Amanullah · Bacha Khan · Zahir Shah
5th row: Momand · Khalilzad · Hamid Karzai
Total population
Approx. 50 million (2009)[1]
Regions with significant populations
 Pakistan 27.2 million (2009) [2]
 Afghanistan 13.46 million (2010) [3]
 UAE 338,315 (2009) [4]
 Iran 110,000 (2010) [5]
 United Kingdom 100,000 (2009) [6]
 Canada 26,000 (2006) [7]
 India 11,086 (2001) [8]
 United States 7,710 (2000) [9]
 Malaysia and  Singapore 5,100 (2008) [10]

Urdu and Dari spoken as second languages


Islam (Sunni Hanafi)
with small Shia minority

Related ethnic groups

Tajiks · Baloch · Hindkowans · Pashai · Nuristanis · Burusho

Pashtuns (Pashto: پښتانه paṣtāná, Pax̌tun, also rendered as Pushtuns, Pakhtuns, Pukhtuns) or Pathans (Urdu: پٹھان Paṭhān), also known as ethnic Afghans (Persian: افغان), are an Eastern Iranic ethnic group with populations primarily between the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan and the Indus River in Pakistan.[11] The Pashtuns are typically characterised by their usage of the Pashto language and practice of Pashtunwali, which is a traditional set of ethics guiding individual and communal conduct. Their origins are unclear but historians have come across references to various ancient peoples called Paktha (Pactyans) between the 2nd and the 1st millennium BC,[12][13][14] who may be the early ancestors of Pashtuns. Since the 3rd century AD and onward, they are mostly referred to by the ethnonym "Afghan".[15][16][17][18]

Often characterised as a warrior and martial race, they have a tumultuous past, especially after their conversion to the faith of Islam. Their turbulent history is spread amongst various countries of South, Central and West Asia, centred around the medieval state of Afghanistan, which has been their traditional seat of power. During the Delhi Sultanate era, many Pashtun emperors (sultans) ruled the Indian subcontinent. Other Pashtuns defeated the Safavid Persians and the Mughal Empire[19] before obtaining an independent state in the early-18th century, which began with a successful revolution by the Hotaki dynasty followed by conquests by Ahmad Shah Durrani.[20] Pashtuns played a vital role during the Great Game from the 19th century to the 20th century as they were caught between the imperialist designs of the British and Russian empires. Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan; for over 300 years, they have reigned as the dominant ethno-linguistic group, with nearly all rulers being Pashtun. More recently, the Pashtuns gained global attention during the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan and with the rise of the Taliban, since they are the main ethnic contingent in the movement. Pashtuns are also an important community in Pakistan, which has the largest Pashtun population and where they constitute the second-largest ethnic group, having attained presidency and high positions in the armed forces.

The Pashtuns are the world's largest (patriarchal) segmentary lineage ethnic group. According to Ethnologue, the total population of the group is estimated to be around 50 million[1] but an accurate count remains elusive due to the lack of an official census in Afghanistan since 1979. Estimates of the number of Pashtun tribes and clans range from about 350 to over 400.[19][21]


Geographic distribution

Map of Afghanistan and Pakistan showing the predominant Pashtun areas in green color.

The vast majority of Pashtuns are found in the traditional Pashtun homeland, stretching between the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan and west of the Indus River in Pakistan, which includes Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and part of Balochistan. Additional Pashtun communities are located in western and northern Afghanistan, the Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir regions and northern Punjab province of Pakistan, as well as in the Khorasan province of Iran. There are also sizeable Muslim communities in India, which are of largely putative Pashtun ancestry.[8][22] Throughout the Indian subcontinent, excluding Pashtun-dominated regions, they are often referred to as Pathans. Smaller Pashtun communities are found in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, Europe and the Americas, particularly in North America.

Important metropolitan centres of Pashtun culture include Kandahar, Quetta, Peshawar, Jalalabad, Kunduz and Swat. Kabul and Ghazni are home to around 25% Pashtun population while Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif each has at least 10%.[23] With as high as 7 million by some estimates, the city of Karachi in Pakistan may have the largest concentration of urban Pashtuns in the world.[24][25] In addition, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Lahore also have sizeable Pashtun populations.[26]

Pashtuns comprise roughly 15.4% of Pakistan's 174 million population.[2] In Afghanistan, they make up an estimated 42% of the 29 million population according to the CIA World Factbook.[27] Some sources give 50–60%[28][29][30][31][32][33] because the exact figure remains uncertain in Afghanistan, and are affected by the 1.7 million Afghan refugees that remain in Pakistan a majority of which are Pashtuns.[34] Another 937,600 Afghans live in Iran according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).[35] A cumulative population assessment suggests a total of around 49 million individuals all across the world.[1]

History and origins

Pashtun girl.jpg

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The history of the Pashtun people is ancient and much of it is not fully researched. Since the 2nd millennium BC, cities in the region now inhabited by Pashtuns have seen invasions and migrations, including by Ancient Iranian peoples, the Median and Persian empires of antiquity, Greeks, Mauryas, Kushans, Hephthalites, Sassanids, Arab Muslims, Turks, Mongols, Palas and others. In recent age, people of the Western world have explored the area as well.[36][37][38][39]

There are many conflicting theories about the origin of Pashtuns, some modern and others archaic, both among historians and the Pashtuns themselves. According to most historians and experts, the true origin of the Pashtuns is some what unclear.[40]

...the origin of the Afghans is so obscure, that no one, even among the oldest and most clever of the tribe, can give satisfactory information on this point.[41]
Looking for the origin of Pashtuns and the Afghans is something like exploring the source of the Amazon. Is there one specific beginning? And are the Pashtuns originally identical with the Afghans? Although the Pashtuns nowadays constitute a clear ethnic group with their own language and culture, there is no evidence whatsoever that all modern Pashtuns share the same ethnic origin. In fact it is highly unlikely.[42]

Ancient references

The Arachosia Satrapy and the Pactyan people during the Achaemenid Empire in 500 B.C.

