Although variations may exist between ethnic groups and those practicing different modes of subsistence, the family remains the single most important institution in Afghan society. Characteristically, the Afghan family is endogamous (with parallel and cross-cousin marriages preferred), patriarchal (authority vested in male elders), patrilineal (inheritance through the male line), and patrilocal (girl moves to husband's place of residence on marriage). Polygyny (multiple wives) is permitted, but is no longer so widely practiced.
Within families there is a tendency toward respect for age, male or female, reverence for motherhood, eagerness for children, especially sons, and avoidance of divorce. Rigorously honored ideals emphasizing family cohesiveness through extended kinship networks endow the family with its primary function as a support system.
The extended family, the major economic and social unit in the society, replaces government because of the absence of an adequate nation-wide service infrastructure. Child socialization takes place within the family because of deficiencies in the education system. Thus, individual social, economic and political rights and obligations are found within the family which guarantees security to each man and woman, from birth to death.
The strength of this sense of family solidarity has been amply evident throughout the past years of disruption. Although families may be split and now reside on separate continents a world apart, those that are more affluent regularly send remittances to less fortunate family members. Many urban Afghan refugee families in Pakistan would otherwise be totally destitute. Similarly, newly arrived refugees always find shelter with families already established in Pakistan. At times, single family living spaces will be stretched to accommodate up to twenty new persons because family members cannot be turned away. Similar obligations extend to finding employment for relatives. This at times leads to the blatant nepotism which plagues the aid assistance network in Pakistan.
This is not to say that no tensions exist within the extended family system. Fierce competition over authority, inheritance, and individual aspirations do develop. The violent enmity that rises between cousins, for example, particularly over the selection of brides, is so often present that it has become a favorite theme of countless songs and folktales.
In Afghanistan extended families are characterized by residential unity be it in a valley, a village or a single compound. Extended family households may contain three to four generations including the male head of family and his wife, his brothers, several sons and their families, cousins with their families, as well as all unmarried and widowed females. Nuclear family households geographically grouped within extended family settings are also common. These will frequently accommodate elderly grandparents and single or widowed aunts. No matter how they may be spaced, these multigenerational units practice close economic cooperation and come together on all life-crisis occasions. This permits cohesive in-group solidarity to be maintained.
The core of the family consists of the mother-in-law, the daughters-in-law and daughters, with the senior woman reigning at the top of the power hierarchy within the household. In families with plural wives, each wife has her own room, with her own belongings and furnishings; sometimes her own cooking space is provided. The courtyard provides space for joint household activities and entertainment.
Relations between co-wives can be amiable, sister-like and mutually supportive in sharing household chores and in securing favorable attention from the husband, but relations can also be stormy and many men hesitate to take a second wife because of the fierce battles that can erupt. Some co-wives resort to magic to ease household tensions by purchasing a variety of amulets and charms, including dried hoopoe heads and wolf claws which are believed to guarantee loving attention from husbands, peace with mothers-in-law and sweet tempers all around.
The practice of taking more than one wife became less and less prevalent over the past few decades. Few men could afford to do so. Barrenness and a failure to produce sons are common reasons for its continuation. Barrenness is a frightening social stigma, not only for wives but for her family as well. Most men feel obliged to rectify the situation, but because divorce is so repugnant the option of a second wife is preferred by all.
In other cases, multiple wives are taken in order to fulfill familial obligations to provide unmarried kin or young widows with a home and security. Although the institution of the levirate in which a widow is married, with or without her consent, to a member of her deceased husband's family is explicitly forbidden in the Quran, it functions traditionally to stabilize family identification and ensure economic security. By the 1960s the levirate had all but ceased to function in many areas, but it was increasingly employed after 1978 because of the unprecedented number of war widows. The vulnerability of widows too young to have established a commanding status in the family hierarchy is more frequently addressed through the levirate today than in pre-exodus Afghanistan.
