A Discussion On The Nuances Of Ethnic Identity: The Preference Of Identifying As “Afghan,” “Pakistani,” Or “Pashtun/Pakhtun/Pathan” — Part One

Source: izquotes.com

Source: izquotes.com

A few months ago, someone came to my blog with the inquiry (and I am pasting it here verbatim) below:

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 pre-historical ethnic division to which no scholar can trace its origins is, well, interesting. Again, just curious. Thanks.

This person asks an interesting question as I’ve noticed that Pashtuns that hail from Afghanistan quite often refer to themselves as “Afghan.” It’s not so much the case with Pashtuns hailing from Pakistan, though. We tend to associate ourselves with the country, Pakistan, as a whole, or just refer to ourselves as “Pathan/Pakhtun/Pashtun.”

I decided to share this comment with a wider audience, on my Facebook wall, and it elicited quite an exhaustive and rather interesting discussion, which went as deep as understanding the origin of Afghanistan and its link to Hinduism. Although close to a 100 comments were shared, I will only be sharing the main discussion that I found the most interesting (and hopefully educational/enlightening). I’ve also decided to break this blog post into parts, as I don’t want to overwhelm my readers with too much text in one single blog post. So, stay tuned for the other parts, as it gets more and more intriguing. Readers’ comments, Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns alike, with knowledge on the topic, are more than welcome and always appreciated. So, don’t forget to leave your thoughts and valuable input/opinions in the comment box below to this blog.

Note: Due to privacy reasons, I’ve changed the names of the individuals who commented to mere letters.


S: It truly depends upon how a person chooses to identify themselves. Many people tend to associate with a culture or country that they are most comfortable with and/or has a huge impact on who they are . My parents are Indian, but as I grew up in Oman and Canada, I associate myself with those cultures and not at all with India. Many people have had an issue with this, and I keep telling them, what is it to you how I choose to identify myself? I have known you for the last 13 years and have seen you achieve a great deal of comfort, happiness and individuality in defining yourself as Pashtun, and I love that about you! It is so unique and I am always inquiring about the culture because I have seen the love you have for it. The culture and language is unique and beautiful. It is very relative and depends upon the individual. I would also like to point out that in this day and age, we should work on erasing boundaries drawn up on maps to divide people and just identify yourselves as good human being (kinda idealistic, I know).

H: Pashtuns are incorporated tactically by abstract Pakistani nationality. Media, Pakistani and economics play a vital role. A section of Pashtuns has been assimilated by state, that’s why they themselves associate with Pakistan. On other hand most of Pashtuns on our side thinks an Afghan is anyone who belongs to Afghanistan is Afghan.

A: In Afghanistan, we call ourselves Afghans because Afghan = Pashtun. In Pakistan, you must use your Pashtun identity as you are NOT a part of Pakistan. Hopefully all of you from the other side of the illegal Durand line will call yourselves Afghan in the near future. I am proud of YOU!

F: I believe that we Pushtoons have originally originated from a land called Afghanistan, and as I am living in some part of Pakistan, here people always thinks that when Pushtoon talk about some thing, it is his right so they believe that we are trying to get our own country for Pushtoons. But, in the end I am proud to be a Pushtoon

K: Afghan has far more historical significance than referring to one as a Pashtun. Historically, Pashtun=Afghan, and, thus, history books commonly refer to Pashtuns as Afghans. The choice between Afghan or Pashtun is merely political and situational. It has no other significance. The Pakistani elites (mainly Punjabis) would love to eliminate any reference to Afghanistan and Afghans, because they are afraid of the association of Pashtuns from one side with the other. Nevertheless, the term Pashtun has become much more popular in the last 60-70 years. In Afghanistan, ethnic Afghans refer to themselves as Pashtun to differentiate themselves from the other ethnicities, and correctly so, leaving the word Afghan for all citizens of Afghanistan. I see this modern transition in my own family. The older generation refer to themselves as Afghans, but the newer generation refer to themselves as Pashtuns. The older generation also refers to our language as Afghani, whereas, the newer more educated and urbane generation refers to it as Pashto/Pakhto. Meanwhile, leaving the term Afghan for all citizens of Afghanistan. However, in non-urban minority communities they still refer to us as Afghans and our language as Afghani. Once again, the popularity of whether one uses Afghan or Pashtun is multi-factorial and situational.