A variety of ancient groups with eponyms similar to Pukhtun have been hypothesized as possible ancestors of modern Pashtuns. The Rigveda (1700–1100 BC) mentions a tribe called Paktha inhabiting eastern Afghanistan and academics have proposed their connection with today's Pakhtun people.[12][13] Furthermore, the Greek historian Herodotus mentioned a people called Pactyans living in the same area (Achaemenid's Arachosia Satrapy) as early as the 1st millennium BCE.[14] It is believed that these may have been the ancient ancestors of Pashtuns.[12]

Some modern-day Pashtun tribes have also been identified living in ancient Gandhara (i.e. Alexander's historians mentioned "Aspasii" in 330 BC and that may refer to today's Afridis).[43] Herodotus has mentioned the same Afridi tribe as "Apridai" over a century earlier.[44] Strabo, who lived between 64 BC and 24 CE, explains that the tribes inhabiting the lands west of the Indus River were part of Ariana and to their east was India.[12]

In the Middle Ages until the advent of modern Afghanistan in the 18th century and the division of Pashtun territory by the 1893 Durand Line, Pashtuns were often referred to as ethnic "Afghans". The earliest mention of the name Afghan (Abgân) is by Shapur I of the Sassanid Empire during the 3rd century CE,[15][16][45] which is later recorded in the 6th century CE in the form of "Avagānā" by the Indian astronomer Varāha Mihira in his Brihat-samhita.[17] It was used to refer to a common legendary ancestor known as "Afghana", propagated to be grandson of King Saul of Israel.[40][46][47] Hiven Tsiang, a Chinese pilgrim, visiting the Afghanistan area several times between 630 to 644 CE also speaks about them.[15][48] In Shahnameh 1–110 and 1–116, it is written as Awgaan.[15] Ancestors of many of today's Turkic-speaking Afghans settled in the Hindu Kush area and began to assimilate much of the culture and language of the Pashtun tribes already present there.[49] Among these were the Khalaj people which are known today as Ghilzai.[50] According to several scholars such as V. Minorsky, the name "Afghan" is documented several times in the 982 CE Hudud-al-Alam.[45]

Saul, a pleasant village on a mountain. In it live Afghans.[42]
—Hudud ul-'alam, 982 CE
Names of territories during the Islamic Caliphate of the 7th century and onward.
Kelaut-I-Ghiljie, a small village-town in Afghanistan.

The village of Saul was probably located near Gardez, Afghanistan. Hudud ul-'alam also speaks of a king in Ninhar (Nangarhar), who had Muslim, Afghan and Hindu wives.[42] Al-Biruni wrote about Afghans in the 11th century as various tribes living in the western mountains of India and extending to the region of Sind, which would be the Sulaiman Mountains area between Khorasan and Hindustan. It was reported that between 1039 and 1040 CE Mas'ud I of the Ghaznavid Empire sent his son to subdue a group of rebel Afghans near Ghazni. An army of Arabs, Afghans, Khiljis and others was assembled by Arslan Shah Ghaznavid in 1119 CE. Another army of Afghans and Khiljis was assembled by Bahram Shah Ghaznavid in 1153 CE. Muhammad of Ghor, ruler of the Ghorids, also had Afghans in his army along with others.[51] A famous Moroccan travelling scholar, Ibn Battuta, visiting Afghanistan following the era of the Khilji dynasty in early 1300s gives his description of the Afghans.

We travelled on to Kabul, formerly a vast town, the site of which is now occupied by a village inhabited by a tribe of Persians called Afghans. They hold mountains and defiles and possess considerable strength, and are mostly highwaymen. Their principle mountain is called Kuh Sulayman. It is told that the prophet Sulayman [Solomon] ascended this mountain and having looked out over India, which was then covered with darkness, returned without entering it.[52]
Ibn Battuta1333

Muhammad Qasim Hindu Shah (Ferishta), writes about Afghans and their country called Afghanistan in the 16th century.

The men of Kábul and Khilj also went home; and whenever they were ques­tioned about the Musulmáns of the Kohistán (the mountains), and how matters stood there, they said, "Don't call it Kohistán, but Afghánistán; for there is nothing there but Afgháns and dis­turbances." Thus it is clear that for this reason the people of the country call their home in their own language Afghánistán, and themselves Afgháns. The people of India call them Patán; but the reason for this is not known. But it occurs to me, that when, under the rule of Muhammadan sovereigns, Musulmáns first came to the city of Patná, and dwelt there, the people of India (for that reason) called them Patáns—but God knows![53]

One historical account connects the Pakhtuns of Pakistan to a possible Ancient Egyptian past but this lacks supporting evidence.

I have read in the Mutla-ul-Anwar, a work written by a respectable author, and which I procured at Burhanpur, a town of Khandesh in the Deccan, that the Afghans are Copts of the race of the Pharaohs; and that when the prophet Moses got the better of that infidel who was overwhelmed in the Red Sea, many of the Copts became converts to the Jewish faith; but others, stubborn and self-willed, refusing to embrace the true faith, leaving their country, came to India, and eventually settled in the Sulimany mountains, where they bore the name of Afghans.[18]
—Ferishta, 1560–1620

Additionally, although this too is unsubstantiated, some Afghan historians have maintained that Pashtuns are linked to the ancient Israelites.

The Afghan historians proceed to relate that the children of Israel, both in Ghore and in Arabia, preserved their knowledge of the unity of God and the purity of their religious belief, and that on the appearance of the last and greatest of the prophets (Mohammed) the Afghans of Ghore listened to the invitation of their Arabian brethren, the chief of whom was Khauled (or Caled), son of Waleed, so famous for his conquest of Syria, and marched to the aid of the true faith, under the command of Kyse, afterwards surnamed Abdoolresheed.[54]
—Mohan Lal, 1846

Anthropology and oral traditions

Earliest Pashtun photograph in which Amir Sher Ali Khan is sitting with Prince Abdullah Jan and the Afghan Sardars in 1869.

Some anthropologists lend credence to the oral traditions of the Pashtun tribes themselves. For example, according to the Encyclopaedia of Islam, the theory of Pashtun descent from Israelites is traced to Maghzan-e-Afghani who compiled a history for Khan-e-Jehan Lodhi in the reign of Mughal Emperor Jehangir in the 17th century.[44]

Another book that corresponds with Pashtun historical records, Taaqati-Nasiri, states that in the 7th century BC a people called the Bani Israel settled in the Ghor region of Afghanistan and migrated later to the southeast areas. These references to Bani Israel agree with the commonly held view by Pashtuns that when the twelve tribes of Israel were dispersed (see Israel and Judah and Ten Lost Tribes), the tribe of Joseph, among other Hebrew tribes, settled in the region.[55] This oral tradition is widespread among the Pashtuns. There have been many legends over the centuries of descent from the Ten Lost Tribes after groups converted to Christianity and Islam. Hence the tribal name Yusufzai in Pashto translates to the "son of Joseph". A similar story is told by the 16th century Persian historian, Ferishta.[18]

Caucasian race includes Pashtun (Afghan), seen on the right bottom row.

One conflicting issue in the belief that the Pashtuns descend from the Israelites is that the Ten Lost Tribes were exiled by the ruler of Assyria, while Maghzan-e-Afghani says they were permitted by the ruler to go east to Afghanistan. This inconsistency can be explained by the fact that Persia acquired the lands of the ancient Assyrian Empire when it conquered the Empire of the Medes and Chaldean Babylonia, which had conquered Assyria decades earlier. But no ancient author mentions such a transfer of Israelites further east, or no ancient extra-Biblical texts refer to the Ten Lost Tribes at all.

