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Pashtunwali - The Way of the Pashtuns

  • Geopolitics
  • 10 Months ago
  • 7 min read
Pashtuns,  Balochistan,  Afghanistan

Source - Kashif Afridi/Unsplash

Tilak Devasher
Tilak Devasher - Author and Member, National Security Advisory Board, India

The Pashtuns have a unique and defining tribal code called Pashtunwali or the ‘way of the Pashtun’ that distinguishes them from other ethnic groups. It is an unwritten set of values, customs and cultural codes that governs routine life. The code compels Pashtuns ‘to defend their motherland, to grant asylum to fugitives irrespective of their creed or caste and to offer protection even to his deadly enemy and to wipe out insult with insult.’ 1

The various elements of Pashtunwali taken together represent the Pashtuns’ notion of a gairatmand Pashtun, i.e., an ideal Pashtun who embodies pashto, or is leading a completely honourable life.

At its core, Pashtunwali is about nang (honour) rooted in the triangle of zan (woman), zar (gold/wealth) and zameen (land). ‘I despise the man who does not guide his life by honour,’ wrote Khushal Khan Khattak, the seventeenth-century Pashto poet. ‘The very word honour drives me mad.’ 2

Since the responsibility of upholding individual and tribal honour rests with the males, most carry weapons, which have become a tangible expression of the code of honour. The obligatory weapon symbolizes a man’s status in society, signalling his role as protector of his community. ‘A man’s gun is his jewellery’ is a popular proverb amongst Pashtuns.3

This obligation to protect the honour of his person, his property and his women has at times led to a great deal of tension between Pashtuns and states attempting to establish their own rule of law. This is because, as Johnson and Mason note: ‘for the Pashtun, the very concept of justice is wrapped up in the maintenance of his honour and his independence from external authority. Breaking the laws of the state to take action to preserve honour would seem perfectly acceptable to a Pashtun. In fact, his honour would demand it.’4

One of the core tenets of Pashtunwali is melmastia (hospitality) that pertains to welcoming and protection of guests. Hospitality increases the power and prestige of a Pashtun amongst the tribesmen. The further a Pashtun spreads his dastarkhan (table cloth), the more  respected he is. A common saying is ‘There is no khan without a dastarkhan.’ For the khan in particular, feeding many guests is one of the primary ways to convert wealth into power and respect. Such hospitality would extend to even a stranger seeking refuge. Honouring the guest reflects the honour of the host. This hospitality also demands that a Pashtun has to show mercy to his enemy if the latter shows up at his doorstep. By forgiving his enemy, he shows magnanimity and grace, which enhances his power and prestige. 5

The obligation to take revenge, or badal, is perhaps the most critical part of Pashtunwali. As a young Churchill put it: no injury was to be forgotten and no debt left unpaid.6 Every Pashtun knows that transgressions against another’s honour will lead to revenge against the transgressor and it is in his interest not to provoke badal.

As a Pashtun proverb states: ‘He is not a Pushtoon who does not give a blow in return for a pinch.’7 When serious crimes occur—such as murder, theft or rape—revenge is taken to correct the wrong and restore honour and face. Such acts often precipitate a cycle of revenge and counter-revenge between families and clans, which can last for generations. Time is irrelevant in the Pashtun culture for taking revenge. A tribesman and his relations may take years before they attack their enemy or before they avenge the killing of a family member. There is a saying amongst the Pashtuns: ‘The Pashtun who took revenge after a hundred years said, “I took it quickly.”8

The most important issue involving tribal honour concerns women—their behaviour and transgressions against them. This is so because it directly relates to the honour of men in the family and clan. Violation of their honour is perceived as one of the greatest threats to a tribe’s honour and thus provokes the most intense blood feuds.9 Cases concerning honour of women are called tor (black). In most cases, they can only be converted to spin (white) by death.10

Ghaffar Khan’s eldest son, the poet and artist Ghani Khan, described the working of badal:

