Pashtun people

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Peoples

(پښتون Paṣtun)
Total population c. 40-45 million (est.)
Regions with significant populations Afghanistan:

United Arab Emirates:
United Kingdom:
United States:

Language Pashto, Dari, Hindko
Religion Islam, predominantly Sunni also some Shia
Related ethnic groups Other Iranic peoples, Dards, Hindkowans, Nuristanis

Pashtuns (also Pushtuns, Pakhtuns, Pukhtuns; Pashto: پښتون Paṣtun, Persian: پختون Paxtun, Urdu: پشتون Pashtūn), or Pathans ( Urdu: پٹھان, Hindi: पठान, Paṭhān) and or ethnic Afghans are an ethno-linguistic group primarily in eastern and southern Afghanistan and in the North West Frontier Province, Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Balochistan provinces of Pakistan. The Pashtuns are typically characterized by their language, and their adherence to Pashtunwali (a pre-Islamic indigenous religious code of honour and culture) and Islam.

Pashtuns have survived a turbulent history over several millennia, during which they have rarely been united. Their modern past began with the rise of the Durrani Empire in 1747. Pashtun martial prowess has been renowned since Alexander the Great ran up against them in the 3rd century BC. The Pashtuns were one of the few groups that managed to impede British imperialism during the 19th century, and as a result were designated within the racialist category of Martial Races. Pashtuns played a pivotal role in the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979–89), as many joined the ranks of the Mujahideen. The Pashtuns gained notoriety with the rise and fall of the Taliban, since they were the main ethnic contingent in the movement. Modern Pashtuns have been prominent in the rebuilding of Afghanistan and are an important community in Pakistan, where they are the second-largest ethnic group.

The Pashtuns are the world's largest (patriarchal) segmentary lineage tribal group. The total population of the group is estimated to be at least 45 million, but an accurate count remains elusive because there has not been an official census in Afghanistan since the 1970s, and because of the migratory nature of many Pashtun tribes and the practice of secluding women in Pakistan.


The vast majority of Pashtuns can be found in an area stretching from southeastern Afghanistan to western Pakistan. Small additional colonies can be found in the Northern Areas, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Karachi in Pakistan as well as in other parts of Afghanistan. There are smaller communities in Iran and India, and a large migrant worker community in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Important metropolitan centers of Pashtun culture include Peshawar and Kandahar, while Kabul and Quetta, though having large Pashtun populations, are more mixed cities of cultural significance.

Pashtuns comprise about 42% of Afghanistan's population totaling 12.5 million and over 15.42% of Pakistan's population or 28 million. This suggests a total of roughly 40 million. Though no official sensus has ever been made in Afghanistan, some higher estimates place speakers of Pashto at 60 to 65% of the population. The exact measure of all of these figures remains uncertain, particularly those for Afghanistan, and are affected by approximately 3 million Afghan refugees (of which 81.5% or 2.49 million are ethnic Pashtuns) that remain in Pakistan.

History and origins

The history of the Pashtuns is ancient and much of it has yet to be recorded in contemporary times. From the 2nd millennium BCE to the present, Pashtun regions have seen immense migrations including Aryan tribes, such as Persians, Sakas, or Scythians, as well as Kushans, Hephthalites, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols. There are many conflicting theories about the origins of the Pashtun people, some modern and others archaic, both among historians and the Pashtuns themselves.

Anthropology and linguistics

The origins of the Pashtuns are not entirely clear, but their language is classified as an Eastern Iranian tongue, itself a sub-branch of the Indo-Iranian branch of the greater Indo-European family of languages, and thus the Pashtuns are often classified as an Iranian peoples, notably as probable modern day descendants of the Scythians, an ancient Iranian group. According to many academics, such as Yu V. Gankovsky, the Pashtuns 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 AD and is connected with the dissolution of the Epthalite (White Huns) confederacy." These tribes, who most likely spoke an early version of modern Pashto survived countless invasions and spread throughout the northeastern Iranian plateau.

The Pashto-speaking Pashtuns refer to themselves as Pashtuns or Pukhtuns depending upon whether they are speakers of the southern dialect or northern dialect respectively. These Pashtuns compose the core of ethnic Pashtuns who are predominantly an Iranian people are found in southern and eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. Many Pashto-speaking Pashtuns have however intermingled with various invaders, neighboring groups, and migrants (as have the other Iranian peoples) including possibly the Ghilzai who may have mingled with Turkic tribes, the Durrani who have interacted considerably with the Tajiks (another Iranian people), and Pashtun tribes north of Peshawar who have mingled with Dardic groups. In terms of phenotype, the Pashto-speaking Pashtuns overall are predominantly a Mediterranean Caucasoid people, but light hair and eye colours are not uncommon, especially among remote mountain tribes.

