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Pashtuns ( , , also rendered as Pushtuns, Pakhtuns, Pukhtuns), also called Pathans ( , Hindi: पठान ) or ethnic Afghans, are an Eastern Iranian ethno-linguistic group with populations primarily in Afghanistanmarker and in the North-West Frontier Provincemarker, Federally Administered Tribal Areasmarker and Balochistanmarker provinces of Pakistanmarker. The Pashtuns are typically characterized by their usage of the Pashto language and practice of Pashtunwali, which is an ancient traditional code of conduct and honor.

Pashtun society consists of many tribes and clans which were rarely politically united, until the rise of the Durrani Empire in 1747. Pashtuns played a vital role during the Great Game as they were caught between the imperialist designs of the British and Russianmarker empires. For over 250 years, they reigned as the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan. More recently, the Pashtuns gained worldwide attention after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and with the rise and fall of the Taliban, since they are the main ethnic contingent in the movement. Pashtuns are also an important community in Pakistan, where they are prominently represented in the military and are the second-largest ethnic group.

The Pashtuns are the world's largest (patriarchal) segmentary lineage ethnic group. The total population of the group is estimated to be around 42 million, but an accurate count remains elusive due to the lack of an official census in Afghanistan since 1979. There are an estimated 60 major Pashtun tribes and more than 400 sub-clans.


The vast majority of Pashtuns are found in an area stretching from southeastern Afghanistan to northwestern Pakistan. Additional Pashtun communities are found in the Northern Areasmarker of Pakistan and in Khorasan Province of eastern Iranmarker. There is also a sizeable community in Indiamarker, that is of largely putative ancestry. A large migrant-worker community resides in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula and in smaller communities in Europe and North America. Important metropolitan centers of Pashtun culture include Kandaharmarker, Jalalabadmarker and Swatmarker. Peshawarmarker, Quettamarker, Kabulmarker and Kunduzmarker are ethnically mixed cities with large Pashtun populations. With 3.5 million ethnic Pashtuns, Karachimarker hosts one of the largest Pashtun populations in the world.

Pashtuns comprise over 15.42% of Pakistan's population or 25.6 million people. In Afghanistan, they make up an estimated 42% of the population according to CIA factbook.., The exact numbers remain uncertain, particularly in Afghanistan, and are affected by approximately 1.7 million Afghan refugees that remain in Pakistan, majority of which are Pashtuns. An unknown number of refugees continue to reside in Iran. A cumulative population assessment suggests a total of around 42 million across the region.

History and origins

The history of the Pashtuns 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 Indo-Iranians, Iranian peoples, Indo-Aryans, Medes, Persians, Mauryas, Scythians, Kushans, Hephthalites, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, British, and more recently by the United Statesmarker. There are many conflicting theories about the origins of the Pashtun people, some modern and others archaic, both among historians and the Pashtuns themselves. The eminent Pakistani Historian Ahmad Hasan Dani has called Gandhara land of the Pashtuns.

Ancient references

A variety of ancient groups with eponyms similar to either Pashtun or Pukhtun have been hypothesized as possible ancestors of modern Pashtuns. The Greek historian Herodotus mentioned a people called Pactyans, living on the eastern frontier of the Persian Satrapy Arachosia as early as the 1st millennium BC, but their connection to Pashtuns remains unclear. Similarly, the Rig-Veda mentions a tribe called the Pakthas (in the region of Pakhat) inhabiting eastern Afghanistan and some academics have proposed a connection with modern Pashtuns, but this too remains speculative.

In the Middle Ages until the advent of the modern state of Afghanistan in 1747 and the division of Pashtun territory by the 1893 Durand Line border, Pashtuns were often refered to as ethnic Afghans. It was used to refer to a common legendary ancestor known as Afghana. Hiven Tsiang, a Chinesemarker pilgrim, visiting the Afghanistan area in 629 AD speaks about Afghan tribes in Zhobmarker. According to several scholars such as V. Minorsky, W.K. Frazier Tyler and M.C. Gillet, the word "Afghan" first appears in the 982 AD Hudud-al-Alam, where a reference is made to an Afghan village.

Al-Biruni refers to the Afghans as various tribes living along the frontier mountainsmarker between Ancient India and Persia. Willem Vogelsang in his 2002 book writes: In this geographic location the Afghans would most likely have been in some contact with Indians and the Persians. A famous Moroccanmarker traveller, Ibn Battuta, visiting Kabulmarker in 1333 writes:

Anthropology and linguistics

The origins of the Pashtuns is unknown. The Pashto language is classified under the Eastern Iranian sub-branch of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Thus, Pashtuns may be classified as an Iranian people, possibly as partial descendants of the Bactrians and Scythians, an ancient Iranian group.

