Although variations may exist between ethnic groups and those practicingdifferent modes of subsistence, the family remains the single most importantinstitution in Afghan society. Characteristically, the Afghan family isendogamous (with parallel and cross-cousin marriages preferred), patriarchal(authority vested in male elders), patrilineal (inheritance through the maleline), and patrilocal (girl moves to husband's place of residence on marriage).Polygyny (multiple wives) is permitted, but is no longer so widely practiced.
Within families there is a tendency toward respect for age, male or female,reverence for motherhood, eagerness for children, especially sons, and avoidanceof divorce. Rigorously honored ideals emphasizing family cohesiveness throughextended kinship networks endow the family with its primary function as asupport system.
The extended family, the major economic and social unit in the society,replaces government because of the absence of an adequate nation-wide serviceinfrastructure. Child socialization takes place within the family because ofdeficiencies in the education system. Thus, individual social, economic andpolitical rights and obligations are found within the family which guaranteessecurity to each man and woman, from birth to death.
The strength of this sense of family solidarity has been amply evidentthroughout the past years of disruption. Although families may be split and nowreside on separate continents a world apart, those that are more affluentregularly send remittances to less fortunate family members. Many urban Afghanrefugee families in Pakistan would otherwise be totally destitute. Similarly,newly arrived refugees always find shelter with families already established inPakistan. At times, single family living spaces will be stretched to accommodateup to twenty new persons because family members cannot be turned away. Similarobligations extend to finding employment for relatives. This at times leads tothe blatant nepotism which plagues the aid assistance network in Pakistan.
This is not to say that no tensions exist within the extended family system.Fierce competition over authority, inheritance, and individual aspirations dodevelop. The violent enmity that rises between cousins, for example,particularly over the selection of brides, is so often present that it hasbecome a favorite theme of countless songs and folktales.
In Afghanistan extended families are characterized by residential unity be itin a valley, a village or a single compound. Extended family households maycontain three to four generations including the male head of family and hiswife, his brothers, several sons and their families, cousins with theirfamilies, as well as all unmarried and widowed females. Nuclear familyhouseholds geographically grouped within extended family settings are alsocommon. These will frequently accommodate elderly grandparents and single orwidowed aunts. No matter how they may be spaced, these multigenerational unitspractice close economic cooperation and come together on all life-crisisoccasions. This permits cohesive in-group solidarity to be maintained.
The core of the family consists of the mother-in-law, the daughters-in-lawand daughters, with the senior woman reigning at the top of the power hierarchywithin the household. In families with plural wives, each wife has her own room,with her own belongings and furnishings; sometimes her own cooking space isprovided. The courtyard provides space for joint household activities andentertainment.
Relations between co-wives can be amiable, sister-like and mutuallysupportive in sharing household chores and in securing favorable attention fromthe husband, but relations can also be stormy and many men hesitate to take asecond wife because of the fierce battles that can erupt. Some co-wives resortto magic to ease household tensions by purchasing a variety of amulets andcharms, including dried hoopoe heads and wolf claws which are believed toguarantee loving attention from husbands, peace with mothers-in-law and sweettempers all around.
The practice of taking more than one wife became less and less prevalent overthe past few decades. Few men could afford to do so. Barrenness and a failure toproduce sons are common reasons for its continuation. Barrenness is afrightening social stigma, not only for wives but for her family as well. Mostmen feel obliged to rectify the situation, but because divorce is so repugnantthe option of a second wife is preferred by all.
In other cases, multiple wives are taken in order to fulfill familialobligations to provide unmarried kin or young widows with a home and security.Although the institution of the levirate in which a widow is married, with orwithout her consent, to a member of her deceased husband's family is explicitlyforbidden in the Quran, it functions traditionally to stabilize familyidentification and ensure economic security. By the 1960s the levirate had allbut ceased to function in many areas, but it was increasingly employed after1978 because of the unprecedented number of war widows. The vulnerability ofwidows too young to have established a commanding status in the family hierarchyis more frequently addressed through the levirate today than in pre-exodusAfghanistan.