[If dishonoured, the Pathan] must shoot, there is no alternative. If he does not, his brothers will look down upon him, his father will sneer at him, his sister will avoid his eyes, his wife will be insolent and his friends will cut him off … One day he goes out and never comes back. He has laughed his way into a bullet that was fired by another of his own blood and race. His wife inherits from him a moment of joy, two sons and a lifetime of sorrow. She hangs up his rifle and sitar for his sons. She learns to hide her tears when she hears a love song in the evening. She worships her elder son because he looks like his father, and the younger one because he smiles like him. When she sits by the fire in the evening and looks at the eyes of her children and then at the empty space beside them, she thinks of him who is not there.11

While badal generally signifies violence such as revenge killings, it also means ‘exchange’ and includes marriages, in which two men marry each other’s sisters.12 The Pashtun culture is designed not so much as to punish an aggressor as to address the grievances of the victims in order to prevent further conflict. The emphasis on revenge, to an extent, gets mitigated through mediation between rival parties to settle matters peacefully through blood compensation, arranged marriages between rivals and so on.13

Like melmastia, nanawatai (offering shelter and protection) is another fundamental element of Pashtun culture. This requires an individual to safeguard those who seek refuge, even at the cost of his own life. A recent example of this was Mullah Omar refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, who was his guest, to the Americans or even to fellow Muslims, the Saudis and Pakistanis.14 Interestingly, Mullah Omar prioritized Pashtunwali over Sharia in defending his decision when the ulema argued that under Islamic principles bin Laden should be handed over for trial.15

Analysts believe that these and other interlocking elements of Pashtunwali have enabled the Pashtuns to defeat efforts to subject them to centralized rule of law. Despite this, as Johnson and Mason note, western policymakers have continued to downplay the importance of these basic cultural values in their efforts to shape strategies for the Pashtun areas. On the other hand, the Taliban and al Qaida have used these values for recruitment, shelter and social mobilization.16

The problem with Pashtunwali for the West is, as Charles Allen writes, ‘an uncompromising social code so profoundly at odds with Western mores that its application constantly brings one up with a jolt.’17 Talking about the Pashtun code of honour, Churchill noted that it was so strange and inconsistent as to be incomprehensible to a logical mind.

I have been told that if a white man could grasp it fully, and were to understand their mental impulses—if he knew, when it was their honour to stand by him, and when it was their honour to betray him; when they were bound to protect and when to kill him—he might, by judging his times and opportunities, pass safely from one end of the mountains to the other.18


  1. Sher Muhammad Mohmand, Cited in Matt Matthews, An Ever Present Danger: A Concise History of British Military Operations on the North-West Frontier, 1849-1947 (Kansas: Combat Studies Institute Press, US Army Combined Arms Center, June 2010), Occasional paper 83.
  2.  Cited in Akbar Ahmed, The Thistle And The Drone: How America’s War On Terror Became A Global War on Tribal Islam, (Harper Collins, India 2013)
  3.  Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason ‘No Sign until the Burst of Fire’, Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier,” International Security 32, no. 4: (2008)
  4.  Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason ‘No Sign until the Burst of Fire’.
  5.  Khan Idris, The Pakistan–Afghan Borderland: Pashtun Tribes Descending into Extremism: A Case Study of a Pashtun Tribe (Richardson, Texas: Tribal Analysis Publishing, 2013).
  6.  Rajmohan Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan : Nonviolent Badshah of the Pakhtuns (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2013).
  7.  Akbar Ahmed, The Thistle and the Drone.
  8.  Akbar Ahmed, The Thistle And The Drone; Khan Idris, The Pakistan–Afghan Borderland.
  9.  Akbar Ahmed, The Thistle And The Drone
  10.  Akbar Ahmed, Social and Economic Change in the Tribal Areas, 1972-1976 (London: Oxford University Press, 1977).
  11.  Khan Abdul Ghani Khan, The Pathan, (Peshawar: University Book Agency, 1947).
  12.  David B. Edwards, Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
  13.  Akbar Ahmed, The Thistle and the Drone.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16.  Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason, ‘No Sign until the Burst of Fire’.
  17.  Charles Allen, God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad (London: Little, Brown, imprint of Time Warner Book Group, 2006).


(Exlusive to NatStrat. Views are personal.)


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