Cultural Interaction - Some simple rules of behaviour in Afghanistan and inside afghan refugee camps

Published on 10 Oct 2001
For an expatriate entering Afghanistan, it is important to know that the Afghan culture is about politeness, respect and hospitality. When visiting even the poorest home, at least a cup of tea will be offered to the guest. Rejecting it will surely offend the host.
Before any meeting with local staff or visitors from local organizations it is important to give enough time for greeting each other. Offering a cup of tea will show consideration and provide a friendlier atmosphere.

The often used title "engineer" or even "engineer saab" does not necessarily refer to a degree, but shows respect for the position held in an organization.

Among women, it is less the (professional) respect, but more the showing of affection and friendship that marks the quality of a relationship. Afghan women - if they value their relation with the expatriate woman - would often refer to the expatriate as "my best friend".

Among expatriate men and Afghan women, in a professional context, respect is shown rather through distance than through closeness. Even a handshake is rather uncommon and the limit of physical contact. Friendships between Afghan or international men on one side and Afghan women on the other may develop, but only if her husband or her brother are close friends of the respective man.

International women have a different status, unless they are muslims. It is mostly easy and uncomplicated for an international woman to interact professionally or develop a friendship with Afghan men. This, however, is mostly true for the educated Afghans we normally work with. And even then, physical contact like hugging or kissing the cheeks are strictly out of the question.

Criticism, personal or professional, towards a man has to be formulated very carefully and not without a 'softening' introduction: don't go straight to the point.

Criticism towards women may be much more direct (remember, you are her best friend!): go straight to the point.

Criticism, directed both at women or men is to be strictly kept out of public.

Many Afghans fear very much the loss of their job, that feeds an extended family network. Do not expect your staff to express disagreement with your opinions or decisions easily. It is not an easy job to encourage them to freely voice their opinion - be patient and try to get feedback in bilateral discussions.

Praising each other is obviously much more welcome. Don't overdo it, but if you have reason to, don't hold back. Consider and mention their efforts, especially in public.

Dress Code and other Practical Advice:

  • Female international staff should have their head covered outside their house or in the presence of non-relative men.

  • Female international staff should wear either Pakistani shalwar kameez or long skirts with long sleeved top.

  • Female international staff should be careful on the way of greeting men, as often shaking hands is not appropriate and a slight movements of the head with the right hand on the chest is more appreciated as a sign of respect. Insistently looking straight in the eyes of men has also to be carefully considered, depending on the relationship with the man. There are normally no problems with colleagues and people with high education.

  • Tight clothes of any sort are to be avoided.

  • Wearing shorts or sleevless T-shirts for men is out of place, unless for sports, but this only in the absence of women.

  • Even for men, long sleeves are considered the proper dress, foreigners are just 'forgiven' for short sleeves.

  • Make sure you take off your shoes when entering houses and offices.

  • When sitting around on the carpets on the floor, make sure the soles of your feet do not point at anybody. It is considered offensive.

  • The 'thumbs up' sign means something very different than in American-European sign language. Better avoid using it.

  • International women and men do not walk hand in hand, embrace or even kiss each other in public.

While mutual respect is a strong feature in Afghanistan, the sense of hierarchy and subordination is more present in Pakistan. There may be historical reasons to it: Pakistan was a British colony for centuries, whilst Afghanistan was never occupied by any colonial power in modern times. Sadly, many foreigners very easily adopt bossy behaviour and treat their Pakistani staff quite badly.

For reasons that my be found in the transitional nature of Pakistani culture it is a sad experience of many foreign women to be harrassed by Pakistani men. For example, strict Pakistani - islamic morale clashes with western pornograpy with the result of men having very distorted perceptions about western women.

Restrictions for internatinal women to wear western clothes and move on her own vary widely. While certain areas in Islamabad can be considered rather liberal, the old city of Peshawar of Quetta for example, require a lot of caution to avoid being harrassed. Male company is helpful, but only in combination with adequate cover, one is reasonably safe from unpleasant encounters.

Travelling by taxis, women shouldn't sit on the front seat.

Smoking in the streets is considered inappropriate for women.

Physical contact between international men and women should be avoided in public or in front of national colleagues.