Cultural Overview

Swat is a predominantly rural area where local subsistence farmers raise their own wheat, rice, maize, and some fruit and seasonal vegetables. Cattle and water buffalo provide milk, labor, and meat. Chickens and fish in season are the other sources of protein. Despite the relative fertility of the valley, overpopulation means that hunger is common. The money economy of Swat is primarily reliant on remittances from immigrants to Karachi and the Gulf States.

Despite considerable differences of wealth and power among the Pathans, they are remarkably egalitarian, reflecting the structure of their segmentary lineage organization which provides them with the framework for concerted political action without the necessity for any central authority. It does so by obliging those closer genealogically to combine against those more distant, and to join those distant enemies in battles against foes who are more distant still. As a result, Pathans may battle violently amongst themselves, but are capable of uniting against external enemies, a capacity that has long enabled them to repel invaders from their territory. (For more on Pathan descent and kinship organization, see "Gender-Related Social Groups"; see also Barth [1959a, 1959b] and Charles Lindholm [1982].)

Only landed members of a village are considered to be Pathans. Also resident in the valley are caste-like groups of landless individuals who serve the dominant Pathan farmer-warriors as carpenters, millers, barbers, leatherworkers, and the like. Traditionally, these subaltern occupational groups were linked to Pathan patrons by close ties of mutual obligation, but these ties have recently been eroded by the encroachment of capitalism.

The people of Swat prize their independence, and rely as little as possible on the Pakistani state for order. Anarchy is avoided by the operation of the segmentary lineage system and by the tribal code (pukhtunwali), which demands refuge to supplicants, hospitality to guests, and the absolute obligation to revenge any slights. A person who cannot live up to tribal standards is held in contempt—a fate worse than death in a culture where one's very existence depends on the respect of peers, relatives, and allies. (See Ahmad [1962], Ahmed [1980], Barth [1959a], and Charles Lindholm [1982, 1996] for standard ethnographies of Swat, Bellew [1864/1977] for an early study, and Caroe [1958] and Spain [1962] for comprehensive overviews of the Pathans.)

The people of Swat consider themselves to be devout Sunni Muslims, and they explain local practices of strict female seclusion, veiling, polygamy, denial of inheritance to women, prohibition on divorce, and so on, as enjoined by Islam. However, many of these so-called Islamic practices are actually expressions of a patriarchal social system (Kandiyoti, 1991).

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