Early precursors to the Pashtuns were Old Iranian tribes that spread throughout the eastern Iranian plateau. According to academic 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 CE and is connected with the dissolution of the Epthalite confederacy." Gankovsky proposes Kushan-o-Ephthalite origin for Pashtuns.

Pashtuns who speak a southern dialect of Pashto refer to themselves as Pashtuns, while those who speak a northern dialect as Pukhtuns. These Pashtuns compose the core of ethnic Pashtuns who are found in western Pakistan and southern-eastern Afghanistan. Like other Iranian peoples, many Pashtuns have mixed with various invaders, neighboring groups, and migrants. In terms of phenotype, Pashtuns are predominantly a Mediterranean people, so light hair, eye colors and pale skin are not uncommon, especially among remote mountain tribes.

Oral traditions

Some anthropologists lend credence to the mythical 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.

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 Ghor, southeast of Heratmarker, Afghanistan, and then migrated south and east. 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 Judahmarker and Ten Lost Tribes), the tribe of Joseph, among other Hebrew tribes, settled in the region. 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 'Yusef Zai' in Pashto translates to the 'sons of Joseph'. A similar story is told by Iranian historian Ferishta.

One issue in the belief that the Pathans descend from that the Ten Lost Tribes were exiled by Assyria, while Maghzan-e-Afghani says they were permitted by the ruler of Persia 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 (popularly referred to as sayyids). Some groups from Peshawarmarker and Kandaharmarker claim to be descended from Ancient Greeks that arrived with Alexander the Great.


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

Iranian and Burusho ancestry

Some recent genetic genealogy studies show Pashto-speaking Pashtuns are mainly related to Iranian peoples and to the Burusho who speak a language isolate.

Ten Lost Tribes and the Tribe of Joseph

Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, an Indian historian who did a genetic study on the Afridi clan in Malihabad, India, said that 650 out of the 1,500 members possess genetic material similar to genetic material found in Jews. A University of Chicagomarker researc conducted in 2007 was unable to find genetic evidence of Semitic descent.

Greek ancestry

There is evidence of a small Greek contribution to the Pashtun gene pool that will likely require further testing in order to ascertain its pervasiveness.

Modern era

The Pashtuns are intimately tied to the history of modern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. Following Muslim Arab and Turkic conquests from the 7th to 11th centuries, Pashtun ghazis (warriors for the faith) invaded and conquered much of northern India during the Khilji dynasty (1290-1321), Lodhi dynasty (1451-1526) and Suri dynasty (1540-1556). The Pashtuns' modern past stretches back to the Hotaki dynasty (1709-1738) and later the Durrani Empire (1747-1823). The Hotakis were Ghilzai tribesmen, who defeated the Safavid dynasty of Persia and seized control over much of the Persian Empire from 1722 to 1738. This was followed by the conquests of Ahmad Shah Durrani who was a former high-ranking military commander under the ruler Nadir Shah of Persia. He founded the Durrani Empire that covered most of what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmirmarker, Indian Punjabmarker, and Khorasan province of Iran. After the fall of the Durrani Empire in 1818, the Barakzai dynasty took control of Afghanistan. Specifically, the Mohamedzai subclan ruled Afghanistan from 1826 to the end of Mohammed Zahir Shah's reign in 1973. This legacy continues into modern times as Afghanistan is run by President Hamid Karzai, who is from the Popalzai tribe of Kandaharmarker.

The Pashtuns in Afghanistan resisted British designs upon their territory and kept the Russiansmarker at bay during the so-called Great Game. By playing the two empires against each other, Afghanistan remained an independent state and maintained some autonomy (see the Siege of Malakandmarker). But during the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901), Pashtun regions were divided by the Durand Line, and what is today western Pakistan was ceded to British India in 1893. In the 20th century, many politically-active Pashtun leaders living under British rule in the North-West Frontier Provincemarker of colonial India supported 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 in Pakistan. Many Pashtuns also worked in the Muslim League to fight for an independent Pakistanmarker, including Abdur Rab Nishtar (a close associate of Muhammad Ali Jinnah) and Yusuf Khattak, among others.