Oral traditions and recent research

In addition, 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 16th century CE. Another book, that corresponds with most Pashtun historical records, Taaqati-Nasiri, states that in the 7th century a people called the Bani Israel settled in Ghor, southeast of Herat, Afghanistan and then migrated south and east. These Bani Israel references are in line with the commonly held view by Pashtuns that when the twelve tribes of Israel were dispersed (see Israel and Judah and Lost Ten Tribes), the tribe of Joseph, among other Hebrew tribes, settled in the region. Hence the term ' Yusef Zai' in Pashto translates to the 'sons of Joseph'. A similar story is told by Ferishta.

Maghzan-e-Afghani's Bani-Israel theory has largely been debunked due to historical and linguistic inconsistencies. The oral tradition is believed to be a myth that grew out of a political and cultural struggle between Pashtuns and Mughals, which explains the historical backdrop for the creation of the myth, the inconsistencies of the mythology, and the linguistic research that refutes any Semitic origins.

Other Pashtun tribes claim descent from Arabs including some even claiming to be descendants of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad (popularly referred to as sayyids). Some groups from Peshawar, and Kandahar, such as the Afridis, Khattaks, and Sadozais, also claim to be descended from Alexander the Great's Greeks. The Khakwani tribe found in an area from Khogyani district in Nangarhar province to as far east as Bahawalpur city in the south of Punjab claims to be Sayyid descendants of Muhammad.


Research into human DNA has emerged as a new and innovative tool being used to explore the genetic make-up of various populations in order to ascertain historical population movements. According to some genetic research (the source of which is disclosed under the references section below regarding a random sampling of Pashtun populations without specfication as to which Pashtun tribes were tested in western Pakistan) the anthropological evidence that the Pashto-speaking Pashtuns are related to other Iranian groups as well as the Burusho of the Northern Areas of Pakistan, who speak a language isolate. The genetic testing, though still in its initial phases, has not shown any substantial connection between the general Pashtun population sampled to the genetic markers found among most Greeks, Jews, or Arabs. What may be the case is that the gentically Pashtuns have slightly changed over time by due to vairous migrations in the area, while still maintaining an eastern Iranian base genetically overall. Ultimately, a much more detailed, transparent and wider sampling of Pashtun DNA will be required before a conclusive and generally representative answer of Pashto tribal origins can be answered.

Putative ancestry

There are also various groups which claim Pashtun descent and are largely found among other groups in Afghanistan and South Asia and generally do not speak Pashto and are often considered either overlapping groups or are simply assigned to the ethno-linguistic group that corresponds to their geographic location and their mother tongue. Some groups who claim Pashtun descent include various non-Pashtun Afghans who are often conversant in Persian rather than Pashto.

Hindkowans who are referred to as Punjabi Pathans (in publications such as Encyclopedia Britannica) speak the Hindko language and are regarded as a group of mixed Pashtun and Punjabi origin. The Hindko-speaking people living in major cities such as Peshawar, Kohat, Mardan, Dera Ismail Khan and in mixed districts like Batagram are often bilingual in Pashto and Hindko.

There are also a small number of Siraiki speaking Pathans as well. As Multan was once a province of Afghanistan, the Nawabs of Multan were of Khakwani and Saddozai extraction and settled in Multan. Many Siraiki speaking Pathans currently reside in Mianwali and D.I. Khan.

Many claimants of Pashtun heritage in other parts of South Asia have mixed with local Muslim populations and refer to themselves (and Pashto-speaking Pashtuns and often Afghans in general) in the Urdu/Hindi variant Pathan rather than Pashtun or Pukhtun. These populations are usually only part-Pashtun, to varying degrees, and often trace their Pashtun ancestry putatively through a paternal lineage, and are not universally viewed as ethnic Pashtuns (see section on Pashtuns Defined for further analysis). In addition, nearly 20% of Urdu-speaking people claim partial Pashtun ancestry. The Muslim sultans and Mughal emperors of Delhi employed thousands of Pashtun soldiers that settled down in northern India and intermarried with local Muslims. The Rohilla Pashtuns, after their defeat by the British, are notable for having intermarried with local Muslims, while becoming part of the Urdu-speaking Muslim community. The repression of Rohilla Pashtuns by the British in late 18th century caused thousands to flee to the Dutch colony of Guyana in South America. Small minorities of Pashto-speaking Sikhs and Hindus, estimated to be in the thousands, can be found in parts of Afghanistan.

