Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Family during Crisis in Afghanistan

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Family during Crisis in Afghanistan

Article excerpt


Some say the family institution in Afghanistan is rapidly deteriorating. Others say the family remains the rampart on which the survival of its people rests. Surely these radically divergent views about what all agree is the most influential social institution in Afghan society warrants investigation. Yet, with too few exceptions, assistance providers have made few attempts to unravel these contradictions, even as they doggedly push gender issues to the forefront with singular aggressiveness. Often the surfaces of activities are thoroughly probed, but the quality of the related institution of the family receives barely a passing mention. A serious look into the current status of the family in this beleaguered society is long overdue.

The reality no doubtlies somewhere in between. I do not pretend to have answers. Nor am I in a position to conduct the type of in-depth research that is necessary. I have, nonetheless, long been a concerned observer; constantly seeking enlightenment from varied sources. The most telling responses come from Afghans who, almost without exception, reply: "It all depends." It is always dangerous to generalize about Afghanistan where the intricate geographic and cultural mosaic is so complex. It is especially foolhardy to make sweeping statements at this time when new political tiles are being inserted roughly with no smooth fit.

During its recent history, the Afghan society has been buffeted by a bewildering variety of contrasting, contradicting and competing ideologies, introduced in rapid succession, one after the other, in little more than half a century, while the country underwent unprecedented physical and economic development. As the physical infrastructure improved and an industrial base was established, the economy prospered and concomitant social modifications naturally followed. The face of modernization gleamed. Modernization, nevertheless, implies change, and change inevitably brings a sense of disruption, felt more by some groups than others. Predictably, the events unfolding in Afghanistan occasioned various reactions, ranging from intense zeal to fanatic opposition, while others proceeded more moderately toward goals they believed would enhance the quality of life for the population at large.

The following discussion seeks to place these developments in perspective by describing some of the major events that gave rise to the maelstrom of war and civil unrest that swirled around family life in Afghanistan for over two decades.


Internecine struggle for the throne of Kabul characterized most of the turbulent years of the 19th century, leaving the social structure largely untouched. The society continued to adhere to their traditional ways in which the family remained endogamous, with cross-cousin marriages preferred, patriarchal, patrilocal, and occasionally polygamous. By 1978 the levirate, a practice explicitly forbidden in the Koran (Sura 4.19), was gradually decreasing. Afghan society is profoundly influenced by patriarchal attitudes. The hierarchical structure within families leaves little room for individualism, for senior male members, the ultimate arbiters, maintain family honor and social status by ensuring all members conform to prescribed forms of acceptable behavior. Nonconformist behavior invites social ostracism and community pressure becomes a formidable control factor, even within modern urbanized settings. Males, therefore, learn to exercise their authority at an early age. Very young brothers often chastise their older, post-puberty sisters for momentarily stepping beyond the bounds of seclusion.

In typical households where at least three generations reside together, family bonds are normally extremely close. Mothers are treated with deep affection, and widows most often find a home with their sons. Grandparents are held in high esteem, and children often spend more time with their grandmothers than with their parents. …

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