Culture and identity
Afghanistan's ethnically and linguistically mixed population reflects its location in the centre of 3,000 year-old trade and invasion routes between Europe and Asia. Its rich cultural heritage dates back more than 5,000 years. Excluding people living in the major cities, many Afghans are divided into tribal and other kinship-based groups, which follow traditional customs and religious practices. The two main ethnic groups are the Pashtuns (42%) and the Tajiks (27%), whose languages, Pashto and Dari (Afghan Persian), are Afghanistan’s two official languages. Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen are spoken widely in the north, Hazari in the central highlands, Balochi in the south-west and many other languages and dialects are spoken by those who live in the high, snowbound valleys in the north-east.
Islam has a major influence on Afghan culture, particularly in the arts, architecture and poetry. Afghan handicrafts include world-renowned carpets and copper utensils. Afghan music has a unique use of note intervals, pitch, and rhythm, which is closer to western than to Asian music.
The Bamiyan Valley features artistic and religious remains from the 1st to the 13th centuries and the Minaret of Jam, located outside of Herat, dates from the 12th century. Both sites are on the UNESCO world heritage list.
Years of conflict have meant a decline in the health of all people. Life expectancy is 50 years, for both males and females. The infant mortality rate is 117 per 1,000 live births. The maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan is a major concern, estimated at 460 per 100,000 live births. This reflects the poor access to and quality of pre-natal health services. Other health issues of concern are communicable diseases such as diarrhoea and pneumonia. About 60% of Afghans have access to safe water and 28% to adequate sanitation, although rural people have far less access than urban population.
Religion and beliefs
Islamic practices are part of most aspects of life in Afghanistan. An estimated 80% of the population is Sunni Muslim and the remainder, mainly the Hazara of central Afghanistan, are predominantly Shi'a Muslim. The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, enforced a strict interpretation of Islam upon the whole country. Television, western music and alcohol were banned. Women were restricted from working outside the home or attending school; they were not to leave their homes without an accompanying male relative and were forced to wear a traditional whole body covering garment called a burqua.
The 2004 constitution recognises the rights of women but forced marriages, domestic violence and lack of social and political participation continue to hinder progress for women.
Food and shelter
Afghan food is based on meat from sheep and goats with rice. The dishes are flavoured with sweet-scented herbs and spices, including coriander, mint and garam masala. Fresh and dried fruits and nuts, flat breads and yoghurt add more flavours and textures. Traditionally, Afghan food is served on large ceramic platters or in clay pots and placed on a cloth spread over an Afghan rug or carpet.
Housing ranges from modern apartment buildings and informal concrete buildings in the cities to flat-roofed mud buildings built in compounds for the extended family in rural areas. In cooler areas, beds are low, flat benches with a sandhli (heater) below.