Pashtuns defined

Ahmad Shah Durrani, formed the Durrani Empire (Pashtun Empire) in 1747.
Ahmad Shah Durrani, formed the Durrani Empire (Pashtun Empire) in 1747.

Among historians, anthropologists, and the Pashtuns themselves, there is some debate as to who exactly is a Pashtun. The most prominent views are (1) that Pashtuns are predominantly an Eastern Iranian people who are speakers of the Pashto language and live in a contiguous geographic location (this is the generally accepted academic view) in Afghanistan and Pakistan, (2) Pashtuns, in addition to being Pashto-speakers and meeting other criteria, are also Muslim and follow Pashtunwali and thus Jews, Christians, or atheists would be excluded, (3) to define the Pashtuns in terms of patrilineal descent going back to legendary times in accordance with the legend of Qais Abdur Rashid who is seen as the progenitor of the Pashtun people. We may call these the ethno-linguistic definition, religious-cultural definition, and the patrilineal definition.

Ethnic definition

The ethno-linguistic definition is the most prominent and accepted view as to who is and is not a Pashtun. 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 even disparate yet mutually intelligible dialects of Pashto will 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. These criteria tend to be used by most Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the basis for who can be counted as a Pashtun.

Cultural definition

The religious and cultural definition is more stringent and requires Pashtuns to be Muslim and adherents of the Pashtunwali code. This is the most prevalent view among the more orthodox and conservative tribesmen who do not view Pashtuns of the Jewish faith as actual Pashtuns even if they themselves might claim to be of Hebrew ancestry depending upon which tribe is in question. The religious definition for Pashtuns is partially based upon the laws of Pashtunwali, and that those who are Pashtun must follow and honour Pashtunwali. However, Pashtun society is not entirely homogenous in the religious sense, as Pashtuns, who are predominantly Sunni Muslims, can also be followers of the Shia sect among others. In addition, the Pashtun Jewish population (once numbering in the thousands) has largely relocated to Israel. Overall, more flexibility can be found among Pashtun intellectuals and academics who sometimes simply define who is and is not a Pashtun based upon other criteria that often excludes religion.

Ancestral definition

The patrilineal definition is based on an important orthodox law of Pashtunwali. Its main requirement is that anyone claiming to be a Pashtun must have a Pashtun father. This law has maintained the tradition of exclusively patriarchal tribal lineage intact. Under this definition there is less regard as to what language you speak (Pashto, Persian, Urdu, English, etc.), while more emphasis is placed upon one's father in order to be an ethnic Pashtun. Thus, the Pathans in India, for example, who have lost both the language and presumably many of the ways of their putative ancestors, can, by being able to trace their fathers' ethnic heritage back to the Pashtun tribes (who some believe are descendants of the four grandsons of Qais Abdur Rashid, a possible legendary progenitor of the Pashtuns), remain 'Pashtun'. The legend states that Qais, after having heard of the new religion of Islam, traveled to meet the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in Medina and returned to Afghanistan a Muslim. Qais, in turn, purportedly had many children and one son, Afghana, produced up to four sons who set out towards the east including one son who went towards Swat, another towards Lahore and Oudh, another to Multan, and finally one to Quetta. This legend is one of many traditional tales among the Pashtuns regarding their disparate origins that remain largely unverifiable.


Pashtun culture was formed over the course of many centuries. Pagan traditions survived in the form of traditional dances, while literary styles and music largely reflect strong influence from the Persian literary tradition and regional musical instruments fused with localized variants and interpretation. Pashtun culture is a unique blend of native customs and strong influences from Central, South and West Asia.

Language and literature

Throughout Pashtun history poets, prophets, kings and warriors have been the most revered members of society. For much of Pashtun history literature has not played a major role as Persian was the lingua franca used by neighboring peoples and generally relied upon for writing purposes. However, by the sixteenth century early written records of Pashto began to appear, the earliest of which describes Sheikh Mali's conquest of Swat. The advent of Pashto poetry and the revered works of Khushal Khan Khattak and Rahman Baba in the 17th century helped transition Pashto towards the modern period. In the 20th century, Pashto literature gained significant prominence with the poetic works of Ameer Hamza Shinwari who was noted for his development of Pashto Ghazals. In recent times, Pashto literature has received increased patronage, but due to relatively high illiteracy rates, many Pashtuns continue to rely upon the oral tradition. Pashtun males continue to meet at chai khaanas or tea cafes 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. 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.


