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The terms Pashtun, Pushtun, Pakhtun or Pathan describe a group of people living in Pakistan and along the eastern border of Afghanistan. It is also the name of their language. Pashtuns form about 11% of Pakistan's population and 45% of Afghanistan's.

During the British Raj the Pashtuns were called "Pathans" by the British. The word Afghan also originally meant Pashtun, this use of the word remaining in many parts of Afghanistan. Because of this etymology, the Pashtuns are sometimes referred to as "true Afghans". By that logic, Farsiwan, Uzbek, Hazaras, and Tajik Afghans are not "true Afghans" (though they may be "true" nationals of Afghanistan).

The British identified the Pathans as one of the martial races of the Indian Subcontinent. Throughout Pathan history the warrior has been the most revered member of society. The term 'Pakhto' or 'Pashto' from which they derive their name is not merely the name of their language, but the name of a complex honour code. The main tenets of 'Pakhto' are:

  1. Hospitality and Asylum to all Guests Seeking help.
  2. Justice (Revenge and a tooth for a tooth mentality)
  3. Defense of 'Zan, Zar and Zameen' i.e Womenfolk/Family, Treasury and Property.
  4. Personal Independance. Pathans are fiercely independant and there is a lot of inbred competition. (Exemplified by the saying that one's ultimate competitor in life is one's cousin.)

Most decisions in tribal life are made by a 'Jirga' or 'Senate' of elected elders and wise men.

Although the Pathan people are extremely protective of their womenfolk from prying 'foreign' eyes, in the home women are undeniably in-charge and society is very matriarchal in nature. All Pathan men are extremely close to their mothers and indeed they are encouraged to espouse the virtues of a chivalrous warrior by their mothers.

Pathan heritage is transmitted from generation to generation in the form of a number of verbal stories or anecdotes that every child becomes acquainted with through his/ her parents. For example mothers often tell their children that a Pathan boy was once asked to get his mother a glass of water while she lay in bed. On his return his mother had fallen asleep so the boy stayed awake all night waiting for her to wake up so that he could give her the glass of water. He did not want to disturb her by waking her up.

Mothers are generally very tough on their male children when it comes to being well-mannered. After a certain age boys are not allowed to be in the presence of their own mothers without their shirts on. Boys are told the story of how a man once accidentaly passed wind in front of his wife. He was so dishonoured by this that he decided to run away from home in shame. Many years later when he mustered up some courage to try and return, he approached his doorstep only to hear his wife scolding his son and telling him his father was a dishonorable man! So the poor man decided to turn around and leave again!

The Pathans are predominantly a tribal peoples, however, increasing numbers now dwell in cities and urban settlements. Many still identify themselves with various clans. Clan names are increasingly being adapted as western style last names or family names. The major Pathan clans are as follows:

There have been a number of prominent Pathan individuals. Typically Pathans make their mark in sports. Imran Khan a world class cricketer and Captain of the World Cup winning Pakistan Cricket team is a Pathan who grew up in Lahore, Pakistan. He has authored a book called 'The Warrior Race' about the Pathans. He recently used his celebrity to raise funds to establish a state-of- the-art charitable Cancer Hospital called Shaukat Khannum Memorial Hospital in memory of his late mother.

Jehangir Khan and Jansher Khan have, between them, held the number one rank in international Squash for well over a decade. They come from a famous line of Pathan squash players. Mohibullah Khan(also known as Mo Khan) was also from this line and he has won the North American Raquet ball Championships a number of times. Mohibullah Khan was very close to the Kennedys and at an obituary a Kennedy said of him ' Mo Khan was from the Irish part of Pakistan.'

Ghulam Ishaq Khan has been President of Pakistan and has established an Engineering School and University known as the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Science and Technology in Topi, Pakistan.

Kernal Sher Khan, a Pakistani soldier has the distinction of recently receiving Pakistan's highest military award of honour known as the 'Nishan-i-Haider.'

Finally Hamid Karzai , the current President of Afghanistan is an ethnic Pashtun.

The 19th century partition of Pashtunistan by the British between India (now Pakistan) and Afghanistan remains a sore point amongst some political pathan leaders to this day (such as Abdul Wali Khan), however, most Pathans in Pakistan are very happy with their nationality and economic vitality in contrast to Pakhtuns in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

The Pashtun people are almost all of the Muslim faith. There are a very very small number of Pathans who are Sikhs. Amongst the Muslim Pathans Sunni Muslims predominate, although some are also Shiite Muslims. Although Pathans formed the backbone of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, traditionally, Pathans have co-operated very well with other ethnic groups in Afghanistan and most Pashtuns in Afghanistan are bi or trilingual: speaking Dari (a form of Persian) or Tajik in addition to Pashto. Intermarraiges between Pathans and other ethnic groups in Afghanistan are very common place.