Although variations may exist between ethnic groups and those
practicing different modes of subsistence, the family remains
the single most important institution in Afghan society. Characteristically,
the Afghan family is endogamous (with parallel and cross-cousin
marriages preferred), patriarchal (authority vested in male elders),
patrilineal (inheritance through the male line), 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 avoidance of divorce. Rigorously honored ideals emphasizing
family cohesiveness through extended kinship networks endow the
family with its primary function as a support system.
The extended family, the major economic and social unit in the
society, replaces government because of the absence of an adequate
nation-wide service infrastructure. Child socialization takes
place within the family because of deficiencies in the education
system. Thus, individual social, economic and political rights
and obligations are found within the family which guarantees security
to each man and woman, from birth to death.
The strength of this sense of family solidarity has been amply
evident throughout the past years of disruption. Although families
may be split and now reside on separate continents a world apart,
those that are more affluent regularly send remittances to less
fortunate family members. Many urban Afghan refugee families in
Pakistan would otherwise be totally destitute. Similarly, newly
arrived refugees always find shelter with families already established
in Pakistan. At times, single family living spaces will be stretched
to accommodate up to twenty new persons because family members
cannot be turned away. Similar obligations extend to finding employment
for relatives. This at times leads to the 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 do develop. The violent enmity that
rises between cousins, for example, particularly over the selection
of brides, is so often present that it has become a favorite theme
of countless songs and folktales.
In Afghanistan extended families are characterized by residential
unity be it in a valley, a village or a single compound. Extended
family households may contain three to four generations including
the male head of family and his wife, his brothers, several sons
and their families, cousins with their families, as well as all
unmarried and widowed females. Nuclear family households geographically
grouped within extended family settings are also common. These
will frequently accommodate elderly grandparents and single or
widowed aunts. No matter how they may be spaced, these multigenerational
units practice close economic cooperation and come together on
all life-crisis occasions. This permits cohesive in-group solidarity
to be maintained.
The core of the family consists of the mother-in-law, the daughters-in-law
and daughters, with the senior woman reigning at the top of the
power hierarchy within the household. In families with plural
wives, each wife has her own room, with her own belongings and
furnishings; sometimes her own cooking space is provided. The
courtyard provides space for joint household activities and entertainment.
Relations between co-wives can be amiable, sister-like and mutually
supportive in sharing household chores and in securing favorable
attention from the husband, but relations can also be stormy and
many men hesitate to take a second wife because of the fierce
battles that can erupt. Some co-wives resort to magic to ease
household tensions by purchasing a variety of amulets and charms,
including dried hoopoe heads and wolf claws which are believed
to guarantee loving attention from husbands, peace with mothers-in-law
and sweet tempers all around.
The practice of taking more than one wife became less and less
prevalent over the past few decades. Few men could afford to do
so. Barrenness and a failure to produce sons are common reasons
for its continuation. Barrenness is a frightening social stigma,
not only for wives but for her family as well. Most men feel obliged
to rectify the situation, but because divorce is so repugnant
the option of a second wife is preferred by all.
In other cases, multiple wives are taken in order to fulfill
familial obligations 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 or without her consent, to a
member of her deceased husband's family is explicitly forbidden
in the Quran, it functions traditionally to stabilize family identification
and ensure economic security. By the 1960s the levirate had all
but ceased to function in many areas, but it was increasingly
employed after 1978 because of the unprecedented number of war
widows. The vulnerability of widows too young to have established
a commanding status in the family hierarchy is more frequently
addressed through the levirate today than in pre-exodus Afghanistan.
While male authority in the family is paramount in all groups,
some important differences in male-female interrelations can be
noted within rural and urban environments. In the rural areas
interrelated responsibilities between men and women establish
a bond of partnership that builds mutual respect. Carpet making
is 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 the product. One highly important family activity
performed by rural women that is often overlooked is their management
of family food supplies. A women, often an elderly member of the
household, receives the household's supply of grain following
the harvest. She must make sure that this supply of the family's
basic food staple is apportioned correctly over the year until
the next harvest comes in. Otherwise the family must go into debt,
or starve. Household management and responsibility for the upbringing
of children thus give rural women considerable authority in their
By contrast, in traditional urban lower and middle class homes
men daily leave the house to work at jobs with which women are
not involved and about which they have little knowledge or interest.
These women are consequently more rigidly relegated to purely
domestic duties of serving husbands and caring for children. Remarkable
changes took place among middle class and elite families after
1959 when the government supported the voluntary end to seclusion
for women. Women sought education and moved into the public sphere
in ever increasing numbers. Nevertheless, working women are still
expected to socialize within the family, not with their colleagues
The innate belief in male superiority provides an ideological
basis for the acceptance of male control over families. Socially
circumscribed and male determined roles open to women are believed
necessary to maintain social order, and when women do not appear
to be controlled in traditional ways, as, for example, when they
take up unusual public career or behavioral roles, this is taken
as a danger sign heralding social disintegration. Life crisis
decisions about education, careers and marriage are, therefore,
made by male family members.
Embodied in the acceptance of the male right to control decisions
on female behavior is the dual concept of male prestige and family
honor. Any evidence of independent female action is regarded as
evidence of lost male control and results in ostracism, which
adversely affects the entire family's standing within the community.
Community pressures thus make women dependent on men, even among
modernized urban families. On the other hand, since the construction
of family and male reputations, notably their much valued honour,
depends upon the good behavior of women, women derive a certain
amount of leverage within family relationships from their ability
to damage family prestige through subtle nonconformist 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 etiquette that distinguish good behavior toward guests. By
disregarding social niceties a person diminishes the reputation
of both the immediate family and the extended family or group.
