Afghanistan is a landlocked south-central Asian country bordering Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It is a multi-ethnic society, containing diverse ethnic, linguistic and tribal groups.
The government is an Islamic Republic and Islamic values, concepts and practices inform many social and behavioral norms throughout society. Afghans generally have a strong sense of personal honor. Hospitality, loyalty and modesty are highly valued. However, Afghan culture and daily life have been significantly impacted by constant conflict. Resilience is now an essential trait that has become instilled within the Afghan character as a result of these experiences.
While Afghanistan does have its own troubles, it's also an incredibly beautiful country that is full of amazing people.
The relentless conflicts of the late 20th and 21st century have produced generations of Afghans who have rarely experienced peace. Many Afghans think of themselves as survivors and tend to hold a stronger sense of loyalty for their kin, tribe, or ethnicity than their national identity.
Some older Afghans may see the hardship and political turmoil of the past few decades as a recent devastating chapter in a much longer peaceful history. Afghanistan was widely considered to be a peaceful country in the Asia region.
One’s ethnicity is an instant cultural identifier in Afghanistan and usually defines people’s social organization. The most common ethnic groups are the Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras. However, there are also significant populations of Uzbeks, Nuristani, Aimak, Turkmen and Baloch (among others).
Greetings between people of the same gender usually involve a handshake with the right hand (Not during COVID pandemic).
Close friends and family may hug, backslap and kiss one another on the cheeks.
People generally do not touch those of the opposite gender during greetings unless they are a close family member. Therefore, men should wait until a woman extends her hand first before extending his own hand for a handshake.
Men may greet women by placing their hand over their heart and nodding. This greeting may also be used to greet other people who you perceive are unaccustomed to being touched.
Eye contact should be kept to a minimum during greetings out of modesty, especially between men and women.
A common verbal greeting is “Salam” or “Salam alaikum”, meaning “Peace be upon you”. People usually place their right hand over their heart when they speak, to show respect and sincerity in the greeting.
Greetings are usually prolonged as each person enquires about the other. Afghans usually ask questions regarding a person’s health, business, or family. Wait for these initial pleasantries to conclude before asking a direct question.
Islam is the official religion of Afghanistan and the majority of the population is Muslim (approximately 99.7%).
The Afghan government is established as a Sunni Islamic Republic. Therefore, there is a strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islamic traditions. The moral code of the Islamic doctrine tends to govern the political, economic and legal aspects of an Afghan's life. Not all Afghans are strictly observant Muslims.
One’s family is the single most important aspect of life in Afghanistan. Afghan culture is very collectivistic and people generally put their family’s interests before their own. This means that family responsibilities tend to hold a greater importance than personal needs. Loyalty to one’s family also generally supersedes any obligations to one’s tribe or ethnicity.
Throughout all of Afghanistan, family matters are kept strictly private. People are often reluctant to share personal issues with non-family members as community knowledge of a family’s struggles can bring shame on the household.
Family roles vary between ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses and regions. Nevertheless, a traditional patriarchal age hierarchy prevails throughout all. The eldest male has the most authority and decision-making power and usually controls all family spending. Every decision has to be approved by the husband or father.
Men carry the economic burden of the family and often have to single-handedly support the entire household. For a husband and father in Afghanistan, this can mean having to earn enough to support himself, his wife, his children and any parent or in-law living with the nuclear family.
Women are largely in charge of the domestic chores, cooking, raising the children, entertaining guests and catering to the needs of the man of the house. It is viewed as the woman’s duty to ensure guests are properly entertained and catered to in the most hospitable way the household can afford. The senior woman will also be in charge of portioning a family’s supply of food for the year.
Children are to show reverence and deference to their parents and elders. Disobedience of an elder’s words is perceived as extremely disrespectful and punishable behavior. This expectation of social compliance loosens as people gain adult independence. However, even at a mature age, an Afghan is expected to respect their parents’ wishes and take advice from those who are older.
Use your right hand or both hands together to gesture or offer anything. The left hand is used for cleaning and hygiene purposes and should not be used to gesture or touch things (e.g. food/people). In Afghanistan, one should not touch people of the opposite gender unless they are very close family or friends.
Leave the door open if talking one on one with an Afghan of the opposite gender.
It is extremely inappropriate and disrespectful for men to enquire about an Afghan man’s female family members, unless you know the family or person well.
Ask an Afghan’s permission before taking their photograph – especially if they are a woman.
It is rude to walk away from someone while they are still talking to you.
Both men and women should dress modestly when meeting an Afghan. In Afghanistan, women should only allow their face, hands and feet to be visible and the definition of the legs should not be distinguishable.
Be sensitive to the experiences that Afghan refugees have endured. There is a high occurrence of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder among those that have witnessed the loss of their family and friends. Many Afghans who fled to Western countries had their entire home/village destroyed by the Taliban or other forces, and do not possess any memorabilia.
If the opportunity arises, offer sympathy regarding the current situation in their home country. Afghans are likely to deeply appreciate the gesture and respond with warmth. However, be sensitive not to push for details of their personal experiences in Afghanistan.
Recognize that experiences of persecution differ between ethnicities and be aware that members of minority ethnicities may prefer to identify by their ethnic affiliation overseas (e.g. Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, etc.).
Be aware that individuals who have been the target of religious persecution may prefer not to discuss faith.
If you are a man, wait for an Afghan woman to initiate a handshake or conversation before doing so yourself.
If in a group of Afghan men and women in public, expect the males to talk to each other without the females engaging in conversation after introductions. They may only feel comfortable talking to their own gender once they are together alone.
Do not call Afghans “Arabs” or “Middle Eastern”. Afghanistan is not located in the Middle East. It is a South Central Asian country composed of many different ethnicities, none of which are Arab.
Avoid mentioning the topics of ethnic tension, politics, the Taliban, warfare or women’s rights unless your counterpart initiates the conversation or you have a close relationship with them. These are sensitive subjects in Afghanistan and such discussions can lead a person to recall negative experiences.
Do not assume that all Afghan Muslims follow a conservative interpretation of Islam. The official position of many Afghan religious leaders does not reflect the interpretations of all Afghan people.
Avoid asking questions that assume Afghan people are uneducated or uncivilized.
Avoid losing your temper or complaining about petty things that are not overly significant. Afghans are very resilient and stoic people. Struggle is constantly put into perspective in light of those still experiencing extremely violent and dire conditions in Afghanistan, as well as those who have passed away.
Do not push an Afghan to tell you about their family. Some people have been separated from relatives or had family members killed. Others may be hesitant to talk about the family they have left in Afghanistan out of fear that it could endanger them.
Communication: Afghans tend to speak both directly and indirectly depending on whom they are interacting with. When the person is older, or of the opposite gender, communication tends to be quite indirect, and respectful. However, for people their own age or younger, conversation can become more direct and open. Afghans generally admire people who are articulate.
Raised Voices: Raising one’s voice at someone in public is very disrespectful and likely to make everyone feel intensely uncomfortable. In Afghanistan, raised voices can make surrounding people scared that something dangerous (e.g. an attack) is about to occur.
Blessings: Blesses and curses are said on a daily basis in Afghanistan. These are short expressions that wish for God’s intervention depending on the situation (e.g. “May God give you health” or “May God curse your soul”). Blessings are often said instead of a ‘Thank you’.
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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