Afghanistan has been disrupted over the past 25 years by civil wars, invasions, rule of the Taliban, and terrorist activities which have destroyed much of the country's culture, family and tribal connections, thus creating hundred's of thousands of refugees. As a result, it becomes difficult to discuss Afghanistan's culture as many of the traditions and ways of life have been ignored and overturned. However, family and tribal life is resuming, refugees are slowly returning and being resettled, and some of the traditional patterns of life are being re-established.
Since Afghanistan society is basically a tribal one, tribal affiliation is often more important than a sense of nationhood. Tribes have traditionally had strong patrilineal organization which was essential in the nomadic days of the past. Today, this patrilineal and patriarchical system is reinforced by Islam, the religion of all the various Afghan tribal groups. Like other nomadic groups, the idealized Afghan leader is a warrior poet; prowess in arms and facility in composing and reciting poetry are the twin avenues to respect and recognition in traditional nomadic society. Thus, poetry is the chief literary form of most Afghanis and famous poets of the past and present are known throughout the country.
The patriarchical and patrilineal tribal organization promotes certain customs and values that are different from those of non-tribal societies. For example, the extended family is the important social and economic unit, not the nuclear family as in the U.S. In this extended family, the power of the eldest male (usually the grandfather) is absolute: he controls the family's money, work, and makes all decisions regarding the family's activities and welfare. The eldest female, usually his wife, runs the household, and is in charge of the other women including her daughters, the wives of her sons, any other wives her husband may have (Islam allows each man to have 4 wives but most are too poor to afford this), and any unmarried or widowed cousins, aunts, etc. who live with the family. Each family engages in competition with other families for land, resources, wives, etc; however, they unite with related families against outsiders. Thus, a man's first loyalty is to his extended family, then to his tribe, then to his ethnic group and only finally to his nation. Conflict between ethnic groups, tribes, sub-tribes, and families has made competition and fighting an inherent part of the Afghan character. Politically, an assembly of all adult males votes to decide important matters at the village or sub-tribe level. Derived from this is the Afghan tenet that ultimate sovereignty of the nation rests in national elected assemblies: this was most recently seen in the assembly which established an interim government in 2002.
The constant sense of competition is shown in the legendary toughness and resilience of the Afghan fighter; Afghan legend, poetry and myth is full of stories of war, victory against incredible odds, and heroic individual struggles. This toughness is shown in the favored sport of Afghanistan, polo (buzkashi), played not with a ball but with a goat or calf carcass. It is a rough and tumble sport, played on horseback with few rules and no safety measures.
The tribal and extended family life of Afghanistan (and these extended families are often still found in cities as well as in the countryside), have preserved a code of values stressing male control of families as well as the masculine virtues of strength, ferocity, and endurance. Women are subordinate to men but have primary responsibility for the household, entertaining guests, raising children, etc. To an Afghan, his family is private and personal and no person, no government or social agency, has the right to interfere in or even ask about, his family members. In fact, it is a grave breach of manners to ask about a man's women (wife, mother, female children); among more conservative Afghans, an expression of interest in his female relatives, may be a matter requiring fighting or even killing. This sense of family privacy was re-enforced by the Taliban in the strictures against women in public; while the bans against women working or being uncovered in public may be stricter than the average Afghani desired, they were in accord with the sense of family privacy.
Social life in Afghanistan centered around the extended family and visiting was common both among men and women; many affluent homes had special facilities for guests and it was the women's duty to ensure that guests were comfortable and as well fed as the household could afford. While women spent much of their time in the homes, caring for their families, they participated in rural and village life with other women. The family was central in the lives of all its members and Western style individualism did not exist; each family member was responsible to and cared for by the family, and all decisions, from marriage to schooling to economic endeavors, were family decisions. This dependence on the family structure is allied with a striking sense of independence from outside interference; Afghans do not like others, including governments, telling them what to do in their private lives.
While Afghanistan is composed of a number of tribes, they tend to share certain key values: these values are associated with the nomadic way of life, tempered by Islam. Often, however, when traditional and Islamic values are in conflict, the traditional values take precedence. An example of this is in inheritance laws. While the Qur'an states that daughters are to receive an inheritance equal to one/half that of a son, traditional Afghan society denied daughters the right to inherit and divided the deceased's wealth equally among his sons. The chief values of these tribes, especially the majority Pashtuns, included the right and duty of revenge against any wrong, the right of fugitives to seek refuge, hospitality and protection of guests, defense of property and honor, defense of one's female relatives, and such personal traits as steadfastness, persistence, and independence.
For a site with information on the family and tribal system as well as other aspects of culture, please visit the Afghan Cultural Orientation Resource Center website.
For a site dealing with the plight of women in Afghanistan, the RAWA site has photos and essays. These can be very disturbing; RAWA is the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan and is the oldest women's alliance working for the freedom of women in Afghanistan.
Each of the ethnic groups in Afghanistan has different cultural traits based on language and custom. However, there are certain things they share in common, and love of poetry is one of them. Poetry is recited at almost every social occasion, political or tribal gatherings, and the ability to recite and compose poetry is much admired. Many of the famous poets were illiterate as this is a verbal, not a written, culture. Some, however, did write down their own poetry. The internet site, www.afghan-web.com has a section with excerpts from Afghanistan poetry of the past and present. A perusal of these will give an indication of the themes and structure of this poetry. This site also has much information about other aspects of cultural achievement in Afghanistan.
The other aspect of culture is the fore-mentioned national sport, Buzkashi, or polo. This is an ancient rough and tumble game, played with a goat or cow carcass. It is played on horseback and the first team to get the carcass, weighing about 150 pounds, across the other team's goal wins the game. For a fuller discussion and pictures, please visit the Afghanistan SAARC tourism site. This site also has sections on other aspects of Afghani culture.