An Open Letter To Walmart For Its Ignorant Depiction Of Pashtuns And Pashtun Culture

This blog post was published on the Express Tribune Blogs here.

Also want to add that this post was originally written on Saturday, November 1, 2014. However, I was waiting until it got published on ET before I could share it on my blog, as the piece was requested to be written exclusively for them. Thanks and happy reading! 🙂

pashtun papa


Dear Walmart,

I liked you. I really did. Your prices are decent  and I occasionally made a run to you when other stores in the area were closed, because of your late hours of operation. You were convenient and I really liked that about you. However, it came to my attention a couple of days ago that you tried to sell a Halloween costume depicting an “old Pashtun Papa,” full with a beige-coloured parthog and kameez, turban, and a long fake, gray beard.

Really, Walmart? Tasteless much?

I’ve realized that you have now taken down that ‘costume’, apologized, and tried to provide a rather weak justification for why it was even being sold on your website in the first place, but there are a few things that you need to be educated about Pashtuns before you decide to indulge in something as ignorant and offensive again.

First off, the costume that you were trying to sell for $39.95 was not exclusive to the Pashtun culture, or even Pashtuns for that matter; secondly, Pashtuns are not Middle Eastern — we are actually situated in South and Central Asia; and lastly, you mentioned in your description that “nothing is sacred this Halloween,” and “shock your friends with this Islamic costume,” which clearly explains to me that you are stereotyping all Pashtuns to look a certain way, perhaps even “Taliban-like” having long beards and turbans. I also fail to see where exactly the ‘shock’ factor fits under all of this? Unless you meant to shock us with the sheer inappropriateness and absurdity of the costume in the first place. If that was your intention, then congratulations, you have clearly succeeded.

So, let’s get a little more detailed shall we?

Before we move on and address the other ignorant things you mentioned in your description, let me explain the garb. If you’ve ever visited places within South and Central Asia, almost every single other man wears that outfit, or ‘costume’ as you seem to have called it. So, it’s not just limited to Pashtuns/Afghans, or even Pashtun culture, as you seem to assume. And while turbans are quite prominent among Pashtun and Afghan men, they also commonly wear a ‘pakol’ which is the Afghan cap that is soft, round and flat from the top, typically made of wool fabric. (See image below.)


While there are many Pashtun immigrants living in the Middle East, we are primarily situated and scattered all across South and Central Asia: larger populations particularly living in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So, I really don’t understand where you got the idea that we were “Middle-Eastern” or the erroneous fact that were situated in the Middle East. We speak many dialects of the Pashto language, not Arabic, and even though the written language is influenced by the Arabic script, our language is clearly very different.

As for mentioning the part about “Islamic” costume, again you are looking at it from a very skewed lens. Islamic garb is not synonymous with Pashtun or Afghan garb. If you do a Google search for “Islamic costume for men,” (and perhaps you should have done that before making blatant assumptions), you will see a variety of outfits for men, signifying appropriate Islamic dress. As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as a universal Islamic dress for men (which is what you have assumed with the parthog  and kameez), as it varies from country to country, culture to culture. The fez, a small round netted cap, is however seen as Islamically symbolic, and it is usually worn by men, especially during prayer or when attending the mosque.

And what’s with the long, gray beard? Both my father and father-in-law are what you would call a “Papa Pashtun,” but they don’t have long, gray or white beards. You are stereotyping all older Pashtun men to look a certain way and you are wrong — very wrong — to assume as such. Besides, beards are not, and should not, only symbolize Islam or Pashtuns, as men from many difference religions and cultures around the world have beards too, i.e. Sikhs, Hindus, Hippies, etc. As a matter of fact, beard growth is quite ancient and it even predates Islam. If you think about it, it’s just natural facial hair. Some grow it for religious/cultural reasons and some grow it for personal or superficial reasons. There is no need to classify long beards as only being exclusive to Muslims or Pashtuns.

It appears to me that this isn’t the first time you have tried to sell a costume that was culturally offensive, ignorant, and inappropriate.  In the past, you’ve also tried to sell costumes representing Arabs, such as “Arab Sheik” and “Chic Sheik.” Again, I fail to comprehend what exactly your intentions were in trying to sell such costumes, because mocking and ridiculing a culture — that you clearly have no clue about — is not funny. It’s just foolish and crude, and you as one of the largest retailers in North America should know better.

Selling a costume, taking it down when people protest, and then providing lame excuses and apologies only further tarnishes your image. There are many people who will probably never boycott you, because you are convenient and affordable. However, that doesn’t give you the audacity to create and sell costumes that are just wrong and offensive on so many levels.

