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The Pashai are an ethnic group located in the northeast corner of Afghanistan. They are estimated to number about 108,000 (1982). "Pashai" is the term used to refer to a specific language, to the speakers of that language, and to the area that some of the Pashai speakers inhabit. Pashai is classified as a Dardic language by some linguists, but that categorization is not clear nor universally accepted. Dardic languages are spoken in a wide-ranging area, but Pashai is spoken only in Afghanistan. Pashai speakers live in the area north of the Kabul River, extending about 160 kilometers from Gulbahar on the Panjshir River in the northwest to Chaga Serai in the east. "Pashai" is used by the inhabitants of this area to refer only to the language spoken in the western section of the area.
Speakers of Farsi, Pashto, Ashkun, Kati, Parachi, and Shumashti languages live in areas surrounding Pashai, and there is evidence indicating that they have influenced the Pashai language and suggesting that there has been a great deal of interaction with the speakers of these other languages for generations.
There are two conflicting theories on the origin of the Pashai. One theory suggests that the Pashai were members of the classic Gandhara culture and that they were pushed out of their original homeland in the lowlands by an invasion of Pashto-speaking Afghans from the Sulaiman Mountains. The Pashai then found refuge in the high mountain valleys of the Hindu Kush, where their descendants live today. Another theory, based on ethnographic evidence, does not support a link to the Gandharan culture. Because the social structure and culture of all mountain people in the area are similar, it is probable, according to this theory, that all these groups, including the Pashai, share common historical roots that predate the rise of the Gandharan civilization.
The Pashai economy is one of mixed herding and agriculture. In the lower elevations, agriculture is more important than herding. The major crops cultivated are rice in the lower elevations and wheat and maize in the high valleys. Other crops include walnuts, mulberries, and poppies. Goats are the primary domesticated animals; some sheep and cattle are also herded. In the remote villages at high elevations, men are responsible for herding activities, whereas women tend to the agricultural work. In contrast, in villages at lower elevations, the men are involved in all aspects of crop cultivation.
Some Pashai groups are divided hierarchically into categories based on occupation. The highest-ranking group, the siyal, consists of men and related women who own property. A lower-ranked group is the peishawar, or artisans, and the rayat are the landless tenants. These groups form a castelike system in which endogamy is the norm, although it is not the officially sanctioned policy.
Social relationships based on patrilineal descent are found in all Pashai-speaking communities, but the political importance of patrilineal descent relationships varies across villages. In some villages, patrilineal-group membership is not a factor in political ties, but it does influence the structure of village councils. Taking sides in fights and feuds is more directly related to kinship reckoned through both males and females. In other villages, patrilineal descent group membership more directly influences political allegiances.
Criteria for judging leadership skills include age, ability to mediate disputes, generosity, and reputation for being honorable. Political leaders have more influence than authority. For example, in previous times the village maliks, or headmen, lacked political authority and acted, instead, as intermediaries between villagers and government officials.
Authority is shared among a group of people—the village council—and is usually limited to agricultural matters, such as the distribution of irrigation water. In some cases, village councils have set regulations regarding bride-wealth, betrothal, weddings, and funerals and set rates for the work of carpenters, blacksmiths, and barbers. With regard to individual rights and wrongs, however, each person is responsible for enforcing his own rights and avenging wrongs committed against him. Kinship, marriage, and friendship relations may also influence the outcome of disputes between individuals. Sometimes disputes may be settled with the help of mediators; at other times, bloodshed occurs.
Feuds are an important part of Pashai culture, and many cultural values are reflected in the feud. For example, masculinity and honor are strong values, and provide themes for many stories and songs. Men strive to be fierce warriors who are loyal to their kin, dangerous to their enemies, and ready to fight whenever necessary. Men carry knives, and wielding a knife in a fight is an important skill learned early in life. Some men own rifles and handguns. Negative sanctions are applied to men who fail to adhere to these values. For example, they are called men without honor, and people belittle what they say, make jokes at their expense, and may pour ashes on their heads as a form of humiliation.
The Pashai are Sunni Muslims similar to the Nuristanis and Pashtun who are their closest neighbors. Especially in the more remote villages, saints do not play a very important role in local politics, as they do in some other ethnic groups. Another contrast with non-Pashai villages relates to the status of women. In many Pashai villages, women are not secluded, may interact freely with men, and possess a degree of sexual freedom uncommon in most areas of Afghanistan.
The Pashai commander and Warlord Hazrat Ali took over much of Jalalabad and Nangarhar in late 2001/early 2002 and is now a MNA MP in Wolesi Jirga (20110908).