Afghanistan has many ethnic groups. The Pashtun, the largest group, comprise almost Three-fifths of the population and are divided into several major subgroups. Most Pashtuns live in the east and south central afghanistan. Pashto, spoken by Pashtuns, has two major variants and many dialects.
Islam is the religion of virtually all Afghans, but as a unifying force it has not overcome ethnic differences. The majority of the people are Sunni Muslim.
Culturally, Islam dominates most Afghan Muslims’ lives from birth to death. The important role of Islam in the Mujahideen war against the Soviet occupation (1979-1989) increased its political influence in the country. Islam’s importance in government cannot be overemphasized since the Sunni Muslim Taliban movement gained control of most of the country, winning Kabul in September 1996. Since coming to power, the Taliban has imposed a strict interpretation of religious law on both government and society. Measures include requiring women to cloak themselves head to toe and forbidding men from shaving their beards. Many sports and other forms of recreation are banned.
Teenage girls adopt pardah—a system in certain Muslim societies involving the seclusion or screening of women from men who are not close family members—and have no contact with men outside the immediate family. Since the Taliban came to power, a woman found in the company of an unrelated man is subject to severe punishment.
Marriages are normally arranged, often with the senior women of the families playing a prominent role in the decision. Among urban or more Westernized families, it was sometimes permissible for a prospective bride and groom to meet with or view each other and approve of or reject the union, but this may not be the case under the rule of the Taliban. Marriages between cousins are common and often preferred, as they strengthen family ties. Matchmakers engage in lengthy negotiations over the bride-price and dowry.
Marriage and engagement rituals are numerous, varied, and complex. Traditionally, the ceremony itself occurs over a three-day period, with some of the festivities at the bride’s family home and some at the groom’s. Most activities occur with the sexes segregated, but all gather for the signing of the marriage contract and recitation of the Qur’an. Divorce is simple—the man need only announce it in public three times—but rare. A man may have up to four wives, but he must provide for each equally; this limits most men to one wife. Premarital and extramarital sex are strictly forbidden and can be grounds for severe punishment (including death) in some areas.
Life in Afghanistan is centered on the extended family. Families in rural areas are often large, with several generations living together in the same compound or close by. The most common dwelling is a mud-brick structure of several rooms, surrounded by high mud walls that provide security from enemies and seclusion for women. Within the compound, the family is led by the senior male (father or grandfather).
Tasks are allocated according to gender, age, and experience. The wife of the senior male is dominant among the women of the household. Women do all the cooking, washing, and cleaning. They may engage in light farming, but their lives are mainly focused on the household. The Taliban has banned women from leaving the home without a male member of their family to escort them. It has also banned them from working outside the home. Men work in the fields or family business and handle all contact with the outside world, such as shopping in the market or dealing with local officials. In many cases, men even shop for personal items (such as clothing) for their wives so they do not have to go out in public. Only adult males participate in the jirga (village council) and political events.
Afghans identify primarily with their family, kin group, clan, or tribe. Afghans in rural areas tend to define wealth as land ownership or a large family. Urban residents are more likely to view wealth in terms of money or possessions, and education is highly valued. Nomadic people define wealth by the size of their herds. Jewelry is regarded as a portable form of wealth—women's clothing and veils keep valuables largely hidden.
Afghan cuisine is influenced by the foods of South and Central Asia, China, and Iran. Among common foods are the many types of palau (rice mixed with meat and/or vegetables), qorma (vegetable sauce), kebab (skewered meat), aashak (leek-filled pasta) or mantu (meat-filled pasta), and nan (leavened bread). Tomatoes, spinach, potatoes, peas, carrots, cucumbers, and eggplant are also popular. Yogurt and other dairy products are dietary staples. Sugarcane, a variety of fruits (fresh and dried), and nuts are eaten as desserts and snacks. Chai (tea), either green or black, is the most popular drink. Islamic law forbids the consumption of alcohol and pork.
Afghans in rural areas commonly eat only breakfast and dinner, but some may have a light lunch. Most have snacks between meals. At meals, Afghans usually sit on the floor around a mat on which food is served in a communal dish. To eat, one uses the fingers of the right hand or a piece of nan. The left hand is never used to serve oneself, as it is traditionally reserved for personal hygiene. One eats until satisfied, and leftover food is saved for later or for the next day’s breakfast. Families normally eat together, but if a male guest is present, females eat separately. Most Afghans do not eat at restaurants, which sometimes have a separate dining area or booths for families.
A handshake is a common greeting among men, who tend to be expressive when greeting friends and may pat one another on the back during an embrace or lightly kiss their friends on alternate cheeks. Formal verbal greetings are often accompanied by placing the right hand over the heart. Women friends embrace each other and kiss three times on alternate cheeks. Women might also shake hands. A man does not shake hands with or otherwise touch a woman in public, although he may greet her verbally in an indirect way.
Greetings vary by region and ethnic group, but Arabic greetings are used and universally accepted. Assalaam alaikum ("Peace be upon you") is replied to with Waalaikum assalaam ("And peace also upon you"). and the Pashto equivalent is Singa ye?.
In formal situations, an academic or professional title is always used. Hajji ("Pilgrim") is reserved for those who have made a pilgrimage to Mecca (Makkah) in Saudi Arabia. Socioeconomic status can also determine which title should be used (such as Khan, meaning "Sir"). Some people are respectfully referred to by a title only (for example, Hajji Khan, or "Pilgrim Sir"). Usually, however, titles are combined with names. Parents are often called by a child’s name, such as Madar-e ("Mother of") Muhammad or Baba-e ("Father of") Alam. Friends use given names and nicknames among themselves.
Visiting between family, friends, and neighbors is the main social activity in Afghanistan. It is mostly segregated by gender. Homes often have a special room (hujra) where male guests are received by the male host. Females socialize elsewhere in the compound. Guests are served tea and, depending on the time of day, perhaps something to eat. Guests are expected to have at least three cups of tea. Any business discussions occur after refreshments. The ability of an Afghan to generously entertain guests is a sign of social status.
The Taliban restricts many forms of recreation. A variety of sports are banned, as well as kite flying and playing music in public. Traditionally, however, Afghans enjoy soccer, volleyball, and wrestling. Oral traditions such as storytelling and singing have flourished. Music, played on drums, lutes, and a clarinet-like instrument called a surnai, has traditionally been very popular. Most leisure activities occur in the evening and center around the family.
Music is represented mostly by traditional folk songs, ballads, and dances. The attan is a Pashtun dance performed in a large circle, with dancers clapping their hands and quickening the movements of their feet to the beat of the music. The Taliban has banned playing music in public.