Afghanistan’s Customary Anguish

FARAH, AFGHANISTANWhen the problems riddling Afghan society are listed – violence, insecurity, corruption, religious fundamentalism – one dominating factor is usually left out: the influence of customary law. In Afghanistan, there are three principal legal references:  constitutional law, the Koran, and the system of customary law known as Farhang, the most dominant and strictest version of which is called Pashtunwali (the way of the Pashtuns).

Originally an ancient honor code, Farhang ensures the dominance of the oldest male of any household, followed by married sons, unmarried sons, and grandsons, then wives (with the youngest at the bottom). Collective decisions are taken by patriarchs in councils called jirgas, where all have to be in agreement.

This agreement includes including collaborating or not with the Taliban, cooperating with the Coalition forces, accepting or refusing poppy eradication in a village. Everything else is left to patriarchal discretion.  Here, no one will intervene except to reinforce the application of  the patriarch's rights – say, in stoning a supposedly wayward girl, or turning a blind eye to so-called “honor killings” of women.

Every act of an Afghan male’s life is integrated in a form of reciprocity, in which nothing is free. Melmastia, the basic tenet of hospitality means “I will give you shelter if you ask me to, even if you are a fugitive murderer; but, in exchange, you fight my battles.” This sense of customary obligation is why so many of President Hamid Karzai’s cronies remain in place and Taliban leaders remain safe.