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December 16, 2001
Talk about it E-mail story Print

Culture Shock
* We say we honor differences. But can we accept Pushtun ways?

  Times Headlines
By CHARLES LINDHOLM, Charles Lindholm is a professor of anthropology at Boston University and author, most recently, of "The Islamic Middle East: An Historical Anthropology."

BOSTON -- Some years ago, when my wife and I were conducting ethnographic research in a village in northwestern Pakistan, I watched a little girl get beaten by her brother while the children's mother, sitting nearby, laughed. Later that night, the boy was slapped hard by his father, but not for beating his sister. The slap came because the boy looked away when his father spoke to him. The father was absent during the day and came home secretly after dark, because, if seen, he would likely be shot by his cousin, whose brother he had killed in a fight a few years earlier. The mother, meanwhile, lived in seclusion, venturing onto village streets only in her enveloping burka. If she did otherwise, her honor and that of her husband would be sullied, and she would likely be killed by him or by his family--possibly even by her own family.

At the time we published our research nearly 20 years ago, only a few anthropologists had much interest in it. Now, because of the war, the American mainstream is learning all it can about our research subjects, the Pukhtuns--known across the border in Afghanistan as the Pushtuns. And it seems that the mainstream is horrified. What sort of people encourage sexism, beat their children, keep women in seclusion and feud with close relatives? Despite the usual American claim that difference is to be embraced, we aren't actually very comfortable with those who are different. We don't like to look too closely, preferring soothing images of picturesque people in charming costumes inhabiting photogenic landscapes and practicing exotic but nonthreatening rituals. When another culture's practices challenge our notions of the way the world should work, we either moralize or turn away. This very natural response prevents us from really engaging with people whose lives and beliefs are at odds with our own; even worse, it allows us to retain our own mistaken, if comforting, belief that people in other cultures differ from us only in superficial aspects of clothing, color and custom, but not in their hearts and minds.

The Pushtuns are the most numerous tribe in Afghanistan, totaling perhaps 10 million persons in all. The difference between Pukhtun and Pushtun is not cultural but merely linguistic, a "kh" instead of a "sh." (The British escaped confusion by coining the generic term Pathan to refer to both.) The tribe formed the backbone of the Taliban. They were also the same people who furnished the major resistance to the Soviets, who fought the British to a standstill in the 19th century and who destroyed the army of Akbar the Great three hundred years earlier. They are extremely proud of their martial heritage. As one Pushtun saying puts it, "We are only at peace when we are at war."

All the Pushtuns and Pukhtuns are members of the same great tribal lineage, the largest in the world. They all trace their genealogies back through many generations of forefathers to a common ancestor--a man named Qais. This type of societal identification is not the same as a national or linguistic grouping. One can join a nation, one can learn a language; both are voluntary. Nor is tribal identification the same as ethnicity, although both require a blood heritage. Ethnicity merely implies inherited customs and traditions; no particular form of social organization is presupposed.

A tribal society like the Pushtun, in contrast, is organized at every level by kinship. Members are linked by a lineage traceable back to a primal patrilineal ancestor (maternal links are excluded). This vast genealogical structure provides a simple basis for alliances and inheritance, as well as for obligations and rivalries. Land and rights go to sons, brothers and cousins on the paternal side. Residential groupings, too, are familial. Villages are made up of men descended from a common paternal line (women marry in, though many also are of the same paternal line). In terms of political order, those closer together genealogically unite in rivalry against those more distant, but will join them against those more distant still. As a much quoted proverb puts it: "I against my brothers; my brothers and I against my cousins; my brothers, my cousins and I against the world." This means that in principle all of the Pushtuns can unite to fight external enemies, a capacity that has enabled them to war successfully against far more sophisticated invaders.

The predominantly rural Pushtuns live in a social universe of egalitarian individualism where no overarching authority is recognized. There is no police force; no central government intervenes to enforce contracts and laws. Instead it is the personal responsibility of all individuals to stand up for themselves and for their patrilineal relatives--a kind of Wild West meets "Family Feud." Anarchy is avoided by the operation of the lineage system and by the tribal code (pushtunwali), which demands generosity, hospitality and the absolute obligation to avenge any slights. One who cannot live up to tribal standards is held in contempt--a fate worse than death in a culture where one's very existence depends on the respect of one's peers, relatives and allies. Order in this world is precarious, life is dangerous and one can only rely on the tribal structure and the principles of honor for stability.

If we understand how this works in practice, we can also understand why a woman might permit and even praise her son's violence toward her daughter. Within the patrilineal system, a woman comes into her husband's family and gains power as she produces sons. Her daughters will marry elsewhere, but her sons will stay close, bringing in wives who may seek to displace her by winning her sons' affections. Therefore, she is pleased to see her young son keeping his sister in her place, just as she hopes he will later keep his wife in hers.

Severe punishment of a boy for not showing the required manners of a Pushtun is a way of training him to present himself with proper manliness. If he does not learn this lesson, he will be insulted and abused by those seeking to push him aside. But once he has learned the arts of manhood, he will stand up for himself and earn the respect of his peers, who know he will fight and even kill to avoid dishonor to himself and his family. But because a death must be avenged, killers (and their close relatives) are themselves under permanent threat. This restrains violence considerably. In fact, until recently homicide rates in these tribal regions were low in comparison to homicide rates in urban areas of the United States.

Probably the most difficult aspect of Pushtun society for Americans to understand is the seclusion of women, or purdah. But for these tribal people, women are the wombs of the patrilineage, which is the source of all honor and continuity. They must be kept secure and chaste, so that the lineage itself remains pure. The women we studied also believed this and were not resentful of purdah. In maintaining the household and staying in seclusion a woman shows her own pride and honor, since she too identifies with the patrilineage of her father and then of her husband. For her, purdah is a badge of her status. She is content to let her husband do battle in the public world while she dominates the household, gains the love and loyalty of her sons and, if fortunate, eventually rules as the matriarch over her daughters-in-law and their children.

The harsh reality of village life is what the Pushtuns have inherited, and it is what they must live with. They recognize its inequities and tragedies, even as they accept its rules. As one of their poets says: "The eyes of the dove are lovely, my son. But the hawk rules the skies, so cover your dove-like eyes and grow claws." Yet, despite this cruel necessity, and despite the devastation wrought by 20 years of dreadful proxy wars fought on their land by outside powers, the Pushtuns retain their ancient egalitarian social system and their standards of honor and justice. If we do not understand and respect this system and the morality it entails, our intervention in Afghanistan is bound to fail.

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