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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In sharp contrast to the romantic image of the friend and public display of hospitality, the Pakhtun's domestic arena, concealed behind the impenetrable walls of the purdah household, is the site of confrontations more akin to those of the battlefield.
As the drumming grows louder, the trembling bride remembers her mother's advice for a successful mar¬riage: “You must keep power over your husband. Always speak first when he enters, even if only to cough. Sleep with your hand behind his head. Then he will miss you and never be satisfied with any other."
The girl prays that her husband will like her and that he will not humiliate her and her family by taking a second wife. That would be the worst possible catastrophe. She is of a good family and her family pride is strong.
Now the time has come for her to leave. She clutches at the cot, but her elder brother pulls her hands free and lifts her onto the palanquin that will carry her to her husband's house. The embroidered cover is dropped into place, and the girl is carried into the narrow street. Men of the husband's house are waiting to join the procession. They help with the palanquin and triumphantly bounce it about. Village boys line the route and throw stones, hoping to overturn the bride into the muddy alley. In the past, serious fights sometimes erupted because of injuries caused by used by this ritual stoning, but in recent years the violence has lessened.
The procession continues through the village, led by the men carrying the bride and followed by a supply of household goods from her father's house. The drums of the groom are now heard as the procession approaches his compound. Men of his family gleefully fire their rifles, and small boys toss sweets to the crowd from the low rooftops. The drumming reaches a crescendo as the party enters the groom's house. This is a tense moment. Sometimes, the groom's family tries to deny entry to the men of the bride's party, and a fight breaks out. But today everything goes smoothly, and men of both houses carry the palanquin into the inner courtyard.
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Strong hands lift the bride onto a cot in the corner of the single room where she will live with her husband. The men then leave the house to begin feasting in the hujera. Totally enclosed in her shawl, the new bride presses tightly to her chest the Koran her father has given her. The women of the household surround her, talking incessantly and cajoling her to show her face. A young girl begins the drumbeat for women, and the groom's female relatives start dancing in the courtyard, celebrating the newcomer's arrival. Later, they will give her money, and in return, she will bow before them and touch their feet in token of future subservience. But, for the moment, the bride remains motionless on the cot. She will stay in this position for three days, rising only to relieve herself. On the third night her husband will creep into the house to consummate the marriage.
While the bride huddles nervously in her new home, the groom, a green-eyed man of twenty five, is fingering his mustache in the hujera of a relative, a different hujera from the one where the feasting is taking place. He is not permitted to join in the festivities of the marriage but must hide in shame at losing his bachelor status. Twenty years ago, young grooms sometimes ran away from their home villages and had to be coaxed back to their wives. But men's shame is no longer so acute. In those days, all men slept in the hujera and only slipped out to visit their wives secretly at night. Women also were shyer then, and a man might not see his wife's face for a year or more. But nowadays, with the curtailment of warfare and the weakening of the village khans, or leaders, most men sleep at home with their wives.
The groom is speculating about his new wife's appearance. He has never seen her, but he has heard reports that she is light skinned and fat—an ideal beauty. His own sexual experience has been with boys his own age who played the passive role and with girls of the servant class. For him, sexual dominance is an expression of power. He hopes that the youth and innocence of his bride will render her docile and respectful. However, he fears that the marriage will be a contentious one. That is how all marriages end up. "It is because our women are no good," he muses
For two more nights the groom stays in the hujera, pretending indifference to his marriage. Then, on the third night, he steals into his family's compound and opens the door of the room where his bride is waiting. He is slightly inebriated from smoking hashish. She is unveiled and afraid to look at him. Sometimes, the groom finds his bride repulsive and cannot have sex with her. Or he may have been enchanted by a male lover and rendered incapable of heterosexual intercourse. The bride has no recourse, for Pakhtun marriage is a lifetime contract. Moreover, the wife even follows her husband to heaven or hell, so that they are united for eternity.
In the room adjoining the nuptial chamber, the groom's sisters have bored a hole in the wall and are spying on the couple. The groom gives the girl a gold watch and some sweets. He begins to caress and tease her, but she is too terrified to respond, and the sexual act is rough and hasty. Thus the couple enter into married life.
The giving of a woman in marriage is a touchy business for the Swat Pakhtun. Historically, a weak lineage gave women to its stronger neighbors in order to form alliances, and victors in war expressed their triumph by taking women from the conquered. As a result, there is the suggestion that the wife givers are inferior to the wife takers—and any hint of inferiority is intolerable to a Pakhtun. Hostility toward marriage as an institution is seen in the ritual stoning of the bride's palanquin and in the fights between the bride's party and the groom's party. If divorce were allowed, no marriage would last for long.