Pashtuns are Sunni Muslims, most of them follow the Hanafite branch of Sunni Islam. A tiny Jewish population has relocated to Israel. Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, belonging to the Afghan (Pashtun) AlKhoashki Al-Jamandi tribe from Kandahar, Afghanistan, translated the Noble Quran, Sahih Al-Bukhari, Al-lu'lu' wal Margan and many other books into English. He last worked as the Director of the Islamic University Clinic in Al-Madinah, Saudi Arabia.


The term 'Pakhto' or 'Pashto' from which the Pashtuns derive their name is not merely the name of their language, but synonymous with a pre-Islamic honour code/religion formally known as Pashtunwali (or Pakhtunwali). The main tenets of Pashtunwali include:

  1. Melmastia: Hospitality and asylum to all guests seeking help.
  2. Badal: Justice and revenge, possibly derived from ancient Israelite Mosaic Law, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
  3. Zan, Zar and Zameen: Defense of women/family, treasure, and property/land.
  4. Nanawati: Humble admission of guilt for a wrong committed, which should result in automatic forgiveness from the wronged party.

The basic precepts of Pashtunwali continue to be followed by many Pashtuns, especially in rural areas and is often the centre of Pashtun tribal life.

Sports and entertainment

Pashtuns engage in various sporting activities common throughout the world including cricket and football (soccer). Older traditional sports include Buzkashi, a contest between horsemen (believed to have been brought to the region by the Mongols) that entails dragging a goat carcass and keeping it away from other players. Another Pashtun past-time is Naiza bazi, which also involves horsemen who engage in throwing spears.

Polo is also an ancient traditional sport in the region and is a popular amongst many tribesmen such as the Yousafzai. Like other neighboring peoples, many Pashtuns engage in wrestling ( Pehlwani), which is often part of larger sporting events. Cricket is largely a legacy of British rule in the North West Frontier Province and many Pashtuns have become prominent participants including Shahid Afridi, real name Shahid Hussain Shah, who is regarded as one of the best cricket players in the world. Cricket would not be complete without mentioning Imran Khan, a member of the Niazi tribe.

Football is a more recent sport that increasing numbers of Pashtuns have started to play. Children engage in various games including a somewhat macabre form of marbles called buzul-bazi, which involves playing with the knuckle bones of sheep. Although traditionally less involved in sports than boys, young Pashtun girls often play volleyball and basketball, especially in urban areas. Another sport played by Pashtuns is Gatka in which is a form of fencing where they square up to each other and are armed with a leather padded, circular, round shield accompanied by a long think treated, leather covered cane. This sport was quite popular up to the 70's and frequently was a showpiece at special occasions such as weddings. It has declined in popularity in recent decades due to shortage of Ustazs'(masters' and teachers). Swat and Hazara regions were the mainstay of this activity.

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.

One of the most prominent dances is the Attan, a dance with ancient pagan roots, that was later modified by Islamic mysticism, in some regions, and has become the national dance of Afghanistan. A rigorous exercise, the Attan is performed as musicians play various native instruments including the dhol (drums), tablas (percussions), rubab (a bowed string instrument), and toola (wooden flute). Involving a rapid circular motion, dancers perform until no one is left dancing in a fashion similar to sufi whirling dervishes. Numerous other dances are affiliated with various tribes 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 to successfully execute. Though most dances are dominated by males, some dance performances such as the Spin Takray feature female dancers. Additionally, 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 classical Indian music), Iranian musical traditions, and various forms found in the eastern Music of Pakistan. Popular forms include the ghazal (sung poetry) and Sufi qawwali music. General themes tend to revolve around love and religious introspection. Modern Pashto music is currently centered around the city of Peshawar due to the various wars in Afghanistan and tends to combine indigenous techniques and instruments with Iranian-inspired Dari music and Indian Filmi music prominent in Bollywood.

Mirwais Ahmadzai is Pashtun through his Afghan father and a famous musician in Europe.
Mirwais Ahmadzai is Pashtun through his Afghan father and a famous musician in Europe.

Other modern Pashtun media include an established Pashto language film and TV industry that is based in Pakistan. Both Pashtuns and Punjabi 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, but the Pashto film industry has, since the 1980s, been accused of churning out increasingly lewd exploitation-style films. Pashtun lifestyle and issues have been raised by Western and Pashtun expatriate film-makers in recent years. Notable films about the Pashtun experience include British film-maker Michael Winterbottom's In This World, which chronicles the struggles of two Afghan youths who leave their refugee camps in Pakistan and attempt to move to the United Kingdom in search of a better life, and the British mini-series Traffik (re-made as Traffic for US audiences) which featured a Pashtun man (played by Jamal Shah) struggling to survive in a world with few opportunities outside the drug trade.

Numerous Pashtun actors work in India's Bollywood film industry including: Dilip Kumar (born Muhammad Yusuf Khan in Peshawar, British India), Feroz Khan (born in Bangalore, India to ethnic Afghan parents), Shah Rukh Khan (son of Mir Taj Muhammad and Lateef Fatima) among many others.


President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, is an ethnic Pashtun from Kandahar.
President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, is an ethnic Pashtun from Kandahar.

Possibly the most prominent institution of the Pashtun people is the intricate system of tribes. The Pashtuns remain a predominantly tribal people, but the world-wide trend of urbanization 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. Many still identify themselves with various clans in-spite of this trend towards urbanization.

More precisely, there are several levels of organization within the Pashtun tribal system: the Tabar (tribe) is subdivided into kinship groups each of which is a Khel. The Khel in turn is divided into smaller groups ( Pllarina or plarganey), each of which consists of several extended families or Kahols. "A large tribe often has dozens of sub-tribes whose members may see themselves as belonging to each, some, or all of the sub-tribes in different social situations (co-operative, competitive, confrontational) and identify with each accordingly." Pashtun tribes are divided into four 'greater' tribal groups: Sarbans, Batans, Ghurghusht and Karlans.

Elders are important people in the Pashtun society and often make important decisions in the community.
Elders are important people in the Pashtun society and often make important decisions in the community.

In addition to the tribal hierarchy, another prominent Pashtun institution is that of the Jirga or 'Senate' of elected elders and wise 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.

Pashtuns often observe special occasions upon which to celebrate and/or commemorate events, which are also quite often national holidays in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A common Turko-Iranian celebration known as Nouruz (or New Year) is often observed by Pashtuns, especially in Afghanistan. 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 together in what is often both a religious duty and a festive celebration.

The modern era

Abdul Ahad Mohmand spent nine days aboard the MIR space station in 1988, becoming the first Afghan (Pashtun) cosmonaut to reach space.
Abdul Ahad Mohmand spent nine days aboard the MIR space station in 1988, becoming the first Afghan (Pashtun) cosmonaut to reach space.

The Pashtuns are intimately tied to the history of modern-era Afghanistan stretching back to the Hotaki dynasty and later the Durrani Empire. The Hotakis were Pashtuns from the Ghilzai clan, who defeated the Persian Safavids and seized control over much of Persia (Iran) from 1722 to 1736. This early rise of the Pashtun empire was followed by the efforts of Ahmad Shah Durrani, who was from the Abdali or Durrani clan and a former high-ranking military commander under the ruler Nadir Shah. He founded the Durrani Empire that covered all of what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Khorasan province of Iran (see Map of Durrani Empire). His successors would rule this empire for the next 70 years. The Afghans (Pashtuns) fought the British to a standstill and kept the Russians at bay during the so-called Great Game, which Afghanistan managed to remain an independent state that played the two large imperialist empires against each other to maintain some semblance of autonomy. In the 20th century, various Pashtuns living under British Indian rule in the North West Frontier Province agitated for Indian independence, including Khan Wali Khan and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (both members of the Khudai Khidmatgar, popularly referred to as the Surkh posh or "the Red shirts"), and were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent method of resistance. Later, in the 1970s, Khan Wali Khan pressed for more autonomy for Pashtuns or even an independent Pashtunistan.

Dr. Zalmay Khalizad is the first Pashtun to work for the White House. He is currently U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.
Dr. Zalmay Khalizad is the first Pashtun to work for the White House. He is currently U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.