While male authority in the family is paramount in all groups, some importantdifferences in male-female interrelations can be noted within rural and urbanenvironments. In the rural areas interrelated responsibilities between men andwomen establish a bond of partnership that builds mutual respect. Carpet makingis but one example. The men herd and sheer the sheep, the women spin the wool,the men dye the wool, the women weave the carpet, and the men market theproduct. One highly important family activity performed by rural women that isoften overlooked is their management of family food supplies. A women, often anelderly member of the household, receives the household's supply of grainfollowing the harvest. She must make sure that this supply of the family's basicfood staple is apportioned correctly over the year until the next harvest comesin. Otherwise the family must go into debt, or starve. Household management andresponsibility for the upbringing of children thus give rural women considerableauthority in their domestic sphere.
By contrast, in traditional urban lower and middle class homes men dailyleave the house to work at jobs with which women are not involved and aboutwhich they have little knowledge or interest. These women are consequently morerigidly relegated to purely domestic duties of serving husbands and caring forchildren. Remarkable changes took place among middle class and elite familiesafter 1959 when the government supported the voluntary end to seclusion forwomen. Women sought education and moved into the public sphere in everincreasing numbers. Nevertheless, working women are still expected to socializewithin the family, not with their colleagues at work.
The innate belief in male superiority provides an ideological basis for theacceptance of male control over families. Socially circumscribed and maledetermined roles open to women are believed necessary to maintain social order,and when women do not appear to be controlled in traditional ways, as, forexample, when they take up unusual public career or behavioral roles, this istaken as a danger sign heralding social disintegration. Life crisis decisionsabout education, careers and marriage are, therefore, made by male familymembers.
Embodied in the acceptance of the male right to control decisions on femalebehavior is the dual concept of male prestige and family honor. Any evidence ofindependent female action is regarded as evidence of lost male control andresults in ostracism, which adversely affects the entire family's standingwithin the community. Community pressures thus make women dependent on men, evenamong modernized urban families. On the other hand, since the construction offamily and male reputations, notably their much valued honour, depends upon thegood behavior of women, women derive a certain amount of leverage within familyrelationships from their ability to damage family prestige through subtlenonconformist behavior, such as simply failing to provide adequate hospitality,or a lack of rectitude within the home.
Afghan society places much emphasis on hospitality and the rules of etiquettethat distinguish good behavior toward guests. By disregarding social niceties aperson diminishes the reputation of both the immediate family and the extendedfamily or group. Conversely, families gain respect, maintain status and enhancetheir standing in the community through exemplary behavior.
Since the family is so central to the lives of men, women and children, andsince women's roles are pivotal to family well-being, the selection of mates isof prime concern. The preferred mate is a close relative or at least within arelated lineage; the ideal being the father's brother's daughter, or firstcousin, although this is not always feasible. In reality the process is far morecomplicated and involves a multiplicity of considerations, includingstrengthening group solidarity, sustaining social order, confirming socialstatus, enhancing wealth and power or economic and political standing,increasing control over resources, resolving disputes, and compensating forinjury and death.
Within this complicated web governing marriage negotiations, other factorsmust also be taken into account such as sectarian membership, ethnic group,family status, kin relationships, and economic benefits. The bride's skills,industriousness and temperament is also considered and, with all, the happinessand welfare of the girl is often not neglected.
Although endogamous marriage is prevalent in all groups, marriage betweenethnic groups have always occurred. Over the past few decades these haveincreased because large populations have settled outside their ancestral areas,communication networks have improved and industrial complexes have drawn workersfrom many areas. In addition, political and economic changes occasioned by thesedevelopments shifted the balance of various types of productive resources andthis led to forging marital links between unrelated and previously unconnectedgroups for benefits other than expressions of status.
Except in cases in which the institution of marriage is manipulated forpolitical and economic purposes, female family members initiate the elaborateprocess of betrothal through their own women's networks. Men are generally notinvolved in the initial stages although sometimes a son will elicit the supportof his mother; sometimes a brother will bring about a match for his sister withone of his friends, or even a young man she has observed from the rooftop of herhome. Brother-sister bonds are very strong.