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 when Sardar Daoud Khan seized control of Afghanistan in 1973. This opened the door to Sovietmarker intervention and culminated in the Communist Saur Revolution in 1978. Starting in the late 1970s, many Pashtuns joined the Mujahideen opposition against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. More recently, the Pashtuns became known for being the primary ethnic group that comprised the Taliban, which was a religious movement that emerged from southern Afghanistan. In late 2001, the Taliban government was removed from power as a result of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Pashtuns have played an important role in the regions of South and Central Asia, including the Middle East. In neighboring Pakistan, ethnic Pashtuns, notably Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Ghulam Ishaq Khan, attained the Presidency. A number of Pakistani Pashtuns held high government posts, such as Army Chief Gul Hassan Khan and Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Sherpao. The Afghan royal family, which was represented by king 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 Afghan Astronaut Abdul Ahad Mohmand and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad among many others.

Pashtuns defined

Among historians, anthropologists, and the Pashtuns themselves, there is some debate as to who exactly is a Pashtun. The most prominent views are:
  • Pashtuns are predominantly an Eastern Iranian people who are speakers of the Pashto language and live in a contiguous geographic location across Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is the generally accepted academic view.
  • Pashtuns are Muslims who follow Pashtunwali, speak Pashto and meet other criteria.
  • In accordance with the legend of Qais Abdur Rashid, the figure traditionally regarded as progenitor of the Pashtun people, 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. 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 Kandaharmarker. These criteria tend to be used by most Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Cultural definition

The religious and cultural definition is more stringent and requires Pashtuns to be Muslim and adhere to the Pashtunwali code. This is the most prevalent view among more orthodox and conservative tribesmen who do not recognize anyone of the Jewish faith as a Pashtun, even if they themselves faultfully claim to be of Hebrew ancestry as some tribes do. Pashtun intellectuals and academics tend to be more flexible and sometimes define who is Pashtun based on other criteria. Pashtun society is not homogenous by religion: Majority Pashtuns are Sunni Muslims, while there are several Shia clans in the NWFPmarker province of Pakistan. Pakistani Jews and Afghan Jews, once numbering in the thousands, have largely relocated to Israelmarker and the United Statesmarker.

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. For example, the Pathans in Indiamarker 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. One example is Bollywood superstar, Shahrukh Khan, who still proudly considers himself Pathan or ethnic Afghan but has married a Punjabi woman (Gauri Khan) with whom he has children.

Some believe that Pashtun tribes are descendants of the four grandsons of the legendary Qais Abdur Rashid. The legend says that after Qais heard of the new religion of Islam, he traveled to meet Muhammad in Medinamarker and returned to Afghanistan-Pakistan area as a Muslim. He purportedly had many children, and his son Afghana produced up to four sons who traveled east towards Swatmarker, Lahoremarker, Multanmarker and Quettamarker respectively (all located in modern Pakistanmarker). This legend is one of many traditional tales among the Pashtuns regarding their disparate origins that remain largely unverifiable.

Putative ancestry

There are various communities who claim Pashtun descent but are largely found among other groups in South and Central Asia who generally do not speak Pashto. Those 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 various non-Pashtun Afghans who often speak Persian rather than Pashto.

Many claimants of Pashtun heritage in South Asia have mixed with local Muslim populations and refer to themselves (and to Pashto-speaking Pashtuns) as Pathans, the Hindi-Urdu variant of Pashtun. 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).

Some groups claiming Pashtun descent live close to Pashtuns, such as the Hindkowans who are sometimes referred to as Punjabi Pathans in publications such as Encyclopedia Britannica. The Hindkowans speak the Hindko language and are considered to have mixed Pashtun and local origins. The Hindko language itself is a Pahari language, related to Mirpuri, Potwari, and other Western Punjabi languages. They generally share culture with these ethnic groups and are considered the "city dweller" stock, living in cities close to Islamabad and Peshawar rather than in the mountainous areas where Potwari/Pahari peoples usually are. Some local Pathans became assimilated into their culture. They have a strong rivalry with ethnic Pashtuns who usually distinguish themselves and do not consider Hindkowans to be Pashtun. They are a large minority in major cities such as Peshawarmarker, Kohatmarker, Mardanmarker, and Dera Ismail Khanmarker and in mixed districts including Haripurmarker, Abbottabadmarker and Attockmarker where they are often bilingual in Hindko and Pashto.

Many Urdu speaking Muhajir and Indian Muslims claim descent from Pashtun soldiers who settled in Indiamarker and married local Muslim communities during the Muslim rule of South Asia. No specific population figures exist, as claimants of Pashtun descent are spread throughout the country. Notably, the Rohilla Pashtuns, after their defeat by the British, are known to have settled in parts of North India and intermarried with local Muslim ethnic groups. They are believed to have been bilingual in Pashto and Urdu until the mid-19th century. Many Urdu speaking Muslims claiming descent from Pashtuns moved to Pakistan after independence in 1947. Also, the repression of Rohilla Pashtuns by the British in the late 19th century caused thousands to flee to the Dutch colony of Guyanamarker and Surinamemarker in South America.