Other Pashtun tribes claim descent from Arabs, including some even claiming to be descendants of the Islamic prophet Muhammad (referred to as Sayyids).[56] Some groups from Peshawar and Kandahar claim to be descended from Ancient Greeks that arrived with Alexander the Great.[57]

In terms of race, the Pashtuns are classified as Caucasians[46] of the Mediterranean variant.[58] Their Pashto language is classified under the Eastern Iranian sub-branch of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages.[59]

Early precursors to the Pashtuns were old Iranian tribes that spread throughout the eastern Iranian plateau.[60] According to the Russian scholar Yu. V. Gankovsky, the Pashtuns probably began as a "union of largely East-Iranian tribes which became the initial ethnic stratum of the Pashtun ethnogenesis, dates from the middle of the first millennium CE and is connected with the dissolution of the Epthalite (White Huns) confederacy." He proposes Kushan-o-Ephthalite origin for Pashtuns.[61][62]

Those who speak a dialect of Pashto in the Kandahar region refer to themselves as Pashtuns, while those who speak a Peshawari dialect call themselves Pukhtuns. These native people compose the core of ethnic Pashtuns who are found in southeastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. The Pashtuns have oral and written accounts of their family tree. The elders transfer the knowledge to the younger generation. Lineage is considered very important and is a vital consideration in marital business.


Research into human DNA is a new way to explore historical movements of populations by studying their genetic make-up.

Various Genetic studies have been carried out by different sources. The latest studies indicate a multi match for certain haplotypes that include in particular haplogroups J2, G1, G2c and subtypes.

The Gs include G1, G2c (Y-STR haplotype 731),2,3,5 from various studies:

Population and
n Status DYS393 DYS390 DYS19 DYS391 DYS385 DYS426 DYS388 DYS439 DYS392 DYS389 DYS438 DYS461
= add 2 to DYSA7.2
Ashkenazi Jews

Western Germany Sicilians

300 confirmed 12
11 12  
11 13,30
10 12
Pathans 1 confirmed 13 23 16 11 13,16 11 12 11 11 13,30
Pathans 6 confirmed 13 23 17 10 11 12 11 11 13,30

Some genetic genealogy studies also indicate a minor contribution to the Pashtun DNA from Iranian, Arab, Turkish and Greek peoples.[67]

The theory of Pashtun descent from Israelites is currently being studied by Navras Aafreedi and Shahnaz Ali of India.[68][69]

"Pathans, or Pashtuns, are the only people in the world whose probable descent from the lost tribes of Israel finds mention in a number of texts from the 10th century to the present day, written by Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars alike, both religious as well as secularists."[70]
—Navras Aafreedi, academic at the University of Lucknow and member of the Afridis

Israel is planning to fund this rare genetic study to determine whether there is a link between the lost tribes of Israel and the Pashtuns.

"Of all the groups, there is more convincing evidence about the Pashtuns than anybody else, but the Pashtuns are the ones who would reject Israel most ferociously. That is the sweet irony."[70]
—Shalva Weil, anthropologist and senior researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Mitochondrial DNA analysis on a 2500 year-old skeleton excavated from a Scythian kurgan at the Kizil site in the Altai Republic casts doubt on the theory of Pashtun descent from Scythians. Results showed the remains to be a member of haplogroup N1a.[71] This haplogroup is spread widely across Eurasia and northeast Africa in low frequencies but is not currently identified in Pashtuns. Precise matches to the Scythian skeleton are found in Yemen, Armenia, Egypt, Germany, and Estonia. Additionally:

  • Mitochondrial DNA extracted from two Scytho-Siberian skeletons (Altai Republic (Russia) dating back 2,500 years) show characteristics "of mixed Euro-Mongoloid origin". ("European" in this context means Western Eurasian).[72] One of the individuals was found to carry the F2a maternal lineage, and the other the D lineage, both of which are characteristic of East Eurasian populations.[73]
  • Maternal genetic analysis (of Saka period male and female skeletal remains, Beral site Kazakhstan) determined an HV1 mitochondrial sequence in the male (most frequent in European populations) and the HV1 sequence of the female to be of an Asian origin. It was suggested that the female may have derived from either mtDNA X or D.[74]
  • Y-Chromosome DNA testing (ancient Scythian skeletons dated to the 5th century BCE, Sebÿstei site) exhibited the R1a1 haplogroup. A search in the YHRD database as well as the researching scientists' own database revealed close matches were found for a haplotype found at high frequency in Altaians & among eastern Europeans and Central Anatolia. Other haplotype matches closely matched types in Poland, Germany, Anatolia, Armenia, Nepal and India.[75]

Modern era

Leader of the non-violent Khudai Khidmatgar, also referred to as "the Red shirts" movement, Bacha Khan, standing with Mohandas Gandhi.

The Pashtuns are intimately tied to the history of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India. Following Muslim conquests from the 7th to 10th centuries, Pashtun ghazis (warriors) invaded and conquered much of the Indian subcontinent during the Ghaznavids (963–1187), Ghurid dynasty (1148–1215), Khilji dynasty (1290–1321), Lodhi dynasty (1451–1526) and Suri dynasty (1540–1556). Their modern past stretches back to the Hotaki dynasty (1709–1738) and the Durrani Empire. The Hotakis were Ghilzai tribesmen, who defeated the Persian Safavids and seized control over much of Persia from 1722 to 1738.[76] This was followed by the conquests of Ahmad Shah Durrani who was a former high-ranking military commander under Nader Shah of Khorasan. He created the last Afghan empire that covered most of what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Indian Punjab, as well as the Kohistan and Khorasan provinces of Iran.[20] After the decline of the Durrani dynasty in the first half of the 19th century under Shuja Shah Durrani, the Barakzai dynasty took control of the empire. Specifically, the Mohamedzai subclan held Afghanistan's monarchy from around 1826 to the end of Zahir Shah's reign in 1973. This legacy continues into modern times as the state is led by the Karzai administration under President Hamid Karzai, who is from the Popalzai tribe of Kandahar.

Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal and Education Minister Ghulam Farooq Wardak during a joint US-Afghan letter signing in 2011.