Ignorance is not bliss, it’s actually quite harrowing. And so is stereotyping and painting a whole ethnic race with a single brush. Educate yourself about the various different cultures, ethnicities, and religions around the world, before you go on to make erroneous, impetuous assumptions. And here’s some useful advice: if you never want to get embarrassed again, do not — and I repeat, do not — create and sell such costumes in the first place!


Samar EsapZai

10 responses to “An Open Letter To Walmart For Its Ignorant Depiction Of Pashtuns And Pashtun Culture

  1. It’s tragic really. We spend most of our lives creating and defeating stereotypes. It’s also sad that Islam in general is now all about an image that exists only in ignorant minds. Your post may be about just clothing, but it speaks about an entire mindset that needs to go away. Walmart will think twice in the future. that’s for sure.

    • Dear Nida, thank you so much for your comment. I agree we spend WAY too much time on trying to eradicate offensive, close-minded, and ignorant stereotypes. At times I can’t help but wonder whether it is our own fault for creating such stereotypes and then allowing people to run with it as far away as they can.

      I know my people, Pashtuns, aren’t the best when it comes to a LOT of things. I could probably write a 10,000 word essay just on that alone. But, at the same time, they are my people — my blood, my identity — and I would fight dragons to make sure they get the respect and justice they deserve. I have the oddest love-hate relationship with my people; it’s inexplicable. But, then, I guess it’s the same with everyone.

      I really do hope that this will serve as a learning lesson for Walmart. Really, truly hope so. Sighs.

      • I couldn’t agree more. I also have a love-hate relation with my people. I guess we stress more because we care more. Or I’d like to think that at least. As long as we raise our voice to make a difference, we shouldn’t lose hope:).

      • Oh, yes we definitely care, no doubt, which is why we become over critical, because we want the best for them.

        And, yes, hope…ahhh, there is an interesting quote (one of my faves, actually) by Nietzsche which goes something like, “Hope is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” When I first saw that quote, I thought it sounded odd, ridiculous even. But, now, I wonder whether there is some truth to it. I mean I could hope for the better, but would that “better” ever even materialize? Sorry to sound negative and a tad philosophical, but I do wonder about this a LOT, especially when it comes to my people. I can’t help but feel like they’re so deep underwater that survival at this point is impossible. But then again, miracles can and have happened. So, that perhaps helps feed this burning hope that maybe, JUST maybe, there is some light at this excruciatingly long and dark tunnel. 🙂

      • You know many people around me think I’m too hopeful about my country’s situation. And deep down I feel that too sometimes. But it doesn’t take long for me to spring back. If not hope than what else? At least hope gives us the will to move on. And you’re right. The promise of a better future is an indefinite one. But maybe our future generations will see the light if not us? What if they point fingers at us, their forefathers, and question our hopelessness? What if we leave behind nothing but gloom for them? The thought scares me. So I cling to hope. Like a fool maybe, but a hopeful one:).

  2. Hello, hope you are well. Just browsing through your website and noticed you refer to yourself quite frequently as a “Pashtun”. I haven’t seen this form of self-identification since visiting rural Afghanistan in 2003. People commonly identify themselves as “Muslim”, “Afghan” or with respect to western modalities, as an “individual”; self-orientation as part of a prehistorical ethnic division to which no scholar can trace its origins is, well, interesting. Again, just curious. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: Cultural Appropriation Or Cultural Fascination?: My Thoughts On Lee’s Ghee | SesapZai - Mom. Artist. Academic. And a little bit of everything else.·

  4. Hi… And Salamalaikum…. Let me start by saying that you’ve done an excellent job of quelling stereotypical rants against the Pakhtuns…. Rants perpetuated upon our race( the greatest race no doubt!). Normally, i’d be more composed but as i’m typing i can’t help but feel an upsurge of wrath against those who propagate such things. It’s low. Same as those folks are our awful neighbors……. I’m not going to name them here,controversial obviously. Have’nt the Pakhtuns been through enough to be lampooned in such ways?? This is PERFIDY!! I wish Pakhtuns on both sides of the “durand line” the best of lives ahead… And may our race prosper and grow on an unrivalled, unbridled pace. Amen. I’m an Afghan Pakhtun (Durrani) and as much as i love my race, i also give just as much to my tajik, hazara, qizilbashi and uzbek brethren…. I also wish to see a day when Pakhtuns on either side of the line be brought together… As they always were. Though hamshira you did an excellent job of sending them a staunch reply (worthy of a Pakhtana i’d say)….. Da zama watan dey.. Da dada watan dey!!!

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