While male authority in the family is paramount in all groups, some important differences in male-female interrelations can be noted within rural and urban environments. In the rural areas interrelated responsibilities between men and women establish a bond of partnership that builds mutual respect. Carpet making is but one example. The men herd and sheer the sheep, the women spin the wool, the men dye the wool, the women weave the carpet, and the men market the product. One highly important family activity performed by rural women that is often overlooked is their management of family food supplies. A women, often an elderly member of the household, receives the household's supply of grain following the harvest. She must make sure that this supply of the family's basic food staple is apportioned correctly over the year until the next harvest comes in. Otherwise the family must go into debt, or starve. Household management and responsibility for the upbringing of children thus give rural women considerable authority in their domestic sphere.
By contrast, in traditional urban lower and middle class homes men daily leave the house to work at jobs with which women are not involved and about which they have little knowledge or interest. These women are consequently more rigidly relegated to purely domestic duties of serving husbands and caring for children. Remarkable changes took place among middle class and elite families after 1959 when the government supported the voluntary end to seclusion for women. Women sought education and moved into the public sphere in ever increasing numbers. Nevertheless, working women are still expected to socialize within the family, not with their colleagues at work.
The innate belief in male superiority provides an ideological basis for the acceptance of male control over families. Socially circumscribed and male determined roles open to women are believed necessary to maintain social order, and when women do not appear to be controlled in traditional ways, as, for example, when they take up unusual public career or behavioral roles, this is taken as a danger sign heralding social disintegration. Life crisis decisions about education, careers and marriage are, therefore, made by male family members.
Embodied in the acceptance of the male right to control decisions on female behavior is the dual concept of male prestige and family honor. Any evidence of independent female action is regarded as evidence of lost male control and results in ostracism, which adversely affects the entire family's standing within the community. Community pressures thus make women dependent on men, even among modernized urban families. On the other hand, since the construction of family and male reputations, notably their much valued honour, depends upon the good behavior of women, women derive a certain amount of leverage within family relationships from their ability to damage family prestige through subtle nonconformist behavior, such as simply failing to provide adequate hospitality, or a lack of rectitude within the home.
Afghan society places much emphasis on hospitality and the rules of etiquette that distinguish good behavior toward guests. By disregarding social niceties a person diminishes the reputation of both the immediate family and the extended family or group. Conversely, families gain respect, maintain status and enhance their standing in the community through exemplary behavior.
Since the family is so central to the lives of men, women and children, and since women's roles are pivotal to family well-being, the selection of mates is of prime concern. The preferred mate is a close relative or at least within a related lineage; the ideal being the father's brother's daughter, or first cousin, although this is not always feasible. In reality the process is far more complicated and involves a multiplicity of considerations, including strengthening group solidarity, sustaining social order, confirming social status, enhancing wealth and power or economic and political standing, increasing control over resources, resolving disputes, and compensating for injury and death.
Within this complicated web governing marriage negotiations, other factors must also be taken into account such as sectarian membership, ethnic group, family status, kin relationships, and economic benefits. The bride's skills, industriousness and temperament is also considered and, with all, the happiness and welfare of the girl is often not neglected.
Although endogamous marriage is prevalent in all groups, marriage between ethnic groups have always occurred. Over the past few decades these have increased because large populations have settled outside their ancestral areas, communication networks have improved and industrial complexes have drawn workers from many areas. In addition, political and economic changes occasioned by these developments shifted the balance of various types of productive resources and this led to forging marital links between unrelated and previously unconnected groups for benefits other than expressions of status.
Except in cases in which the institution of marriage is manipulated for political and economic purposes, female family members initiate the elaborate process of betrothal through their own women's networks. Men are generally not involved in the initial stages although sometimes a son will elicit the support of his mother; sometimes a brother will bring about a match for his sister with one of his friends, or even a young man she has observed from the rooftop of her home. Brother-sister bonds are very strong.