The groom feels shame at his marriage because every Pakhtun man, not unlike the mythical American cowboy, seeks to present himself as completely self reliant, independent, and free of obligation. But the cowboy can always reject home and family and ride away into the sunset—an option the Pakhtun man does not have. Instead, he effectively hides his wife inside the privacy of the purdah household. Her presence is known to an outsider only through the tea she prepares. The Pakhtun woman must never be seen by men who are not close family members. She must never leave the compound walls without her husband's permission. By remaining a virtual prisoner inside her husband's house, she helps to uphold his honor, for she is a part of all he possesses and her behavior is a direct reflection of his power and control.
Years ago, if a Pakhtun woman was seen by a man who was not her relative, her enraged husband would cut off her nose as a punishment and as a means of cleansing his family honor, which her carelessness had sullied. While this custom has been abandoned, severe beatings are common. And a woman found alone with a man who is not a relative has committed a killing offense, for it will be assumed that the liaison is sexual. In such a case, although the husband may not actually desire her death, the pressure of public opinion, the code of Pakhtunwali, which demands vengeance, and his own sense of acute shame, would all push him to take action.
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Because they are able to dishonor men, women are feared. On the other hand, the woman has only physical violence to fear from her husband. Even more than the male, she is accustomed to violence from childhood. Her personal pride is far more powerful than her fear of a beating. Although she is a prisoner in her husband's house, her position is in some ways stronger than his, for she holds the weaponry for his dishonoring, whereas he holds merely a stick with which to beat her. While the wife must live with her jailer, the husband is obliged to share his house with an enemy—and an extremely tenacious and able one.
Marriage thus begins as a hostile relationship. The young bride's apprehension and the groom's shame accompany the determination of each to dominate the other. Pakhtun marriage demands a precarious balance of power, and the young partners are ready from the start to fight each other to avoid being dominated and shamed.
It is now a year after the marriage—the bride has her place within her husband's household. In her eyes, she is treated like a slave. Her mother in law is impossibly demanding; the girl can do nothing right. Her husband takes no notice of her beyond the servicing of his sexual needs. Recently, she has begun having fits in which she is possessed by demons. During these fits, she rolls in the dirt and must be restrained from throwing herself into the well or the fire. From her mouth, demonic voices hurl abuse at her husband and his family. Exorcisms by a holy man, who puts sticks between her fingers and squeezes her hand painfully, are only temporarily effective. Finally, her father is asked to intervene. "If this happens again," he warns her, "I'll shoot you." The demons stop appearing.
Shortly afterward, she gives birth to a son, and her position in her husband's household improves. She is now respected, for she has contributed to perpetuating her husband's line. But her relations with her mother in law continue to be as unpleasant as ever.
As time goes by, the marriage proves to be as difficult as the young groom feared. Fighting goes on daily, over the wife's poorly made milk curd or over a piece of rotten meat the husband has foolishly purchased. The husband may strike out because his wife is nagging him to buy another piece of jewelry that she can show off to her neighbor; the wife may be irate because the husband, in a display of generosity, has depleted the family larder. Anything can cause a serious fight, and several times the bruised wife returns, with injured pride, to her father's house. There she is pampered by her relatives for a time, but she must go back to her husband upon his demand. She returns, and the fights continue.
Like all Pakhtun husbands, he severely beats his wife to break her of bad habits and make her submissive. The young woman nonetheless remains proud and fearless; far from becoming meek, she defends herself aggressively, clawing at her husband's face and tearing the shirt from his back. He strikes out, especially at her face, and sometimes uses a club or throws a stone at her. This is considered perfectly normal, and the wife is even. somewhat proud of her battle scars. She abuses her elder sister's husband, who rarely hits his wife, as "a man with no penis." Yet her own husband fares no better, as she frequently calls curses down upon him and abuses his lineage: “Your ancestor was nothing and my ancestor was great!”
The husband, becoming wearied with the constant effort to subdue and control his defiant female adversary, dreams of defeating her once and for all and for bringing in another, more tractable wife. He frequently threatens her with this ultimate humiliation, but is unable to implement his plan because he lacks funds. Despite the proverb that “a fool can be recognized by his two wives,” most men dream of a second marriage. Those few who can afford it, however, inevitably regret it, for with the arrival of a second wife, warfare begins in earnest. Each woman seeks, with magical spells and sheer contentiousness, to drive the other out. Sometimes, one wife will poison the other or, more commonly, the husband; sometimes the husband's throat while is slit while he sleeps. The first wife continually badgers the husband to bring in yet a third wife, in order to humiliate the second wife as she has been humiliated. The besieged hus¬band who has found the second wife is as irritating as the first, futilely wishes he could turn back the clock.
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Although they continue to squabble, the husband and wife are actually quite fond of each other. Each admires the other’s resolute pride and fighting ability. But the man cannot show his affection, for to do so would give the wife courage to dishonor him. A man who displays affection to his wife is indicating weakness, which the woman will immediately exploit in the battle for domination. She may begin leaving the house without permission, confident the loving husband will not punish her. Then she will start having affairs with other men, thoroughly dishonoring her weakling spouse. Therefore, a man must avoid laughing with his wife or showing her any tenderness, in spite of his feelings for her. "Instead of a kiss, he gives me a bite," says the wife, baring her teeth. But if he did give her a kiss, she would begin to feel he had become emasculated.
