Cultural Identities

Afghanistan is characterized by wide variety of ethnic groups, as well as several sects within Islam, each consisting of their own way of life. Particularly in rural Afghanistan, tribal and ethnic groups take pre-eminence over the individual.  Historic and geographic factors have created and preserved this diversity although with varying degrees of cultural assimilation continuously taking place and a considerable degree of cultural homogeneity which is result of this process.

In Afghanistan, ethnic groups can be broadly understood in two ways- tribal and non- tribal. Tribes are type of ethnic groups that define their membership through descent from a common ancestor, real or assumed, and in Afghanistan such descent is through male line, example, Pashtuns. On the other hand, non-tribal ethnic groups make no claim of genealogical relationship amongst their members, but they do
maintain a common identity, distinguishing themselves primarily by residence, example, the Tajiks.

Moreover, ethnicity means different things to different groups with every group using the identification term quam to explain a complexity of affiliations, that is, a network of families or occupations. A quamdefines an individual’s identity in his social world and every individual belongs to a quam which provides protection from outside encroachment, support, security, cooperation and social, political or economic assistance. Quam can correspond to a village, ethnic group, family kin or a descent group in a more restrictive sense.

The cultural pattern is one of competition among equivalent units, which unite in case of competition from outside. Like, competition starts at the level of male first cousins and works its way up through lineages, subtribes, to ethnic group rivalries. This pattern allows all Afghans to unite at least sometimes against outside threat, like it was to a great extent during the Soviet invasion.

Afghanistan is an Islamic country with 84 percent of its population being Sunnis, following the Hanafi School of jurisprudence and the remainder being predominantly Shi’a, mainly Hazaras. One percent ofpopulation is of Hindus and Sikhs. Culturally, Islamic religious tradition and codes with traditional practices provide the principal means of controlling personal conduct and settling legal disputes.

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Some of the ethnic groups of Afghanistan are following:



Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and have been dominant since the mid-eighteenth century. They can be further divided into tribes like Durrani, Ghilzai, Wardak, Jaji, Tani, Jadran, Mangal, Khugiani, Safi, Mohamand and Shinwari. They are scattered all over the country, and many Pashtuns also reside in northwestern Pakistan. Pahtuns are originally from south of Hindu Kush, and speak Pashto language and have a peculiar way of living, called Pashtunwali (rules, regulations and laws of Pashtuns).  Usually, Pashtuns are farmers, and a large number of them are nomads, who are living in tents made of black goat hair.


Tajiks (Tadzhiks) are the second largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan. They live in the Panjsher Valley north of Kabul, in the Northern and northeastern provinces of Parwan, Takhar, Badakhshan, Baghlan, Samangan, and few of them also live in the central mountains. Tajiks identify themselves with the valley or region they live in like Panjsheri, Badakhshi, Samangani and Andarbi.  Tajiks speak Dari and are involved in sedentary mountain farming and sheep/goat herding. In urban centres, they make up bulk of Afghanistan’s educated elite and possess considerable wealth and significant political influence. Hazaras

Hazaras reside mainly in the central region of Afghanistan, known as Hazarat. Their ancestors came from the Xinjiang region of northwestern China and they have been discriminated against for a long time, partly because they are minority Shiites in Sunni Muslim dominated Afghanistan. Hazaras speak Dari and are mostly farmers and shepherds.

The Turkic Groups

Uzbeks are the most populous Turkish group in Afghanistan. The Turkic groups (perhaps 1.6 million) have descendents of the Central Asian Turks who frequently invaded from the north. They speak an archaic form of Turkish, as well as Persian. They are mainly farmers and stockmen, breeding kakarkul sheep and Turkman horse.


Baluch are mainly settled in south western Afghanistan in the sparsely settled deserts and semi deserts of Hilmand Province and in the north western Faryab province. They have a tribal, highly segmented and centrallyorganised society under a powerful; chieftain known as sardar . They live a semi-sedentary and semi-nomadic lifestyle and are known for camel breeding. They speak Baluchi as well as Dari and Pashto.

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The Gender Aspect

The Afghan society regards women as perpetuators of the ideals of the society, symbolising honour of family, community and nation, and therefore are considered to be controlled and protected in order to maintain moral purity. Strict restrains are imposed directly on women and this subordinates their personal autonomy and strengthens male control over them and the society at large. The practice of purdah, seclusion, including veiling is the most visible manifestation of this attitude. Also, proscriptions against interactions between the sexes outside the mahrammat (acceptable male guardian like father, brother or son) severely limit women’s activities outside home, including access to education and employment. Women are considered untrustworthy and socially immature, and therefore such restrictions on them are considered valid and necessary.


Sharma, Rashmi. Afghanistan and SAARC. New Delhi: Regal Publisher, 2007. video