Conversely, families gain respect, maintain status and enhance
their standing in the community through exemplary behavior.
Since the family is so central to the lives of men, women and
children, and since women's roles are pivotal to family well-being,
the selection of mates is of prime concern. The preferred mate
is a close relative or at least within a related lineage; the
ideal being the father's brother's daughter, or first cousin,
although this is not always feasible. In reality the process is
far more complicated and involves a multiplicity of considerations,
including strengthening group solidarity, sustaining social order,
confirming social status, enhancing wealth and power or economic
and political standing, increasing control over resources, resolving
disputes, and compensating for injury and death.
Within this complicated web governing marriage negotiations,
other factors must 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 happiness and welfare of
the girl is often not neglected.
Although endogamous marriage is prevalent in all groups, marriage
between ethnic groups have always occurred. Over the past few
decades these have increased because large populations have settled
outside their ancestral areas, communication networks have improved
and industrial complexes have drawn workers from many areas. In
addition, political and economic changes occasioned by these developments
shifted the balance of various types of productive resources and
this led to forging marital links between unrelated and previously
unconnected groups for benefits other than expressions of status.
Except in cases in which the institution of marriage is manipulated
for political and economic purposes, female family members initiate
the elaborate process of betrothal through their own women's networks.
Men are generally not involved in the initial stages although
sometimes a son will elicit the support of his mother; sometimes
a brother will bring about a match for his sister with one of
his friends, or even a young man she has observed from the rooftop
of her home. Brother-sister bonds are very strong.
Men enter the process in order to set the financial agreements
before the engagement is announced. These entail the transfer
of money, property or livestock from the groom's family to the
bride's family. The large sums frequently demanded should not
be seen only as evidence of avaricious fathers. Brides gain status
according to the value set for them; too meager sums devalue both
father and bride in the eyes of their community. Islam does not
prescribe such a brideprice, but does enjoin the giving of mahr
in the form of money or property for the personal use of the bride
so that her financial welfare may be ensured in the event of divorce.
Islamic law does not include the concept of alimony.
In many cases, however, the bride fails to receive her legitimate
portion of the marriage settlement. This causes friction, and
cases concerning inheritance are frequently brought before the
urban family courts, to which rural women seldom 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 normal circumstances, however,
girls are married while in their teens to boys in their mid-twenties.
Cases of child marriage, however, are not unknown .
Every marriage entails two exchanges. The dowry brought by the
bride to her husband's home normally equals the value of the brideprice.
It includes clothing, bedding and household utensils which are
expected to last the couple for fifteen years. Most importantly,
the quality of the dowry often influences the treatment and status
accorded the bride on her arrival at her husband's home. A majority
of the items are made by the girl, in cooperation with her female
relatives and friends. The preparation of the bridal hope chest,
therefore, constitutes a crucial female activity in every home.
The trousseau of embroidered, woven and tailored items is important
to the prestige of both families and must be as impressive as
The ratio of inheritance is two to one in favor of males; a wife
receives one-third of her son's shares. In practice, women are
often denied their rightful 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
strictly consistent with Islamic law. Past governments have sought
to institutionalize social reforms pertaining to the family for
over one hundred years. Using the dictates of Islam, Afghan monarchs
since Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901) have decreed and legislated
against child marriages, forced marriages, the levirate and exorbitant
brideprices. They upheld hereditary rights of women, authorized
women to receive the mahr for their personal use, and
supported the right of women to seek divorce under certain circumstances
such as non-support, maltreatment and impotency.
Subsequent constitutions while guaranteeing equal rights to men
and women tended to avoid specific reference to women. The Penal
Code of 1976 and Civil Law of 1977, however, contained familiar
articles outlawing child marriage, forced marriage and abandonment
but at the same time combined them with elements of customary
laws favorable to male dominance and prejudicial to women in matters
of divorce, child custody, adultery and the defence of male honour.
A Special Court for Family Affairs opened in 1975 in which female
judges participated, but such legal documents were scarcely heeded
by the majority of the population because they were seen to interfere
with family prerogatives in matters seen to be the provenance
of Islam and therefore beyond the competence of secular law.
The leftist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan which came to
power on 27 April 1978, issued Decree No. 7 with the expressed
purpose of ensuring "equal rights of women with men and ... removing
the unjust patriarchal feudalistic relations between husband and
wife for the consolidation of sincere family ties." This simplistic
decree, like earlier pronouncements, forbade child marriage, forced
marriages and exorbitant brideprices. The DRA's social reforms
were viewed as a threat to cherished cultural values and an intolerable
intrusion into the closely- knit, family-based society and consequently
met with early dissent. Rhetoric urging children to defy family
restraints and inform on parents was repugnant. Encroachments
on family decision-making concerning the conduct of female members
was intolerable. The establishment of day-care centers usurped
the family's paramount role in child socialization and sending
young children to the Soviet Union for education was regarded
as a particularly barbarous weapon designed to break up the family
through the replacement of stable traditional relationships with
fragmented, individualized interactions. As the massive flow of
refugees into Pakistan began in 1979, many cited the assault 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 Islamic State of Afghanistan on its assumption of power in
1992. To the Taliban, all past legislation touching upon women
and the family threatened to undermine the society's values. As
such they are anathema. Under the Taliban the sanctity of the
family, with secluded women at its core, is a paramount requisite
in their crusade to establish a fully Islamic society.
Data as of 1997