Observations on the Role of ‘Men’ in Pashtun Society 


By Angelina Merisi

As a Western woman studying Pashtun culture for some time, I have made many observations, some of which I would like to share in this essay which focuses on the figure of the ‘Male’ in a culture which is predominantly perceived as a ‘Patriarchal society.’ We in the west are continuously fed a barrage of information through various media on the plight of Pashtun women, their often inhumane treatment and circumstances, their domestic and social difficulties, which we tend to judge, speculate upon, and compare according to our western societal views and calculations. I am not denying or failing to recognize these very real, important and often disturbing issues regarding women and like most people of the World, I abhor cruelty, injustice and mistreatment of all women and girls in all societies across the globe.

In this article however, I will attempt to draw attention to factors regarding the role of the ‘male’ figure in Pashtun society. I would like to point out that this article is based on observation and is therefore impartial and non-judgemental. I remain respectful of all Pashtun people and their rich culture which has managed, admirably, to retain its values, core beliefs, customs and traditions for thousands of years amidst the storm and upheaval of change prevalent in other parts of the globe.

What is the meaning of a ‘patriarchal society?’ It is where the male is the head of a family or tribe; males are the highest ranking; a society where men have the most power. In Pashtun society it seems that the ‘male’ child is revered and valued more so than the ‘female’ child. Why is this? Because both parents know that according to Pashtun tradition and custom, the male will be expected to carry and bear the responsibility of becoming the ‘provider’ of the future in many ways including financial. He will also be responsible for the welfare, honour and reputation of his mother, his sisters, his own future wife and her family members and also his grandparents. He will be reared and educated on the ideals of the unwritten laws of Pakhtunwali (code of honour), and will be expected to uphold these rules, moral codes and values from a young age. The Pashtun boy will learn that being a ‘man’ requires a deep knowledge and understanding of Pashtun traditions, customs and moral values which he will be expected to live his life by. (The role and importance of the religion of Islam in Pashtun society is monumental and is heavily incorporated into tradition, custom and values, but will not be discussed in this instance)

If there are any social issues facing the family such as problems concerning the law, it is the responsibility of the ‘man’ to deal with and rectify the situation. The Pashtun boy will be answerable to his own Father until such time as he gets married and becomes financially secure. And even then, he still depends on his father and family male elders if any major issues arise for him regarding law, justice or financial woes. Many Pashtun men have told me that they still feel a sense of fear and trepidation in dealing with their fathers even when discussing normal day to day issues; (In many cases these men are mature, married, and financially secure in their own right).  Obligations and acceptable social behaviour is expected of men and these pressures inevitably produce a reliance upon and subordination to the father figure/head of the family and male elders. Family unity and upholding ones responsibilities are invariably instilled into the consciousness of Pashtun boys from an early age and thus continue even when the son has long left home and has become independent.

Many writers of Pashtun culture have drawn attention to arranged marriages and the taboo subject of ‘love’ within Pashtun society. The majority of discussion has focused primarily on this aspect of culture from a female perspective. But in many cases we should remember that the groom may have had no say or choice in the decision of his marriage partner either. The concept of falling in love and marrying the boy/girl of choice is generally not tolerated and remains somewhat ‘alien’ in Pashtun culture, although some are lucky enough to choose their partner and enjoy the blessings of both families involved. In general, when the time comes, the parents will decide and announce that a son is to be married. A partner is usually chosen within the family circle or from a family of equal acceptable social status. It is difficult for a son to argue and disagree with his father’s decisions as he is dependent on him for his future happiness, security, financial and moral support. Rebellion and defiance on the part of a son, particularly if he marries without consent, can often lead to him being outcast and disowned by the family. Any disconnection or severing of ties from the family or tribe, inevitably leads to untold suffering and hardship. The saying: ‘all for one and one for all’ could describe the core value and essence of the philosophy of Pashtuns. (It needs to be stated that the question of arranged marriage in Pashtun society often depends on the social standing or ‘wealth’ of the particular family. For instance, many students, male and female, are afforded the freedom to marry their partner of choice having met their future spouse at university. On the other hand, girls from ‘lesser off’ families are often forced into arranged marriages due to the fact that in Pashtun society, females are highly protected and denied the freedom to socialize with males. Many of these girls will not attend university or receive any education, but will remain in the home until such time as marriage is arranged by the respective families)

Media sources often highlight the power and control that Pashtun men seemingly possess over women within the family. In Pashtun society, a man who fails to provide the protection, safety and honour of female family members is regarded with disdain and he loses respect along with his own honour, not just from male members of society but female also. It is expected of sons and fathers to protect and retain responsibility for every female family member even after marriage, and in some cases it will be expected of him to avenge her honour through violent and forceful means, even if she has chosen to take this path of her own free will. (The latter point inevitably uncovers the minefield subject and concept of ‘honour’ within Pashtun society and will be discussed at a later stage)

As an observer from the outside, it seems the pressures and responsibilities on the Pashtun ‘male’ figure are enormous in many respects. From a young age he receives instruction and is quickly made aware of the responsibilities and pressures that lie on his shoulders in a society that encourages the male to quantify and prove his masculinity beyond doubt. While being male also offers many great opportunities, a wider scope of choice within society along with prestige within the community, this status is achieved at a high price. A Pashtun man once told me: ‘I think that Pashtun men are doing a thankless job. They suffer from traditions and act in ‘appropriate’ ways rather than ‘desired’ ways.’

The great Pashtun poet: Ghani Khan wrote: It is a perpetual surrender – an eternal giving up of man to man and to their wise follies.’


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