The Pashtuns in Afghanistan resisted British designs upon their territory and kept the Russians at bay during the so-called Great Game. By playing the two super powers against each other, Afghanistan remained an independent sovereign state and maintained some autonomy (see the Siege of Malakand). But during the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan (1880–1901), Pashtun regions were politically divided by the Durand Line, and what is today western Pakistan was claimed by British in 1893. In the 20th century, many politically-active Pashtun leaders living under British rule of undivided India supported Indian independence, including Ashfaqulla Khan,[77] Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai, Ajmal Khattak, Bacha Khan and his son Wali Khan (both members of the Khudai Khidmatgar, popularly referred to as the Surkh posh or "the Red shirts"), and were inspired by Mohandas Gandhi's non-violent method of resistance.[78][79] Some Pashtuns also worked in the Muslim League to fight for an independent Pakistan, including Yusuf Khattak and Abdur Rab Nishtar who was a close associate of Muhammad Ali Jinnah.[80][81]

Hedayat Amin Arsala, former member of World Bank and Finance Minister of Afghanistan.
Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former member of World Bank, Finance Minister of Afghanistan and chancellor of Kabul University.
Asadullah Khalid in front of Rahman Baba High School in Kabul

The Pashtuns of Afghanistan attained complete independence from British intervention during the reign of King Amanullah Khan, following the Third Anglo-Afghan War. The Afghan monarchy ended when President Daoud Khan seized control of Afghanistan from his cousin King Zahir Shah in 1973. This opened the door to Soviet intervention and the rise of Afghan Marxists, who assassinated Daoud Khan along with his family and relatives in the 1978 Marxist revolution. After this, many Pashtuns began joining the mujahideen opposition against the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This included famous figures such as Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, who are currently waging a jihad against the US-led NATO forces and the Islamic republic of Afghanistan. In the meantime, millions of them began fleeing their native land to live among other Afghan diaspora in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, while thousands of them proceeded to North America, the European Union, the Middle East, Australia and other parts of the world.

In the late 1990s, they became known for being the primary ethnic group that comprised the Taliban, which was a religious government based on Islamic sharia law formed to end the civil war.[82] On the other hand, the Taliban opposition also included Pashtuns. Among them were Abdul Qadir and his brother Abdul Haq, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Gul Agha Sherzai, the Karzais, Abdullah Abdullah, Asadullah Khalid and many others. The Taliban were ousted in late 2001 during the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom and replaced with the current Karzai administration, which is dominated by Pashtun ministers.[83] Some of these include: Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal, Education Minister Ghulam Farooq Wardak, Commerce Minister Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, Agriculture Minister Mohammad Asef Rahimi and Communication Minister Amirzai Sangin. The list of current governors of Afghanistan, as well as the parliamentarians in the House of the People and House of Elders, include large percentage of Pashtuns. The Chief of staff of the Afghan National Army, Sher Mohammad Karimi, and Commander of the Afghan Air Force, Mohammad Dawran, as well as Chief Justice of Afghanistan Abdul Salam Azimi and Attorney General Mohammad Ishaq Aloko also belong to the Pashtun ethnic group. Several prominent Pashtun families include the Tarzis, Gilanis, and the Karzais.

They not only played an important role in South Asia but also in Central Asia, including the Middle East. The Afghan royal family, which was represented by king Zahir Shah, is of ethnic Pashtun origin. Other prominent Pashtuns include the 17th-century poets Khushal Khan Khattak and Rahman Baba, and in contemporary era Afghan Astronaut Abdul Ahad Mohmand, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Ali Ahmad Jalali, Hedayat Amin Arsala and Mirwais Ahmadzai among many others.

Ethnic Pashtuns of Pakistan, notably Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Ghulam Ishaq Khan, attained the Presidency. Ghulam Mohammad became the Governor-General of Pakistan from 1951 to 1955. Many more held high government posts, such as Army Chief Gul Hassan Khan, Abdul Waheed Kakar, Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Sherpao, and so on. Others became famous in sports (i.e. Shahid Afridi, Imran Khan, Jahangir Khan, and Jansher Khan) and literature (i.e. Ghani Khan, Ameer Hamza Shinwari, Munir Niazi, and Omer Tarin). The Awami National Party (ANP) of Pakistan is represented by Pashtun nationalist Asfandyar Wali Khan, grandson of Bacha Khan, while the chairman of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP) is Mahmood Khan Achakzai, son of Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai.

One of India's former presidents, Zakir Hussain, had Pashtun origin of the Afridi tribe who came from an upper middle class Pashtun family settled in Farrukhabad.[84][85][86] Mohammad Yunus, India's former ambassador to Algeria and advisor to Indira Gandhi, is an ethnic Pashtun related to the legendary Bacha Khan.[87][88][89][90]

Pashtuns defined

Pashtun children from the Khost Province of Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan.
Pashtun boys in Spin Boldak, near the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Among historians, anthropologists, and the Pashtuns themselves, there is some debate as to who exactly qualifies as a Pashtun. The most prominent views are:

  1. Pashtuns are predominantly an Eastern Iranian people, speakers of the Pashto language, and live in a contiguous geographic location across Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the generally accepted academic view.[91]
  2. They are Sunni Muslims, follow Pashtunwali and meet other criteria.[46][91]
  3. In accordance with the legend of Qais Abdur Rashid, the figure traditionally regarded as their progenitor, Pashtuns are those whose related patrilineal descent may be traced back to legendary times.

These three definitions may be described as the ethno-linguistic definition, the religious-cultural definition, and the patrilineal definition, respectively.

Ethnic definition

The ethno-linguistic definition is the most prominent and accepted view as to who is and is not a Pashtun.[92] Generally, this most common view holds that Pashtuns are defined within the parameters of having mainly eastern Iranian ethnic origins, sharing a common language, culture and history, living in relatively close geographic proximity to each other, and acknowledging each other as kinsmen. Thus, tribes that speak disparate yet mutually intelligible dialects of Pashto acknowledge each other as ethnic Pashtuns and even subscribe to certain dialects as "proper", such as the Pukhtu spoken by the Yousafzai and the Pashto spoken by the Durrani in Kandahar. These criteria tend to be used by most Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Cultural definition

The religious and cultural definition requires Pashtuns to be Muslim and adhere to Pashtunwali codes.[93] This is the most prevalent view among orthodox and conservative tribesmen, who refuse to recognise any non-Muslim as a Pashtun. Pashtun intellectuals and academics, however, tend to be more flexible and sometimes define who is Pashtun based on other criteria. Pashtun society is not homogenous by religion: the overwhelming majority of them are Sunni Muslims, with a tiny Shia community (the Turi and partially the Bangash tribe) in the Kurram and Orakzai agencies of FATA, Pakistan. Pakistani Jews and Afghan Jews, once numbering in the thousands, have largely relocated to Israel and the United States.[94]

Ancestral definition

The patrilineal definition is based on an important orthodox law of Pashtunwali which mainly requires that only those who have a Pashtun father are Pashtun. This law has maintained the tradition of exclusively patriarchal tribal lineage. This definition places less emphasis on what language one speaks, such as Pashto, Persian, Urdu or English.