K: In fact, there are genetic studies to show that ALL Pashtuns share the same lineage. Pashtuns from Kandahar and Peshawer (excluding Peshaweri Hindkowans) were compared and no genetic differences were observed. If anyone is interested I can post the link to the study.

K: Hindkowans are a major part of Peshawer valley. They comprise about 30 % of Paskhtunkhwa. The name of the province was changed from NWFP to Khyber-Pashtunkhwa and not simply Pakhtunkhwa because the Hindkowans disagreed with the name Pakhtunkhwa. There were protests in Peshawer against the name change. If you walk down Peshawer’s roads you can tell who are the Hindkowans, they are mainly darker skinned and look more Indian than Pashtun. most of course in Peshawer speak Pashto, but at home they use Hindko.

P: As many have mentioned above, Afghan = Pashtun. I am Pashtun (from Charsadda, Pakhtunkhwa) and I always identify as Pashtun, I have never identified myself as a Pakistani. Usually Pakistani refers to someone from Punjab. Lets be honest, when you hear “Pakistani”, you automatically think Desi, although Pakistan is a nation of multiple ethnicities. And Pashtun culture is nowhere near the Desi-culture, so to me it is important to clarifly that I am Pashtun. My Baloch friends (whether from Pakistan or Iran) also identify as Baloch, rather than Pakistani or Iranian. But, when someone refers to themselves as a Pathan, or calls me a Pathan, it makes my blood boil. Either you’re Pashtun or not, we need to retire the word “Pathan”.

K, I’m also interested in that study..please share!

K: This is one of the studies. I will find more, and in fact, I will post a few that have been down watered for general non-genetic majors.


*Sesapzai’s note: This is only an abstract. If my readers are interested in reading the full article, please email me at sesapzai@gmail.com and request a copy, and I’ll be sure to email you the full PDF document.

K:. By the way, we are not the SAME as Indians. What is true is that SOME Indians share the same genetic line as we do. Over several thousand years, Pashtuns/Afghans or our ancestors have immigrated and intermingled with the Indians, and, thus, have spread our genes to India. Believe it or not, genetic studies indicate that Pashtuns (the ones studied were from Afghanistan) are a very old ethnicity; the estimates are between 5,000-7,000 years. In comparison, Iranians are about 3,000-5,000 years old.

K: For the possible age of the Pashtun ethnicity have a look at this genetic study and the diagrams: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0034288

R:  Very interesting. I would love to read all comments and then give my input but in short identities are multi-tiered….At one level we are Humans, then Muslims, Asians, South Asians, Pakistani /Afghans , Pashtuns etc etc. I dont see any problem with that honestly.

S: Great discussion! Gosh, I’ve got lots of catching up to do to reply to everyone in detail, but I wanted to especially address K’s comment on the following:

“There are Pashtuns who have darker skin, but they don’t look Indian. Have you ever met an Hindkowan from Peshawer or surrounding regions? If you meet one, you will know exactly what I am speaking about. There are tons of Pashtuns who have dark skin, but their overall feature is “Pashtun”. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai has dark skin, but you can tell he is Pashtun/Afghan.”

Actually, dark skin and features has nothing to do with being a Pashtun or not. Also, it’s erroneous to assume that ALL Indians and ALL Pashtuns look the same and have similar features and skin tones. India is HUGE. When you go to the North, people there look Caucasian (I use Caucasian here because some have blue/green eyes and blondish hair), and then there are Indians who just have very fair skin and dark hair, again, not fitting the stereotypical “Indian look.” And then when you go to the South, you get the stereotypical-looking Indians, who are all dark-skinned with distinct features that we all somehow assume is only exclusive to Indians. It is not. Similarly, Pashtuns’ looks are extremely versatile too. We have Pashtuns who resemble Caucasians, Arabs, Indians (South AND North), and so on and so forth. So looks is the least of our concerns at this point, because there is no one universal look that is exclusive to Pashtuns. And there is no one universal look that is exclusive to Indians either. Just wanted to share my two cents on that.