Men enter the process in order to set the financial agreements before theengagement is announced. These entail the transfer of money, property orlivestock from the groom's family to the bride's family. The large sumsfrequently demanded should not be seen only as evidence of avaricious fathers.Brides gain status according to the value set for them; too meager sums devalueboth father and bride in the eyes of their community. Islam does not prescribesuch a brideprice, but does enjoin the giving of mahr in the form ofmoney or property for the personal use of the bride so that her financialwelfare may be ensured in the event of divorce. Islamic law does not include theconcept of alimony.
In many cases, however, the bride fails to receive her legitimate portion ofthe marriage settlement. This causes friction, and cases concerning inheritanceare frequently brought before the urban family courts, to which rural womenseldom have access. In addition, because exorbitant sums are often demanded,many men are unable to marry until they are older. Very young girls, therefore,are frequently married to much older men. As a result young widowhood is common,giving rise to the practice of the levirate described above. Under normalcircumstances, however, girls are married while in their teens to boys in theirmid-twenties. Cases of child marriage, however, are not unknown .
Every marriage entails two exchanges. The dowry brought by the bride to herhusband's home normally equals the value of the brideprice. It includesclothing, bedding and household utensils which are expected to last the couplefor fifteen years. Most importantly, the quality of the dowry often influencesthe treatment and status accorded the bride on her arrival at her husband'shome. A majority of the items are made by the girl, in cooperation with herfemale relatives and friends. The preparation of the bridal hope chest,therefore, constitutes a crucial female activity in every home. The trousseau ofembroidered, woven and tailored items is important to the prestige of bothfamilies and must be as impressive as possible.
The ratio of inheritance is two to one in favor of males; a wife receivesone-third of her son's shares. In practice, women are often denied theirrightful inheritance, again causing tensions not only within nuclear families,but among kin groups of the wife as well.
Various tribal and ethnic groups follow practices which are not strictlyconsistent with Islamic law. Past governments have sought to institutionalizesocial reforms pertaining to the family for over one hundred years. Using thedictates of Islam, Afghan monarchs since Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901) havedecreed and legislated against child marriages, forced marriages, the levirateand exorbitant brideprices. They upheld hereditary rights of women, authorizedwomen to receive the mahr for their personal use, and supported theright of women to seek divorce under certain circumstances such as non-support,maltreatment and impotency.
Subsequent constitutions while guaranteeing equal rights to men and womentended to avoid specific reference to women. The Penal Code of 1976 and CivilLaw of 1977, however, contained familiar articles outlawing child marriage,forced marriage and abandonment but at the same time combined them with elementsof customary laws favorable to male dominance and prejudicial to women inmatters of divorce, child custody, adultery and the defence of male honour. ASpecial Court for Family Affairs opened in 1975 in which female judgesparticipated, but such legal documents were scarcely heeded by the majority ofthe population because they were seen to interfere with family prerogatives inmatters seen to be the provenance of Islam and therefore beyond the competenceof secular law.
The leftist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan which came to power on 27April 1978, issued Decree No. 7 with the expressed purpose of ensuring"equal rights of women with men and ... removing the unjust patriarchalfeudalistic relations between husband and wife for the consolidation of sincerefamily ties." This simplistic decree, like earlier pronouncements, forbadechild marriage, forced marriages and exorbitant brideprices. The DRA's socialreforms were viewed as a threat to cherished cultural values and an intolerableintrusion into the closely- knit, family-based society and consequently met withearly dissent. Rhetoric urging children to defy family restraints and inform onparents was repugnant. Encroachments on family decision-making concerning theconduct of female members was intolerable. The establishment of day-care centersusurped the family's paramount role in child socialization and sending youngchildren to the Soviet Union for education was regarded as a particularlybarbarous weapon designed to break up the family through the replacement ofstable traditional relationships with fragmented, individualized interactions.As the massive flow of refugees into Pakistan began in 1979, many cited theassault on the integrity of their families as a major reason for their flight.
Decree No. 7 was the first DRA regulation to be eliminated by The IslamicState of Afghanistan on its assumption of power in 1992. To the Taliban, allpast legislation touching upon women and the family threatened to undermine thesociety's values. As such they are anathema. Under the Taliban the sanctity ofthe family, with secluded women at its core, is a paramount requisite in theircrusade to establish a fully Islamic society.
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