Putative ancestry

Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan is a non-Pashto-speaking Indian of ethnic Afghan (Pashtun) descent.[95]

There are various communities who claim ethnic Afghan descent but are largely found among other ethnic groups in the south and central Asian region who generally do not speak the Pashto language. These communities are often considered overlapping groups or are simply assigned to the ethno-linguistic group that corresponds to their geographic location and mother tongue. They include some who often speak Dari (Persian), Urdu or Hindi rather than Pashto. Claimants of Pashtun heritage in South Asia have mixed with local Muslim populations and refer to themselves as "Pathan", the Hindi-Urdu variant of Pashtun.[96][97] These communities are usually partial Pashtun, to varying degrees, and often trace their Pashtun ancestry putatively through a paternal lineage. The Pathans in India have lost both the language and presumably many of the ways of their putative ancestors, but trace their fathers' ethnic heritage to the Pashtun tribes. Many Bollywood superstars are prime examples of this, especially Shahrukh Khan who is a non-Pashto-speaking Indian of ethnic Afghan (Pashtun) descent.[95]

Ayub Khan, President of Pakistan from 1958 to 1969, was a non-Pashto-speaker from the Tareen tribe of Abbottabad.

Small number of Pashtuns have adopted Hindko, Seraiki and other local Pakistani languages. These languages are often found in areas such as Abbottabad, Peshawar, Mardan, Attock, Multan and Dera Ismail Khan. After migration or establishing contacts in these areas, Pashtuns began adding new languages to their existing Pashto.[98] This group of people are bilingual in Hindko and Pashto, as well as Urdu and English in many caes. They are a large minority in major cities such as Peshawar, Kohat, Mardan, and Dera Ismail Khan, including in the mixed districts of Haripur, Abbottabad and Attock.

Some Indians claim descent from ethnic Afghan soldiers who settled in India by marrying local women during the Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent.[22] No specific population figures exist, as claimants of ethnic Afghan (Pashtun) descent are spread throughout the country. Notably, the Rohillas, after their defeat by the British, are known to have settled in parts of North India and intermarried with local ethnic groups. They are believed to have been bilingual in Pashto and Urdu until the mid-19th century. Some Urdu-speaking Muslims (Muhajir people) claiming descent from Pashtuns began moving to Pakistan after independence in 1947.

In Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan), an unknown number of ethnic Pashtuns (together with at the later stage numbers of Iranian-speakers, these often secondary migrants from north India) settled among Bengalis from the 12th century to mid 18th century. These ethnic Afghans assimilated into Bengali culture, and intermarried with native Bengali Muslims to provide a component of the modern Bengali Muslim meme and biological identity, most prominently among the older wealthy classes of Bangladeshi Muslims. Historical structures built by Afghan descendants can still be found there. For example, the mosque of Musa Khan still remains intact in Bangladesh. He was an ethnic Pashtun and a descendant of the great Suleiman Khan, who was born in the Suleiman Mountains but moved to Bengal.[citation needed]

During the 19th century, when the British were accepting peasants from British India as indentured servants to work in the Caribbean, South Africa and other far away places, some Pashtuns from areas constituting Afghanistan and modern-day Pakistan were sent to places as far as Trinidad, Surinam, Guyana, and Fiji, to work with other Indians on the sugarcane fields and perform manual labour.[99] Many of these immigrants stayed there and formed unique communities of their own. Some of them assimilated with the other South Asian Muslim nationalities to form a common Indian Muslim community in tandem with the larger Indian community, losing their distinctive heritage. Their descendants mostly speak English and other local languages. Some ethnic Afghans travelled to as far away as Australia during the same, see Afghan (Australia).


Amir Kror Suri, son of Amir Polad Suri, was an 8th century folk hero and king from the Ghor region in Afghanistan.[100][101]
Khushal Khan Khattak, 17th century Pashto poet-warrior from Akora Khattak in today's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.

Pashtun culture is mostly based on Pashtunwali and the use or understanding of the Pashto language. Pre-Islamic traditions, dating back to Alexander's defeat of the Persian Empire in 330 BC, possibly survived in the form of traditional dances, while literary styles and music reflect influence from the Persian tradition and regional musical instruments fused with localised variants and interpretation. Pashtun culture is a unique blend of native customs with some influences from South and Western Asia.

Pashto literature, poetry and media

The Pashtuns speak Pashto as their native tongue, which is an Indo-European language. Spoken by up to 60 million people,[102] it belongs to the Iranian sub-group of the Indo-Iranian branch.[103] It can be further delineated within Eastern Iranian and Southeastern Iranian. Pashto is written in the Pashto-Arabic script and is divided into two main dialects, the southern "Pashto" and the northern "Pakhtu".

Mahmud Tarzi, son of Ghulam Muhammad Tarzi, became the pioneer of Afghan journalism.

Pashto has ancient origins and bears similarities to extinct languages such as Avestan and Bactrian.[104] Its closest modern relatives include Pamir languages, such as Shughni and Wakhi, and Ossetic.[citation needed] Pashto has an ancient legacy of borrowing vocabulary from neighbouring languages including Persian and Vedic Sanskrit. Invaders have left vestiges as well; as Pashto has borrowed words from Ancient Greek, Arabic and Turkic. Modern borrowings come primarily from the English language.[105]

Fluency in Pashto is often the main determinant of group acceptance as to who is considered a Pashtun. Pashtun nationalism emerged following the rise of Pashto poetry that linked language and ethnic identity. Pashto has national status in Afghanistan and regional status in Pakistan. In addition to their native tongue, many Pashtuns are fluent in Urdu, Dari (Persian), and English.

Throughout their history, poets, prophets, kings and warriors have been among the most revered members of Pashtun society. Early written records of Pashto began to appear by the 16th century. The earliest describes Sheikh Mali's conquest of Swat.[106] Pir Roshan is believed to have written a number of Pashto books while fighting the Mughals. Pashtun scholars such as Abdul Hai Habibi and others believe that the earliest Pashto work dates back to Amir Kror Suri in the eighth century, and they use the writings found in Pata Khazana as proof. However, this is disputed by several European experts due to lack of strong evidence.