S: P, thanks for your input. It’s much appreciated. However, I would like to point out that while it’s true that when we hear “Pakistani,” we automatically assume “Desi” or more specifically, “Punjabi,” for me, it is the same case when I say or hear “Afghan.” I hate to say this, but now whenever I say/hear Afghan, I do not limit it to Pashtuns only (even though that was and IS supposed to be the case). The initial ethnic race and language that crosses my mind is Tajik/Dari-speakers. I feel that the word “Afghan” has now become synonymous with all the ethnicities that currently reside in Afghanistan: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Kurdish, etc. Please correct me if I am wrong, and forgive me if I said anything in err.

A: I personally strongly associate with the Pakhtun title; it would be fair to say ONLY!

Post-Taliban Afghanistan’s constitution in article 4 clearly states that the word “Afghan” shall apply to every citizen of Afghanistan. So, those who *still* claim that Pakhtuns have more “right” over this title in comparison to other ethnic groups have yet not accepted the reality or their minorities.

Afghan title is nothing more than the Pakistani, Canadian, or Mexican title, etc. It’s simply a title for citizenship! That is, if you live in the present.

While it’s true that many poets, writers and politicians from Pakhtunkhwa have used the “Afghan” title for Pakhtuns, it was mostly done in the past; in the current time only those who are continuing to use the term “Afghan” for Pakhtuns are those who are not in line with the present. If Afghanistan considers Pakhtuns of Pakhtunkhwa, India, etc. also Afghans, then they should provide citizenship to these Pakhtuns, who actually are a majority in numbers with comparison to those Pakhtuns that are in Afghanistan. A good example are the Non-Resident Indians (NRIs).

The only way in which I would take the Afghan title seriously is when millions of Pakhtuns from Pakhtunkhwa are given Afghanistan’s citizenship, because that is what the constitution says. I don’t want to hear poems of Khushal or Hamza or Ghani, because poems can’t be used in legal matters.

As for all other debates on how Pakhtuns look, feel, sound different, etc. — that’s all BS! Pakhtuns come in all shapes and sizes, and human nature depends on its surroundings. It’s absurd to claim or expect that millions of Pakhtuns will have same pattern of behaviour, looks, etc. when they share their land in the heart of Asia and have been invaders/invaded themselves.

My personal experience was that every time a Pakhtun from Afghanistan gives a preference to the Afghan title over Pakhtun (excluding poets & politicians), it was due to the fact that he/she spoke Tajiki/Dari, not the Pakhtu language.


Stay tuned for part two entitled: A Discussion On The Nuances Of Ethnic Identity: Ancient Afghan Heritage And Its Link To Hinduism

2 responses to “A Discussion On The Nuances Of Ethnic Identity: The Preference Of Identifying As “Afghan,” “Pakistani,” Or “Pashtun/Pakhtun/Pathan” — Part One

  1. Well, honestly speaking, in Punjab side they refer anyone who speak pashto languageas a pathan, whether he is Afghani or belongs from KPK. All Pashtuns have the origin from Afghanistan. According to my personal experience, because i have been in Afghanistan for more than two years, pashtuns distinct themselves from other ethnic groups in Afghanistan and i did not hear the word “Afghani” from anyone throughout in my stay there. Simply we can not avoid the identity, that we get through our ethnicity.

  2. Pingback: A Discussion On The Nuances Of Ethnic Identity: Ancient Afghan Heritage And Its Link To Hinduism | SesapZai - Mom. Artist. Academic. And a little bit of everything else.·

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