The greater a Pashtun man's hospitality, the more honor he accrues. If a stranger or an enemy turns up on his doorstep and asks for shelter, his honor depends on taking that person in. If any injury is done to a man's land, women, or gold, it is a matter of honor for him to exact revenge. A man without honor is a man without a shadow, without assets, without dignity.
But it is not generally acceptable for Pashtun women to extend hospitality or exact revenge. They are rarely agents. They're assets to be traded and fought over—until they can stand it no longer.
At a shelter in Kabul for women who have escaped domestic abuse, I heard about a girl from one of the richest Pashtun families in a province bordering Pakistan. She fell in love with a boy from the wrong tribe. Her father killed the boy and four of his brothers, and when he discovered that his own mother had helped his daughter escape her father's wrath, he killed his mother too. Now he is offering a $100,000 reward for his daughter's dead body.
These are extreme actions by an extreme man. But many Pashtun men perceive that their manhood and very way of life are under assault—by a foreign military, foreign religious leaders, foreign television, international human rights groups—and they hold fast to traditions that for so long have defined what it means to be a Pashtun man.
One day in a Kabul bookstore I found a collection of landays—"short ones"—the two-line poems the Pashtuns recite to each other at the village well or at wedding celebrations. The book, originally published as Suicide and Song, was compiled by Sayd Bahodine Majrouh, a celebrated Afghan poet and writer assassinated while in exile in Pakistan in 1988. He first collected women's landays in his native Kunar River Valley. Majrouh, a humanist, found glory in these cries from the heart, which defy convention and in many ways mock male honor. From cradle to grave, the Pashtun woman's lot is one of shame and sadness. She is taught that she is undeserving of love. This is why, Majrouh wrote, landays are "a cry of separation" from the idea of love and a revelation of the misery of misalliance.
A woman's husband is often either a child or an old man forced on her through tribal bonds:
Have you with your white beard no shame? You caress my hair and inside myself I laugh.
Tauntingly, a woman lances a man's virility:
In battle today my lover turned his back to the enemy. / I am ashamed of having kissed him last night.
Or voices her frustrated desire:
Come, my beloved, come quickly and be close to me! / The "little horror" lies in slumber and you may kiss me now.
The "little horror" is the man a woman is forced to marry, a kind of dupe. Only without his knowledge will she find true love. As Majrouh understood them, Pashtun women, for all their submissiveness, have always lived in a state of deep craving for rebellion and for the pleasures of earthly life. He called his book Suicide and Song because these two acts are how they protest their anguish. In Majrouh's time the two methods of suicide were poison and drowning. Now they are poison and self-immolation.