The advent of poetry helped transition Pashto to the modern period. Pashto literature gained significant prominence in the 20th century, with poetry by Ameer Hamza Shinwari who developed Pashto Ghazals.[107] In 1919, during the expanding of mass media, Mahmud Tarzi published Seraj-al-Akhbar, which became the first Pashto newspaper in Afghanistan. Some notable poets include Khushal Khan Khattak, Rahman Baba, Nazo Anaa, Ahmad Shah Durrani, Timur Shah Durrani, Shuja Shah Durrani, Ghulam Muhammad Tarzi, Afzal Khan, and Khan Abdul Ghani Khan.[108][109]

Pashto media outlets play a major role in the everyday life of Pashtuns. Several Pashto TV channels are available in the Pashtun regions, which also broadcast internationally. The leading one is AVT Khyber, helping to promote the Pashtun culture with their daily programs. Viewers around the world are informed about the day to day issues in their region and amused with their entertaining shows, such as the show with Amanullah Kaker which is based on educating Pashtuns by using messages in Pashto poetry.[110] International news sources that provide Pashto programs include BBC and Voice of America.

Recently, Pashto literature has received increased patronage, but many Pashtuns continue to rely on oral tradition due to relatively low literacy rates. Pashtun males continue to meet at Hujras, to listen and relate various oral tales of valor and history. Despite the general male dominance of Pashto oral story-telling, Pashtun society is also marked by some matriarchal tendencies.[111] Folktales involving reverence for Pashtun mothers and matriarchs are common and are passed down from parent to child, as is most Pashtun heritage, through a rich oral tradition that has survived the ravages of time.

Pashtunwali and tribalism

The term "Pakhto" or "Pashto" from which the Pashtuns derive their name is not merely the name of their language, but is synonymous with a pre-Islamic honour code formally known as Pashtunwali (or Pakhtunwali). Pashtunwali governs and regulates nearly all aspects of Pashtun life ranging from tribal affairs to individual "honor" (nang) and behaviour.

Afghan provincial governors at Jalalabad in 2009, discussing security and the reconstruction of Afghanistan. From left to right: Jamaluddin Badar of Nuristan, Lutfullah Mashal of Laghman, Gul Agha Sherzai of Nangarhar, and Fazlullah Wahidi of Kunar Province.

Numerous intricate tenets of Pashtunwali influence Pashtun social behaviour. One of the better known tenets is Melmastia, hospitality and asylum to all guests seeking help. Perceived injustice calls for Badal, swift revenge. A popular Pashtun saying, "Revenge is a dish best served cold", was borrowed by the British and popularised in the West.[112] Men are expected to protect Zan, Zar, Zameen (women, gold and land). Some aspects promote peaceful co-existence, such as Nanawati, the humble admission of guilt for a wrong committed, which should result in automatic forgiveness from the wronged party. Other aspects of Pashtunwali have attracted some criticism, particularly with respect to its influence on women's rights. These and other basic precepts of Pashtunwali continue to be followed by many Pashtuns, especially in rural areas.

A prominent institution of the Pashtun people is the intricate system of tribes. The Pashtuns remain a predominantly tribal people, but the worldwide trend of urbanisation has begun to alter Pashtun society as cities such as Peshawar and Quetta have grown rapidly due to the influx of rural Pashtuns and Afghan refugees.[113] Despite this trend of urbanisation, many people still identify themselves with various clans.

The tribal system has several levels of organisation: the tribe, tabar, is divided into kinship groups called khels, in turn divided into smaller groups (pllarina or plarganey), each consisting of several extended families called kahols.[114] Pashtun tribes are divided into four 'greater' tribal groups: Sarbans, Batians, Ghurghusht and Karlans.

Another prominent Pashtun institution is the Jirga or 'Senate' of elected elder men. Most decisions in tribal life are made by members of the Jirga, which is the main institution of authority that the largely egalitarian Pashtuns willingly acknowledge as a viable governing body.[115]

Pashtun celebrations and special events are also often national holidays in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A common Turko-Iranian New Year called Nouruz is often observed by Pashtuns.[116] Most prominent are Muslim holidays including Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. Muslim holidays tend to be the most widely observed and commercial activity can come to a halt as large extended families gather in what is often both a religious duty and a festive celebration.


The overwhelming majority of Pashtuns follow Sunni Islam, belonging to the Hanafi school of thought. A tiny Shi'a community of Pashtuns exists in the northeastern section of Paktia province of Afghanistan and in neighbouring Kurram Agency of FATA, Pakistan. The Shias belong to the Turi tribe while the Bangash tribe is approximately 50% Shia and the rest Sunni, who live mainly in Kohat and the Orakzai Agency of FATA, Pakistan.

The Friday Mosque in Kandahar. Adjacent to it is the Shrine of the Cloak and the tomb of Ahmad Shah Durrani, the 18th century Pashtun conqueror who became the founding father of Afghanistan.
A meeting after a religious shura in Kandahar, Afghanistan, which was attended by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to offer peace talks with the Taliban.

Studies conducted among the Ghilzai reveal strong links between tribal affiliation and membership in the larger ummah (Islamic community). Afghan historians believe that Pashtuns are descendants of Qais Abdur Rashid, who is purported to have been an early convert to Islam and thus bequeathed the faith to the early Pashtun population.[18][54][117] The legend says that after Qais heard of the new religion of Islam, he travelled to meet Muhammad in Medina and returned to Afghanistan as a Muslim. He purportedly had four children: Sarban, Batan, Ghourghusht and Karlan. It is believed that some Pashtuns may have been Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Hindus and Jews before Islam was introduced to them in the 7th century. However, these theories remain without conclusive evidence.

A legacy of Sufi activity may be found in some Pashtun regions, especially in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa area, as evident in songs and dances. Many Pashtuns are prominent Ulema, Islamic scholars, such as Muhammad Muhsin Khan who has helped translate the Noble Quran, Sahih Al-Bukhari and many other books to the English language.[118] Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani was a 19th century Islamic ideologist and one of the founders of Islamic modernism. Although his ethnicity is disputed by some, he is widely accepted in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as well as in the Arab world, as a Pashtun from the Kunar Province of Afghanistan. Like other non Arabic-speaking Muslims, many Pashtuns are able to read the Quran but not understand the Arabic language implicit in the holy text itself. Translations, especially in English, are scarcely far and in between understood or distributed. This paradox has contributed to the spread of different versions of religious practices and Wahabism, as well as political Islamism (including movements such as the Taliban) having a key presence in Pashtun society. In order to counter radicalisation and fundamentalism, the United States began English classes in Afghanistan so that Pashtuns will be able to read the English translation of Quran instead of trusting in religious scholars.[119][120] Many Pashtuns want to reclaim their identity from being lumped in with the Taliban and international terrorism, which is not directly linked with Pashtun culture and history.[121]

Lastly, little information is available on non-Muslim Pashtuns as there is limited data regarding irreligious groups and minorities, especially since many of the Hindu and Sikh Pashtuns migrated from Pakhtunkhwa after the partition of India and later, after the rise of the Taliban.[122][123] There is, however, an affirmed community of Sikh Pashtuns residing in Peshawar, Parachinar, and Orakzai Agency of FATA, Pakistan.[124] The origins of the Sikh Pashtuns are unclear. Various speculations about their origins state that they are either the descendants of Pashtun converts made by the 16th century Sikh missionary, Bhai Gurdas during his travels to Kabul, offspring of those Pashtuns whom Guru Nanak met on his voyages west of the Indus River, or the legacy of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s huge 19th century empire, which in his own words, extended to the ‘limits of the Afghans’.[125]

Performing arts

Pashtun performers remain avid participants in various physical forms of expression including dance, sword fighting, and other physical feats. Perhaps the most common form of artistic expression can be seen in the various forms of Pashtun dances.

