In 1774, Breshna, a woman from the Nasar tribe who is today popularly known as Khadai, got married to someone from the Slaimankhail tribe. After her marriage, a man, from her tribe, named Beeda Bara Khan Nasar didn’t let her go back to her in-laws. This infuriated the Slaimankhail tribe and they gathered an army of four thousand people and fought with the Nasar tribe in Zhob in southeastern Afghanistan. The feud started on the second year of Timur Shah Durrani’s reign and lasted for almost two centuries (1774-1951). The feud that was started by men because of men, today after two centuries, is blamed at Khadai. Khadai is considered the source of bringing bad luck, adversity and shame to the families involved, and is identified as the cause of the feud. And that is why when the Afghan mothers swear at young daughters for misbehavior, they often call them “Khadai”. Her story is an example of how Pashtun women have suffered from the social guilt of something called bringing shame to the family. Among Afghans, this phenomenon is called sharam.
Sharam is the English equivalent of shame or disgrace. This term has usually been used in cases where honor is involved in the Afghan society. When the honor of a person, family or tribe is jeopardized due to any kind of conflict of interest between individuals, the person causing the disrespect might be declared an outcast. The family or the tribe might disown such a person or not treat him/her a part of the family. To avoid bringing sharam to their families, men are usually expected to not involve in crimes such as theft, fraud, murder, and other criminal or negative behavior. An example can be sexually harassing women, such as by staring at them or following them; this might result in complaints from the victim’s side, and the harasser could thus cause disgrace to his family.
The culture of avoiding shameful acts has backfired in different matters on the very people who abide by it. A person’s fear of causing sharam for his/her own personality and his family or tribe has limited or almost blocked the ways for people to liberate themselves and express freely that they have suffered from injustice, in most cases, with the hands of their own relatives.
Often times, women are the primary targets of this culture of sharam, a culture comprised of two sides of the same coin. A woman who speaks up against the injustice she has to endure or may have experienced is looked down upon in the community for either complaining or for being too “liberal” or “shameless” (be sharam) by disclosing the realities that should have remained secret. These be sharam women include those who say “no” to a forced marriage or choose husbands for themselves, women who confront their husbands over infidelity or second marriages, widows choosing to remarry out of their deceased husbands’ families, women who ask for their part of the property shared with their male relatives, women who choose not to live with their in-laws while their husbands are away abroad to earn living for the whole family, and women who ask for divorce. Such women’s names, such as Khadai’s, who is considered to be the cause of a two-centuries-long feud, are used as negative metaphors or as examples for cautioning young girls. On the other hand, if a woman silently bears all the injustice, especially domestic violence, and ignores her basic rights, she is praised for being a woman of character, tolerance and source of pride for her male relatives. A Pashtun woman is called asli Pustana-real Pashtun woman when she goes through much in her life without complaining and opts for not changing her own situation when she has an opportunity to do so.
There have also been instances of the lives of women in my village where they have been praised for keeping calm and quiet when faced with injustice from their relatives. People praise and refer to them as asli Pashtanay i.e. real Pashtun women, when they not only quietly suffer in their lives but also show being content during their adversities. Wana (not her real name) died of a heart attack in 2003 when, after trying in vain to become pregnant for fourteen years, her husband decided to remarry. Even though she did not like the fact that she had to share her whole life and most importantly her husband with another woman, she was celebrated as a heroine throughout the village for going out to ask for the hand of her husband’s second wife. Wana was a victim of depression, anxiety and finally a heart attack that took her life, just so she could keep the honor of her family, the name of her father, and the respect of her husband and be called an asli Pushtana.
A twenty-three year old man from Kabul in Afghanistan who lived and worked in another city said that he was angry at his father for his decision to bring a second wife home. When the man’s mother came to know that he was angry at his father for remarrying, she called him and asked him to not only call and talk with his father but also send him the required amount of money so he can hold his second marriage ceremony. The man says his mother argued that it was a huge sharam for her and the whole family to start a brawl within the family because of her husband’s second marriage. She had told her son that there were so many enemies of her husband and his family and people were jealous of his status and position in the society; in order to maintain that, she could endure the miseries and disloyalty of her husband-of-more-than-two-decades and not bring sharam upon the family that could cause their jealous enemies some satisfaction of witnessing distress and conflict among the members the envied family. She was ready to deny her own rights and let her husband exploit her stand regarding the people jealous of her and her husband’s life and position.
Apparent from the above examples, women are held responsible for anything that goes wrong within relations and families. They therefore are very cautious about their status and character in the household and in the tribe so as not to cause any harm to the name of their families by being the reason of sharam for them. This is the main reason of discrimination and acceptance of violence against women in the society, the reason for nurturing social stigmas and paving ways for incidents of violence, such as rape, that go unreported. Moreover, women have been denying and sacrificing their own basic human rights in order to save the honor of their families in the society. They have created an environment where quietly becoming a victim is deemed noble. They are lured into believing that they are honorable and decent if they tolerate injustice, that they are responsible for the honor and good name of their families, that they are, in fact, the ones to be blamed when anything goes wrong in family matters.