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Customs of Afghanistan

Marriage and Family

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.

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. 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).

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. Most Afghans cannot regularly afford meat, but they enjoy beef, mutton, chicken, and many types of game. An urban diet is usually more varied than a rural one, but food shortages have been severe at times. Poor people may live on chai and nan. 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”). A common Dari greeting is Khūbasti? (“Are you well?”), and the Pashto equivalent is Singa ye?. “Goodbye” is Khoda hafiz.

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.


Traditionally, 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.

In buzkashi, a sport played by ethnic groups in northern Afghanistan, two teams of horsemen (chapandoz) compete using the headless carcass of a calf or goat. The player in possession of the carcass will suffer all manners of abuse to make him drop it—sometimes even from his own teammates, who may want the game prolonged. It is a highly demanding and sometimes dangerous game that requires superb horsemanship.

Holidays and Celebrations

The secular holidays of Afghanistan include Victory of the Muslim Nation (28 April), Remembrance Day (4 May), and Independence Day (Jashn; 18 August). Jashn, which celebrates liberation from British control in 1919, lasts for a week. Festivities have generally included parades, music and dancing, games, and speeches by leaders. In the past there have been special ceremonies in Kābul, and the Jashn holiday was often an occasion for leaders to announce major policy decisions.

Islamic holidays, which are more important, are scheduled according to the lunar calendar, and thus vary from year to year. Ramadan is a month-long fast. From sunrise to sundown, people do not eat, drink, or smoke. In the evening, after the sun has set, families and friends gather to eat and visit. The first day of Ramadan is a holiday, and at the end of Ramadan a three-day feast called Eid-e-fitr takes place.

Nauroz, the Islamic New Year, begins on the first day of spring (around 21 March). In Afghanistan it is also Farmers’ Day, with farmers decorating their cows in preparation for agricultural fairs at which they may win prizes. One traditional belief is that an ugly old woman wanders around the land at this time. Her name is Ajuzak, and if it rains, it is said that she is washing her hair, and crops will benefit.

Buzkashi is played at this time, with hundreds of horsemen on each team. Special foods eaten in honor of the New Year include samanak, a dessert made of wheat and sugar, and haftmewah, a compote of nuts and fruits.

Other Islamic holidays include Eid-e-ada, honoring Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son at Allah’s command; Ashura, a Shiite day to mark the martyrdom of Imam Husayn; and Roze-Maulud, the birthday of the prophet Muhammad.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas