Marriage as Warfare

After decades of ferocious fighting, the Swat wife usually triumphs over her beleaguered husband.

Courtyard of a Pakhtun household: in the foreground is the bread oven made by the female household head, who is squatting in the background with her tea set (imported from China).

Cherry Lindholm

The rapid beating of the war drums reverberates along the narrow winding streets of a Pakhtun village, isolated in the remote mountain valley of Swat in northwestern Pakistan. However, it is not a battle that the drums are heralding. It is a marriage.

The Yusufzai Pakhtun of Swat are members of the great Pakhtun (or Pathan) tribe, which dominates Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. They have long been famous for their aggressive daring and bravery in warfare, their fiery pride and individualism, and their refusal to accept defeat or domination. Historically, they have always been the conquerors, never the conquered.

The nomadic Yusufzai migrated to the fertile valley of Swat from Kabul in the early sixteenth century. After defeating the local population and reducing them to landless servants, the Yusufzai settled down and became small farmers (any Yusufzai Pakhtun who lost his land joined the despised servant class and was stripped of his rights and his honor as a Pakhtun). In the nineteenth century the Swat Pakhtun won the admiration of the British for their successful resistance to colonial invasion, and they acceded to Pakistan only when assured of local autonomy. Even today, the valley of Swat is relatively free from the influence of the state, and order is maintained by personal strength and the force of custom.

Swat's climate is suitable for double cropping (wheat and clover in the spring, rice and corn in the fall), and the sparkling Swat River, which bisects the valley, provides an adequate water supply. There is an extensive irrigation system, and the hillsides are well terraced. But despite the lush appearance of the valley, overpopulation has placed a terrible strain on the resource base, and competition for control of land is fierce and sometimes deadly. Innumerable bloody battles have been waged since the Yusufzai established their rule in Swat.

Inside her house, a girl of twelve, hearing the war drums' energetic tattoo, cowers in fear on a string cot. She cries silently behind the folds of her voluminous embroidered shawl, while her relatives gather about her, their faces long and mournful. Even the bright luster of the girl's golden jewelry does little to alleviate the atmosphere of tension and distress in the household.

The girl on the cot is the new bride, and she and her family are waiting for the moment when she must leave her natal home forever and take up residence in her husband's house. The use of the war drums for a wedding is actually far from ludicrous, for marriage in Swat is very much like a prolonged combat and is recognized as such by both men and women. The relationship resembles that between two opposing countries where an ever present cold war frequently erupts into skirmishes and open conflict.

During our nine month stay in a Swat village in 1977, we witnessed such relationships firsthand. With our twelve year old daughter, we lived with a Pakhtun family in three small rooms that had been constructed on the roof of their house. As friends, guests, and adopted relatives, we were accepted into the life of the village with the warmhearted generosity and hospitality for which the Pakhtun are deservedly renowned.

This remarkable hospitality, combined with an idealized notion of male friendship, is one of the three cornerstones of Pakhtunwali, the Pakhtun code of honor, the other two being refuge and blood revenge. This code is older than Islam and often supersedes Islamic tenets. For example, Islam allows divorce, Pakhtunwali does not; also, sometimes a man will swear falsely, his hand on the Holy Koran, in order to save a friend.

Although the Pakhtun are strict Sunni Muslims, they derive their identity and self respect from the zealous observance of Pakhtunwali, land ownership, and tight control over women by means of a rigorous system of purdah (female seclusion). The worst insult one can offer a man is to call him begherata, man without honor. This pejorative has three meanings: someone who is lazy and weak, someone who has lost his land, and someone who has no control over his women. To the proud Pakhtun, loss of honor is worse than death, since it renders him unworthy of the name "Pakhtun."

The Pakhtun's liberal hospitality is generally demonstrated on the stage of the hujera, or men's house, where the guest is enthusiastically welcomed, made comfortable on a cot with fat cushions behind his head, served tea and the best food available, and showered with his proud host's unstinting attentions. To entertain a guest is a great honor, and the host will spare no effort to make the occasion as lavish and enjoyable as possible. Nor is this ritualized hospitality mere etiquette or a means of swelling the host's self esteem. The warm friendliness that accompanies the ritual is genuine, deeply felt, and extremely moving. In the hujera, the violent Pakhtun of the battlefield, who will fight to the death for his land, for someone else's land, or to avenge any slight on his honor, becomes the epitome of cordiality, gentle dignity, and brotherly affection.

This metamorphosis is not altogether surprising. In a society where survival depends upon a man's physical and psychological toughness, there is little chance to express such emotions as affection and tenderness. The guest in the hujera fulfills in ritual fashion the role of the idealized friend who, according to one Pakhtun proverb, "without invitation, will assure me of his love." This dream of the perfect friend, always a man, which has been honored in countless proverbs and poems over the centuries, is the beloved fantasy of every Pakhtun male. The friend, however, must necessarily be a stranger, for all Swat Pakhtun are, by the very nature of their harsh and competitive society, rivals and potential enemies. Naturally, given these qualifications, friendship in Swat is very rare indeed. Yet the dream persists and is acted out in the rite of hospitality whenever the opportunity arises.

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