During the mid-19th century, around the time when the British were accepting peasants from across India as indentured servants to work in the Caribbean, South Africa and Fiji, many Pashtuns from the North-West Frontier Provincemarker and Balochistanmarker, were sent to places as far as Trinidadmarker, Surinammarker and Guyanamarker (see above) and Fijimarker, to work with other Indians (Hindu and Muslim) on the sugarcane fields and perform manual labor. During this period, many immigrants from India stayed on in these places and formed unique communities of their own where ethnic distinctions were often blurred, save for religious ones. Most of the Pashtun migrants ended up mixing in 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 Urdu, English and/or Afrikaans and are no longer conversant in Pashto.


Pashtun culture was formed over the course of many centuries. Pre-Islamic traditions, probably dating back to as far as Alexander's conquest in 330 BC, survived in the form of traditional dances, while literary styles and music largely reflect strong influence from the Persian 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.


Pashtun men of southern Afghanistan.
The Pashtuns speak Pashto, an Indo-European language. It belongs to the Iranian sub-group of the Indo-Iranian branch. It can be further delineated within Eastern Iranian and Southeastern Iranian. Pashto is written in the Perso-Arabic script and is divided into two main dialects, the northern "Pukhtu" and the southern "Pashto".

Pashto has ancient origins and bears similarities to extinct languages such as Avestan and Bactrian. Its closest modern relatives include Pamir languages, such as Shughni and Wakhi, and Ossetic. Pashto has an ancient legacy of borrowing vocabulary from neighboring languages including Persian and Vedic Sanskrit. Invaders have left vestiges as well as Pashto has borrowed words from Ancient Greek, Arabic and Turkic, sometimes due to invasions. Modern borrowings come primarily from English.

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. This started with the work of Khushal Khan Khattak and continued with his grandson Afzal Khan (author of Tarikh-e Morassa, a history of the Pashtun people).

Pashto has national status in Afghanistan and regional status in Pakistan. In addition to their mother-tongue, many Pashtuns are fluent in Dari (Afghan Persian), Urdu and English.


The overwhelming majority of Pashtuns follow Sunni Islam, mainly the Hanafi school. A sizable minority population of Shi'a Muslim Pashtuns exist in eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. The Shia Pashtuns mostly belong to the Tori (Torian) clan while the Bangash clan is approximately 50% Shia and 50% Sunni, most of them live in Kurram Agency and other nearby areas of NWFPmarker in Pakistan.

Studies conducted among the Ghilzai reveal strong links between tribal affiliation and membership in the larger ummah (Islamic community). Most Pashtuns believe that they are descendants of Qais Abdur Rashid who is purported to have been an early convert to Islam and thus bequeathed the faith to the Pashtun population. It is believed by some historians that Pashtuns may have been Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jews or Shamanists before Islam was introduced to them in the 7th century. A number of them may even have practiced Buddhism. However, these theories remain without conclusive evidence.

A legacy of Sufi activity remains common in Pashtun regions, as evident in song and dance. Many Pashtuns are prominent Ulema, Islamic scholars, such as Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan who translated the Noble Quran and Sahih Al-Bukhari and many other books to English.

Lastly, little information is available on non-Muslim Pashtuns as there is limited data regarding irreligious groups and minorities. There is, however, an affirmed community of Sikh Pashtuns residing in Peshawar, Parachinarmarker, as well as the Orakzai Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areasmarker of Pakistan.


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 honor code/religion formally known as Pashtunwali (or Pakhtunwali). Pashtunwali is believed to have originated millennia ago during pagan times and has, in many ways, fused with Islamic tradition. Pashtunwali governs and regulates nearly all aspects of Pashtun life ranging from tribal affairs to individual "honor" (nang) and behavior.

Numerous intricate tenets of Pashtunwali influence Pashtun social behavior. 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 popularized in the West. Men are expected to protect Zan, Zar, Zameen, which translates to women, treasure, 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 widespread criticism, particularly with respect to its influence on women's rights and so-called "honour killings". These and other basic precepts of Pashtunwali continue to be followed by many Pashtuns, especially in rural areas.

Pashto literature and media

Throughout Pashtun history, poets, prophets, kings and warriors have been among the most revered members of society. But for much of that history literature has not played a major role, because Persian was the literary lingua franca for neighboring peoples and was generally relied on for writing. Early written records of Pashto began to appear by the 16th century. The earliest 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 to the modern period. In the 20th century, Pashto literature gained significant prominence with poetry by Ameer Hamza Shinwari who developed Pashto Ghazals. In 1919, Mahmud Tarzi published Seraj-al-Akhbar, which became the first newspaper in Afghanistan. His work was in Pashto and in Dari language, the country's other major language.

