Covid-19: The test of Pashtuns’ mechanical solidarity

15. Apr 2020

By Naveed Ahmad Shinwari, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex

At the time of writing this piece, Pakistan stood at number 33 in the list of countries affected by Covid-19 with 5,038 citizens having tested positive out of 61,801 tested. A total of 1,026 have recovered from the illness, while 86 Pakistanis have sadly died. The unusual Covid-19 pandemic has certainly exposed weaknesses in many areas of Pakistan’s system and society. The rare virus pandemic has prompted the government of Pakistan to take strict measures and announced country-wide lockdown to contain the spread of the disease it causes. The government on occasions has had to use force in enforcing its decision of lockdown in the country. It also requested the country’s Armed Forces to support the civilian government in ensuring the lockdown is a success. Initially, the country’s senior religious clergy did not cooperate in observing the ‘social distancing’; instead they encouraged Muslims to hold Friday congregational prayers in mosques despite the fact that the Saudi authorities had closed Makkah (the purist and holiest site for Muslims around the world) for pilgrims. Nevertheless, many educated, urbanised and relatively affluent Pakistanis have complied with the government’s decision. In general, however, the lockdown is understood and practiced differently by different ethnic groups in different social settings of Pakistan.

This unusual crisis has, indeed, put to test some of the arguments I am making in my thesis and is leading to me reflect on the extent to which certain traditions will emerge out of this extraordinary test. My PhD thesis—close to completion—focuses on the tribal Pashtuns’ so-called ‘segmentary society’. Tribal Pashtuns reside on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Pashtun society, with a strong social bond based on shared roots of identity and cultural similarity is helpfully thought of in terms of its strong ‘mechanical solidarity’. For Emile Durkheim, mechanical solidarity is referred to the system of social interchange which goes beyond brief transactions that occur during economic exchange in society and, instead, forges social relations that link individuals together in a total social unit. This social interchange or interaction is widely documented in anthropological studies of Pashtun tribal society and often referred to locally in terms of participation in gham and khadi (funerals and weddings; sadness and happiness). Participation in such social events is a compulsion in tribal Pashtun society and refusing to conform to these social exchanges is seen an offence that challenges the foundations of Pashtun social solidarity.

Pashtuns are known for their Pashtunwali—the way of the Pashtuns—which governs their personal, family and village life. It also governs Pashtun politics, conflicts and the dispensation of justice. Several anthropologists have extensively written about Pashtunwali and argued that it has survived the test of time. To what extent, however, will Pashtunwali remain resilient and adaptive in the context of this unusual pandemic?

Despite the government of Pakistan’s order of lockdown and social distancing, Pashtuns continue to attend funerals and weddings (gham and khadi) due to their strict commitment to social solidarity. Friday congregational prayers in mosques are attended in large numbers due to the significance of Islam to being Pashtun and, apparently, regard the need to fulfil the sacred obligations of Islam as being of greater moral significance that the risk of either contracting or spreading the virus. Moreover, the code of honour (nang) and bravery (tura), amongst the most defining characteristics of Pashtunwali, do not allow the typical tribal Pashtuns to show signs of fear in the face of any danger – fear is widely not only as suggesting a lack of faith but also, often, as cowardly.

Another critical aspect of the code of Pashtunwali is strict adherence to milmastiya (hospitality) for which Pashtuns are universally famous. The early English scholar of Pashtun society, Mountstuart Elphinstone, maintained that: “All persons indiscriminately are entitled to profit by this practice; and a man, who travelled over the whole country without money, would never be in want of a meal, unless perhaps in towns” (1815). Some Pashtuns—mostly affluent and influential—offer milmastiya to manipulate village politics in their favour and in order to remain politically relevant in changing contexts. The course of time and urban patterns of behaviour have influenced the Pashtuns’ understanding and practice of Pashtunwali; however, rural Pashtuns continue to offer hospitality to their guests with the same spirit. Despite risks of being exposed to contract coronavirus, wedding receptions (walima) are organised without any fear and guests are obliged to attend. Despite heavy fines and harsh punishments from the state, Pashtuns continue to take their Pashtunwali more seriously than institutions of the state.

With strong tribal bond and history, Pashtuns claim to have earned the reputation of surviving against external invasions, internal civil wars and internal agnatic rivalries (tarboorwali). They believe that their proven resilience has led them to adapt to different positions by navigating through difficult circumstances in different contexts. They believe that at the end of all such episodes of history, they have successfully upheld their values and traditions without being completely vanished from the face of earth.

For their survival and well-being, however, Pashtuns will also be required to comply with the social distancing practice in this difficult time. Otherwise, the spread of coronavirus is likely to be unstoppable and to infect people across society without discrimination. Pakistan is a poor country with a weak health system which may crumble quickly without resistance if the number of patients rises to several thousand. One of the solutions to slow the rate of infections is to comply with the government and practice social distancing and stay safe.

For the government to make its message more effective in Pashtun society, there is an urgent need for closer interactions both with the elders and other influential social groups, especially those identifying themselves as forming ‘the youth’. Over the past decade, young Pashtun leaders have acquired a significant amount of prominence in a tribal society that previously revolved in relationship to elder and established political leaders. Such leaders are able to spread public health messages effectively by emphasising the threat of virus to the wellbeing of the people. It remains to be seen, however, how far tense political dynamics between Pashtun youth leaders and the government of Pakistan will be overcome in the midst of the current crisis.

It is believed in Pakistan as elsewhere that the world will never be the same after the pandemic. Politics, businesses, and economies will change their courses and so will the traditional values. Social distancing, in fact, is in contradiction to Pashtunwali; this may pass the test of time and live through this difficult time. We have to see whether Pashtun will observe Pashtunwali the way it used to be before the pandemic? It appears, however, at this juncture, that many traditions will never be practiced in the same way again.

Naveed Ahmad Shinwari is a senior development consultant. He is pursuing his PhD in Social Anthropology from the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, UK

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