Pashtuns in Afghanistan attained complete independence from British intervention during the reign of King Amanullah Khan, following the Third Anglo-Afghan War. The monarchy ended with Sardar Daoud Khan seizing control of Afghanistan in 1973, which opened the door to Soviet intervention and eventually culminated in the Saur Revolution or Communist take-over of Afghanistan in 1978. Starting in the late 1970s, many Pashtuns joined the Mujahideen opposition against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These Mujahideen fought for control of Afghanistan against the Communist Khalq and the Parcham factions. More recently, the Pashtuns became known for being the primary ethnic group that comprised the Taliban, which was a religious movement that emerged from Kandahar, Afghanistan. As of late 2001, the Taliban government had been removed from power as a result of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Pashtuns have played an important role in the region of South- Central Asia. The current President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, is Pashtun from the Popalzai clain and also from Kandahar. In neighboring Pakistan ethnic Pashtun politicians, notably Ayub Khan and Ghulam Ishaq Khan, have also attained the Presidency in the past. The Afghan royal family now represented by Muhammad Zahir Shah is also of ethnic Pashtun origin. Other prominent Pashtuns include the 17th century warrior poet Khushal Khan Khattak, Afghan "Iron" Emir Abdur Rahman Khan and in modern times US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad among many others. In India, the former ambassador to Algeria and advisor to Indira Gandhi, Mohammad Yunus is an ethnic Pashtun.


The Pashtuns today are a diverse population with widely varying lifestyles and perspectives. The effects of globalization have led to the proliferation of Western ideas as well as the infiltration of Saudi-style Wahhabist Islam. Though many Pashtuns remain tribal and illiterate, others have become urbanized and highly educated. The ravages of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Afghan wars leading up to the rise and fall of the Taliban have caused substantial hardship amongst the Pashtuns. Currently, Afghanistan is in a rebuilding phase, while Pashtuns in Pakistan have grown in numbers and influence. Stability remains elusive for Pashtuns who have had to balance a practical necessity to survive with a desire to work hard and seek out opportunity. However, changes among the Pashtuns have not come without difficulty, especially in the case of women.

Pashtun women greatly vary from the traditional housewives who live in seclusion to urban workers some of whom seek (and have attained) parity with men. They share with their menfolk a free-willed, strong and fiercely independent character that values freedom and self rule.

Due to numerous social hurdles, the literacy rate for Pashtun women remains considerably lower than that of males. Abuse against women is also widespread and yet is increasingly being challenged by women's rights organizations who find themselves struggling with conservative religious groups as well as government officials in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to researcher Benedicte Grima's book Performance of Emotion Among Paxtun Women, "a powerful ethic of forbearance severely limits traditional Pashtun women's ability to mitigate the suffering they acknowledge in their lives."

Pashtun women often have their legal rights curtailed in favour of their husbands or male relatives as well. For example, though women are technically allowed to vote in Afghanistan and Pakistan, many have been kept away from ballot boxes by males. Traditionally, Pashtun women have few inheritance rights and are often charged with taking care of large extended families of their spouses. Another tradition that persists is Swara, a practice that involves giving a female relative to someone in order to rectify a dispute. The practice was declared illegal in 2000, but continues to be conducted in tribal regions.

Despite obstacles, many Pashtun women have begun a process of slow change. Some Pashtun women in cities in Pakistan have attained more personal freedom and autonomy when it comes to their personal lives, which has not been received well by conservative Pashtun men and women. Others have joined men in business, finance, and other male dominated fields. While most Pashtun women (like many men) are illiterate, a rich oral tradition and resurgence of poetry has sparked some interest on the part of both men and women and given hope to many Pashtun women seeking to learn to read and write. As a sign of further female emancipation, a Pashtun woman recently became one of the first female fighter pilots in Pakistan's Airforce. In addition, numerous Pashtun women have attained high political office in both Pakistan and, following recent elections, in Afghanistan where female representatives compose one of the highest percentages in the world. Substantial work remains though for Pashtun women who hope to gain equal rights with Pashtun men who remain disproportionately dominant in most aspects of Pashtun society. Human rights organizations including the Afghan Women's Network continue to struggle for greater women's rights as does the Aurat Foundation in Pakistan which often attempts to safeguard women from domestic abuse. Civil rights have remained an important issue in Afghanistan where Meena Khishwar Kamal, born in 1957 in Kabul to a middle class family, has campaigned for women's rights and founded the Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which has continued to advocate on behalf of women's rights in Afghanistan through the Soviet era and recent Taliban regime.


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  • "A Study of the Greek Ancestry of Northern Pakistani Ethnic Groups Using 115 Microsatellite Markers." A. Mansoor, Q. Ayub, et al.Am. J. Human Genetics, Oct 2001 v69 i4 p399.
  • "Y-Chromosomal DNA Variation in Pakistan."
  • "Where west meets east: the complex mtDNA landscape of the southwest and Central Asian corridor."

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