The husband carries his feigned indifference to his wife into public life, never mentioning her to his friends. Nor do they inquire after her; to do so would be a breach of etiquette. Instead, they merely ask him, "How is your house?"
The wife is not so constrained. Confined to the compound, she spends much of her time complaining to visitors, to servants, and even to her children about the activities of her husband. Gossip about the wrongdoings of their men is the major subject of women's conversations. "All Swat men are rotten," they say. That is the nature of men. The wife's solace is hearing the tribulations of other women and anticipating the power she will wield in her later years. By that time, her husband will be a tired old man, without the energy for fighting, her sons will be grown, and their wives will be living in her house under her rule. She will control her domestic sphere like a real matriarch, and the purdah compound, her former prison, will become her court. Indeed, the Western image of the docile purdah female is an inaccurate picture of the Pakhtun woman of Swat.
This story is representative of the marriage relations among the Pakhtun. Perhaps a particular couple will fight less than usual because of extraordinary meekness or compatibility. Fortunate couples may reach a sort of wary, joking understanding in old age. But, in general, the marriage relation is one of strife, violence, and struggle.
This pattern of hostility and rivalry derives from the social model of the society, which is technically termed a segmentary lineage system. This means that the Yusufzai Pakhtun trace themselves, through the male line, to a common ancestor, Yusuf, the progenitor of the entire clan. All consider themselves equal, and all have rights in the family land. Despite this ideology of equality, however, those who are strong force the weak from their land. To be a landless Pakhtun is to lose one's birthright and become a member of the servant class. Thus, each family seeks to protect itself and subordinate others.
Life in the Yusufzai village is largely a contest to determine dominance. A man's chief rival is his father's brother's son, who has a claim on the land of the common grandfather. This cousin is often one's in law as well, since marriage with the father's brother's daughter is greatly favored in Swat. By marrying their female patrilineal cousin, the Yusufzai hope to gain control over their main political rival, but to no avail, since such marriages are notoriously hostile.
The term for the father's brother's son is tarbur, a word that means enemy. But the tarbur is also an ally, for only he can be counted upon to come to one's aid in case of an attack by a more genealogically distant adversary. Groupings occur on the basis of patrilineal kinship and only take place when there is an external threat. When the British attacked them, the Yusufzai Pakhtun forgot their internal enmities and united to expel the invader.
In this system, men constantly maneuver for power and honor. Loyalties shift easily. As one family becomes strong, others unite against it. Some families rise, but are soon torn apart by internal dissension. As the modern Pakhtun writer Ghani Khan has observed, "The Pakhtun have not become a great nation because a man would rather burn his house than see his elder brother rule it."
In such an environment, a martial air and genuine willingness to fight are absolute necessities for survival. Even hospitality, the most loving relationship found in society, is tinged with rivalry, as hosts express their strength and dominance through lavish entertainment. The assertion of one's own pride and the denigration of other lineages is therefore the primary emotional stance of the Pakhtun. This stance is not confined to men. The women also consider all men not of their patrilineage to be of inferior quality. Every marriage is thus with an inferior, and the partners are well prepared to fight each other to uphold the honor of their respective houses.
Although the husband tries to ignore his wife, she refuses to be overlooked. Her own pride, instilled by her lineage, demands that she assert herself. The woman's place is in the house, however patrilineal descent prevents her from inheriting land or from participating in struggles over land. Where a man's pride and identity rest in his landholdings, her honor is found in vindicating her superiority in the household. The bruises that inevitably result she regards as marks of honor. If her health is good, if she can avoid being expelled by another wife, and if she has sons, her struggle is likely to end in victory. The aging husband, beset by rivals on all sides, and even besieged by his own sons demanding their share of his land, will accept his wife's rule in exchange for relative peace in the compound.
Small wonder that the Pakhtun man dreams of the mythical friend. This dream, and the ritual of hospitality in which it finds expression, derives from the stern social order, which sets every man against every other, and which prevents any amicable relationship within the family. Deprived of any real opportunity to be affectionate and generous, the Pakhtun male releases these suppressed feelings in the rite of hospitality.
Women, on the other hand, have no great interest in hospitality, although they cook for guests for the sake of their own pride. Unlike the man, who seeks to dominate in a world of opponents, the woman strives only to dominate in the house. The man's goal is impossible, but the woman's is fairly attainable. Women are also united in a community of complaint against their husbands. They do not engage in life and death struggles over land, and in consequence, their enmities are less deep than the men's. Despite the travails and bruises of marriage, women tend to succeed in their goals, while men spend their time pursuing a chimera of friendship.