A Pakistani man doing Khattak Dance
Farhad Darya in 2010

One of the most prominent dances is Attan, which has ancient roots possibly Greek. A rigorous exercise, Attan is performed as musicians play various native instruments including the dhol (drums), tablas (percussions), rubab (a bowed string instrument), and toola (wooden flute). With a rapid circular motion, dancers perform until no one is left dancing, similar to Sufi whirling dervishes. Numerous other dances are affiliated with various tribes notably from Pakistan including the Khattak Wal Atanrh (eponymously named after the Khattak tribe), Mahsood Wal Atanrh (which, in modern times, involves the juggling of loaded rifles), and Waziro Atanrh among others. A sub-type of the Khattak Wal Atanrh known as the Braghoni involves the use of up to three swords and requires great skill. Young women and girls often entertain at weddings with the Tumbal (tambourine).

Traditional Pashtun music has ties to Klasik (traditional Afghan music heavily inspired by Hindustani classical music), Iranian musical traditions, and other various forms found in South Asia. Popular forms include the ghazal (sung poetry) and Sufi qawwali music. Themes revolve around love and religious introspection. Modern Pashto music is centred around the city of Peshawar due to the wars in Afghanistan, and tends to combine indigenous techniques and instruments with Iranian-inspired Persian music and Indian Filmi music prominent in Bollywood. Some well known Pashto singers include Nashenas, Ubaidullah Jan Kandaharai, Sardar Ali Takkar, Naghma, Rahim Shah, Farhad Darya, Nazia Iqbal, and a number of others.

Other modern Pashtun media include an established Pashto-language film and television industry that is based in Pakistan. Producers based in Lahore have created Pashto-language films since the 1970s. Pashto films were once popular, but have declined both commercially and critically in recent years. Past films such as Yusuf Khan Sherbano dealt with serious subject matter, traditional stories, and legends. Pashtun lifestyle and issues have been raised by Western and Pashtun expatriate film-makers in recent years. One such film is In This World by British film-maker Michael Winterbottom,[126] which chronicles the struggles of two Afghan youths who leave their refugee camps in Pakistan and try to move to the United Kingdom in search of a better life. Another is the British mini-series Traffik, re-made as the American film Traffic, which featured a Pashtun man (played by Jamal Shah) struggling to survive in a world with few opportunities outside the drug trade.[127]


Imran Khan, who won the 1992 Cricket World Cup for Pakistan, made it to the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame in 2009 and is currently running for Prime Minister of Pakistan.

The most popular sport among the Pashtuns is cricket, which was introduced to South Asia during the early 18th century with the arrival of the British. Many Pashtuns have become prominent international cricketers and have traditionally been a Major Force of Pakistan National Cricket Team for the last several decades, such as Shahid Afridi, Imran Khan, Majid Khan, Mohsin Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq, Umar Gul, Junaid Khan and Younis Khan. also the Indian brothers Yusuf Pathan and Irfan Pathan claim to be have had Pathan Ancestary.[128] It has spread from Pakistan into Afghanistan in recent years, with many stadiums being built there. The Afghanistan national cricket team is dominated by Pashtun players.

Football (soccer) is considered the second most popular sport among the Pashtuns. The current captain of Pakistan national football team, Muhammad Essa, is an ethnic Pashtun from the Balochistan province. Another top player from the same area was Abdul Wahid Durrani, who scored 15 international goals in 13 games and became the captain of the team. The Afghanistan national football team includes a number of Pashtun players.

Some Pashtuns participate in various other sports, which may include: basketball, golf, field hockey, track and field, volleyball, handball, bodybuilding, weightlifting, wrestling (pehlwani), martial arts, boxing, skating, bowling, snooker and chess. Traditional sports include naiza bazi, which involves horsemen who compete in spear throwing. Pashtuns living in the northern regions of Afghanistan engage in Buzkashi, which is another ancient central Asian sport played by riding on horses.[129] In recent decades Hayatullah Khan Durrani, Pride of Performance caving legend from Quetta, has been promoting mountaineering, rock climbing and caving in Pakistan.

Squash is a sport in which Pashtuns from Pakistan became legend in. Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan are former world champions of squash, making it to the Guinness World Records. They are considered to be the greatest professional squash players of all time. Although now retired, they are engaged in promoting the sport through the Pakistan Squash Federation.[130]

Snooker and billiards are played by young Pashtun men, mainly in urban areas where snooker clubs are found. Several prominent international recognised snooker players are from the Pashtun area, including Saleh Mohammed. Children's games include a form of marbles called buzul-bazi, which is played with the knucklebones of sheep. Although traditionally very less involved in sports than boys, young Pashtun girls often play volleyball, basketball, football, and cricket, especially in urban areas. A favourite game of the Pashtuns in southwestern Pakistan is yanda, mainly in and around Pishin.

Social life and other issues

In Pashtun culture, it is often considered preferable to establish interpersonal relationship with someone from the same ethnicity, but not necessarily from the same tribe. Dating, such as boyfriend and girlfriend, is more rare in Pashtun culture than in neighboring cultures but is spreading now among the elite urbanite Pashtuns due to the rapid increase of internet and mobile phone usage.

Three defendants charged with sexual abuse of a 10-year-old boy are being escorted by a police officer inside a courtroom in Asadabad, the capital of Kunar Province in Afghanistan.

Arranged marriages are usually the only choice for the rural people but also very common among those living in urban areas, although few select their own spouses.[131] Weddings are often three days events, starting with the 'henna party' on the first day, followed by the main wedding day, and ending with a gifts party on the third day. A day before the wedding, dinner is prepared for the ceremony, and the women often dye their hands with henna.[132] Wealthy Pashtuns often rent a wedding hall inside well known hotel for three days, whilst less wealthy families usually host their weddings inside the house or build a large tent outside; in most weddings, males and females sit separately. In most cases the couples getting married are young, the groom usually in the early 20s and the bride in her teens.