Recently, Pashto literature has received increased patronage, but many Pashtuns continue to rely on oral tradition due to relatively low literacy rates. Pashto media outlets also play a major role in everyday life. Several Pashto TV channels are available in Pashtun regions. The leading one is AVT Khyber, which keeps Pashtuns united and informed about everyday issues, and amused with entertainment programs.

Pashtun males continue to meet at chai khaanas, 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.


Traditional sports include naiza bazi, which involves horsemen who compete in spear throwing. Polo is also an ancient traditional sport in the region and is popular among many tribesmen such as the Yousafzai. Like other Afghans, many Pashtuns engage in Buzkashi and wrestling (Pehlwani), which is often part of larger sporting events. Cricket is largely a legacy of British rule in Pakistan and India, and many Pashtuns have become prominent participants, such as Shahid Afridi, Imran Khan and Irfan Pathan.

Football is popular in all Pashtun areas. In Pakistan, one of the nations top football player, Muhammad Essa, is an ethnic Pashtun from the Baluchistan provincemarker. Snooker and Billiards is also popular among the Pashtuns, which is mostly played by young men. Several prominent world famous Snooker players are from Pashtun areas, including Saleh Mohammed and others. Children engage in various games including a form of marbles called buzul-bazi which is played 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. The favourite game of Pashtuns in southwestern Pakistan is yanda, especially in Pishinmarker, Pakistan.

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.

One of the most prominent dances is Attan, which has ancient pagan roots. It was later modified by Islamic mysticism in some regions and has become the national dance of Afghanistan and various districts in Pakistan. 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. Though most dances are dominated by males, some performances such as Spin Takray feature female dancers. 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 centered around the city of Peshawarmarker 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, Sardar Ali Takkar, Naghma, Rahim Shah, Farhad Darya, Nazia Iqbal, and many others.

Other modern Pashtun media include an established Pashto-language film and television industry that is based in Pakistan. Producers based in Lahoremarker 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 since the 1980s the Pashto film industry has 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. One such film is In This World by British film-maker Michael Winterbottom, which chronicles the struggles of two Afghan youths who leave their refugee camps in Pakistan and try to move to the United Kingdommarker 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. Numerous actors of Pashtun descent work in India's Bollywood film industry, including Shahrukh Khan, Feroz Khan, Kader Khan, and others.


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 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. Despit this trend of urbanization, many people still identify themselves with various clans.

The tribal system has several levels of organization: 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. 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.

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. 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 lives of Pashtun women vary from those who reside in conservative rural areas, such as the tribal beltmarker, to those found in relatively freer urban centers. I have a right to, BBC World Service, Fri 16 January 2006 (retrieved 10 October 2006). Though many Pashtun women remain tribal and illiterate, others have become educated and gainfully employed. The ravages of the Sovietmarker occupation of Afghanistan and the Afghan wars, leading to the rise and fall 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. The male-dominated code of Pashtunwali often constrains women and forces them into designated traditional roles that separate the genders. The pace of change and reform for women has been slow due to the wars in Afghanistan and the isolation and instability of tribal life in Pakistan.

Modern social reform for Pashtun women began in the 20th century. During the early 20th century, Queen Soraya Tarzi of Afghanistan was an early feminist leader whose advocacy of social reforms for women was so radical that it led to the fall of her and her husband King Amanullah's dynasty. Civil rights remained an important issue during the tumultuous Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, as feminist leader Meena Keshwar Kamal campaigned for women's rights and founded the Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) in the 1980s.

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. But due to numerous social hurdles, the literacy rate remains considerably lower for Pashtun females than for males. Abuse against women is widespread and increasingly being challenged by women's rights organizations 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."

Pashtun women often have their legal rights curtailed in favor of their husbands or male relatives. For example, though women are officially 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, 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.

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. 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. Many Pashtun women have attained high political office in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, following recent elections, the proportion of female political representatives is one of the highest in the world. Pashtun women are now TV hosts, journalists, actors and singers on AVT Khyber and other Pashto TV outlets. A Pashtun woman, Khatol Mohammadzai, recently became a paratrooper in the Afghan National Army and another became a fighter pilot in the Pakistan Air Force.

Substantial work remains for Pashtun women to gain equal rights with men, who remain disproportionately dominant in most aspects of Pashtun society. Human rights organizations 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. Due to recent reforms in the higher education commission (HEC) of Pakistan, a number of competent Pashtun female scholars have been able to win Masters and PhD scholarships. Most of them have proceeded to USA, UK and other developed countries with support from their families.

See also

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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