Men enter the process in order to set the financial agreements before the engagement is announced. These entail the transfer of money, property or livestock from the groom's family to the bride's family. The large sums frequently demanded should not be seen only as evidence of avaricious fathers. Brides gain status according to the value set for them; too meager sums devalue both father and bride in the eyes of their community. Islam does not prescribe such a brideprice, but does enjoin the giving of mahr in the form of money or property for the personal use of the bride so that her financial welfare may be ensured in the event of divorce. Islamic law does not include the concept of alimony.
In many cases, however, the bride fails to receive her legitimate portion of the marriage settlement. This causes friction, and cases concerning inheritance are frequently brought before the urban family courts, to which rural women seldom have access. In addition, because exorbitant sums are often demanded, many men are unable to marry until they are older. Very young girls, therefore, are frequently married to much older men. As a result young widowhood is common, giving rise to the practice of the levirate described above. Under normal circumstances, however, girls are married while in their teens to boys in their mid-twenties. Cases of child marriage, however, are not unknown .
Every marriage entails two exchanges. The dowry brought by the bride to her husband's home normally equals the value of the brideprice. It includes clothing, bedding and household utensils which are expected to last the couple for fifteen years. Most importantly, the quality of the dowry often influences the treatment and status accorded the bride on her arrival at her husband's home. A majority of the items are made by the girl, in cooperation with her female relatives and friends. The preparation of the bridal hope chest, therefore, constitutes a crucial female activity in every home. The trousseau of embroidered, woven and tailored items is important to the prestige of both families and must be as impressive as possible.
The ratio of inheritance is two to one in favor of males; a wife receives one-third of her son's shares. In practice, women are often denied their rightful inheritance, again causing tensions not only within nuclear families, but among kin groups of the wife as well.
Various tribal and ethnic groups follow practices which are not strictly consistent with Islamic law. Past governments have sought to institutionalize social reforms pertaining to the family for over one hundred years. Using the dictates of Islam, Afghan monarchs since Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901) have decreed and legislated against child marriages, forced marriages, the levirate and exorbitant brideprices. They upheld hereditary rights of women, authorized women to receive the mahr for their personal use, and supported the right of women to seek divorce under certain circumstances such as non-support, maltreatment and impotency.
Subsequent constitutions while guaranteeing equal rights to men and women tended to avoid specific reference to women. The Penal Code of 1976 and Civil Law of 1977, however, contained familiar articles outlawing child marriage, forced marriage and abandonment but at the same time combined them with elements of customary laws favorable to male dominance and prejudicial to women in matters of divorce, child custody, adultery and the defence of male honour. A Special Court for Family Affairs opened in 1975 in which female judges participated, but such legal documents were scarcely heeded by the majority of the population because they were seen to interfere with family prerogatives in matters seen to be the provenance of Islam and therefore beyond the competence of secular law.
The leftist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan which came to power on 27 April 1978, issued Decree No. 7 with the expressed purpose of ensuring "equal rights of women with men and ... removing the unjust patriarchal feudalistic relations between husband and wife for the consolidation of sincere family ties." This simplistic decree, like earlier pronouncements, forbade child marriage, forced marriages and exorbitant brideprices. The DRA's social reforms were viewed as a threat to cherished cultural values and an intolerable intrusion into the closely- knit, family-based society and consequently met with early dissent. Rhetoric urging children to defy family restraints and inform on parents was repugnant. Encroachments on family decision-making concerning the conduct of female members was intolerable. The establishment of day-care centers usurped the family's paramount role in child socialization and sending young children to the Soviet Union for education was regarded as a particularly barbarous weapon designed to break up the family through the replacement of stable traditional relationships with fragmented, individualized interactions. As the massive flow of refugees into Pakistan began in 1979, many cited the assault on the integrity of their families as a major reason for their flight.
Decree No. 7 was the first DRA regulation to be eliminated by The Islamic State of Afghanistan on its assumption of power in 1992. To the Taliban, all past legislation touching upon women and the family threatened to undermine the society's values. As such they are anathema. Under the Taliban the sanctity of the family, with secluded women at its core, is a paramount requisite in their crusade to establish a fully Islamic society.