Although sexual abuse, prostitution, and homosexuality are serious crimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a report by the US military serving in Afghanistan described instances of male homosexual behaviour in the Kandahar Province. It should be noted that the same US military were involved in murdering unarmed Afghan civilians in the same province during the same year. The report went on to state that whilst the practice is known of locally, local Pashtuns completely reject the label of 'homosexual'.[133] Fox News explains that:

"Though U.S. troops are commonly taught in training for Afghanistan that the 'effeminate characteristics' of Pashtun men are 'normal' and not an indicator of homosexuality, the report said U.S. forces should not 'dismiss' the unique version of homosexuality that is actually practiced in the region 'out of desire to avoid western discomfort'."

Justin Richardson, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, explains that calling these people homosexual is incorrect because "their decision to have sex with other men is not a reflection of what Westerners call gender identity." As in all other parts of the world, it is usually homeless street children, runaways, and orphans who end up turning to this kind of activities. In addition, all the people interviewed have denied being homosexual.[133][134] Another report that deals with LGBT rights in Pakistan mentions that in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pashtun men have gained notoriety for a practice known as bacha bazi.[135] It is not known, with any accuracy, how prevalent practices like these are, some believe that prevalence is high, but others assert that it is no greater than the prevalence of homosexuality in the other ethnic groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.[136]


In Pashtun society there are three levels of women's leadership and legislative authority: the national level, the village level, and the family level. The national level includes women such as Nazo Tokhi (Nazo Anaa), Zarghona Anaa, and Malalai of Maiwand. Nazo Anaa was a prominent 17th century Pashto poet and an educated Pashtun woman who eventually became the "Mother of Afghan Nationalism" after gaining authority through her poetry and upholding of the Pashtunwali code. She used the Pashtunwali law to unite the Pashtun tribes against their Persian enemies. Her cause was picked up in the early 18th century by Zarghona Anaa, the mother of Ahmad Shah Durrani.[137]

Young school girls in the Bamozai village of Paktia Province in Afghanistan.
Commando Radio-Kabul's newest DJ, Pashtana Shenwari, speaks to listeners on-the-air from the radio station at Camp Morehead in Afghanistan.

The lives of Pashtun women vary from those who reside in conservative rural areas, such as the tribal belt, to those found in relatively freer urban centres.[138] At the village level, the female village leader is called "qaryadar". Her duties may include witnessing women's ceremonies, mobilising women to practice religious festivals, preparing the female dead for burial, and performing services for deceased women. She also arranges marriages for her own family and arbitrates conflicts for men and women.[137] Though many Pashtun women remain tribal and illiterate, others have become educated and gainfully employed.[138]

Zeenat Karzai, wife of Hamid Karzai, representing the women of Afghanistan at a meeting in 2005, is sitting on the right next to the former First Lady of the United States, Laura Bush.
Shukria Barakzai, member of the National Assembly of Afghanistan

The decades war and the rise of the Taliban caused considerable hardship among Pashtun women, as many of their rights were curtailed by a rigid and inaccurate interpretation of Islamic law. The difficult lives of Afghan female refugees gained considerable notoriety with the iconic image of the so-called "Afghan Girl" (Sharbat Gula) depicted on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic magazine.[139] The male-dominated code of Pashtunwali often constrains women and forces them into designated traditional roles that separate the genders.[140]

Modern social reform for Pashtun women began in the early 20th century, when Queen Soraya Tarzi of Afghanistan made rapid reforms to improve women's lives and their position in the family. Her advocacy of social reforms for women led to widespread protest and contributed to the ultimate demise of King Amanullah's reign.[141] Civil rights remained an important issue during the 1970s, as feminist leader Meena Keshwar Kamal campaigned for women's rights and founded the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) in the 1977.[142]

Today, Pashtun women vary from the traditional housewives who live in seclusion to urban workers, some of whom seek or have attained parity with men.[138] But due to numerous social hurdles, the literacy rate remains considerably lower for Pashtun females than for males.[143][144] Abuse against women is present and increasingly being challenged by women's rights organisations which find themselves struggling with conservative religious groups as well as government officials in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to researcher Benedicte Grima's book Performance of Emotion Among Paxtun Women, "a powerful ethic of forbearance severely limits the ability of traditional Pashtun women to mitigate the suffering they acknowledge in their lives."[145]

Pashtun women often have their legal rights curtailed in favour of their husbands or male relatives. For example, though women are officially allowed to vote in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some have been kept away from ballot boxes by males.[146] Traditionally, Pashtun women have few inheritance rights and are often charged with taking care of large extended families of their spouses.[147] Another tradition that persists is swara, the giving of a female relative to someone in order to rectify a dispute. It was declared illegal in Pakistan in 2000 but continues in tribal regions.[148]

Despite obstacles, many Pashtun women have begun a process of slow change. A rich oral tradition and resurgence of poetry has inspired many Pashtun women seeking to learn to read and write.[111] Further challenging the status quo, Vida Samadzai was selected as Miss Afghanistan in 2003, a feat that was received with a mixture of support from those who back the individual rights of women and those who view such displays as anti-traditionalist and un-Islamic. Some Pashtun women have attained high political office in Pakistan.[citation needed] In Afghanistan, following recent elections, the proportion of female political representatives is one of the highest in the world.[149] A number of Pashtun women are found as TV hosts, journalists, actors and singers on several TV outlets, especially at AVT Khyber.[110] A Pashtun woman, Khatol Mohammadzai, recently became a paratrooper in the Afghan National Army Air Force, another one became a fighter pilot in the Pakistan Air Force.[150] Some notable Pashtun women of Afghanistan include Suhaila Seddiqi, Shukria Barakzai, Fauzia Gailani, Zeenat Karzai, Malalai Kakar, Naghma, and Najiba Faiz.[151]

Substantial work remains for Pashtun women to gain equal rights with men, who remain disproportionately dominant in most aspects of Pashtun society. Human rights organisations continue to struggle for greater women's rights, such as the Afghan Women's Network and the Aurat Foundation in Pakistan which aims to protect women from domestic violence.[152][153] Due to recent reforms in the higher education commission (HEC) of Pakistan, a number of competent Pashtun female scholars have been able to earn Masters and PhD scholarships. Most of them have proceeded to USA, UK and other developed countries with support from their families.[citation needed]

See also

  • Pakthas
  • Theory of Pashtun descent from Rajputs
  • Nimat Allah al-Harawi Author of Tarikh-i-Khan Jahani Makhzan-i-Afghani (The History of the Afghans)

Notes and references

  • Note: population statistics for Pashtuns (including those without a notation) in foreign countries were derived from various census counts, the UN, the CIA World Factbook and Ethnologue.
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