In the Chitral, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), there are three small valleys inhabited by the Kalasha tribal group: Biriu (Birir), Rukmo (Rambor), and Mumorete (Bumborate). According to locals and researchers, approximately 3,000 to 4,000 Kalasha live here. Known as one of the world’s oldest cultures, the Kalashas have a unique lifestyle.
Regarding the origins of the Kalasha community, there are two main theories. Chitral district is divided into two major ethnic groups, the Kho and the Kalasha. Khos are Sunni Muslims and Ismaili Muslims. The Kalasha follow their own traditions and beliefs. Chitral was dominated by the Kalasha tribe in the 1900s.
The Kalasha culture has constantly evolved along with its surroundings and is famous for its unique way of life. The traditional female dress includes a black robe and embroidered long cap decorated with seashells, ornaments, and beads. This dress style is still popular among local women despite the availability of a variety of modern clothing. In Kalasha culture, there are no regular prayer like in Islam, Christianity, or other religions.
This small community of Kalash tolerates regular derogatory remarks. ‘Life is too short; you are going to hell soon’, they are told.
Militant attacks on the ‘Kalasha’
The Kalasha have faced forced conversions, migrations, and climate change. Some Muslims dismiss the Kalasha community because they think they do not believe in God and worship idols. The Kalash do believe in God: ‘Khodai’ (the Persian word for Allah) or ‘Dezao,’ the creator who is honoured everywhere.
This small community of Kalash tolerates derogatory remarks in their daily life. ‘Life is too short; you are going to hell soon’, they are told. The first government leader to prioritise the Kalash people was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He took steps towards the community’s welfare, thereby reducing poverty levels in the Kalash valleys and allowing them to maintain their unique culture free from economic constraints.
In the past few years, about 100 members of the Kalasha community have converted to Islam. In August 2012, militants from the Nuristan Province of Afghanistan broke into the Bumburet Valley, killing a Kalasha shepherd, and stealing 200 goats. A video from 2014 showed the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) calling on Sunnis to support their cause against the Kalasha.
A young female student from the Kalasha community told me, “I hide my identity because people dislike Kalashas, especially Muslims.”
Forced conversions of girls: A matter of concern for Kalashas
In 2016, it was reported that Reena, a 14-year-old Kalash girl, converted to Islam and had chosen to live with a Muslim family. However, when she went back to her parent’s home, she complained about being forced to convert. Muslim neighbours were enraged and attacked the Kalash’s homes. Both parties agreed to respect the girl’s wishes following an intervention from authorities. The matter was ultimately resolved when the girl deposed before a magistrate that she had adopted Islam by her own free will, and her family accepted her choice. The Diplomat reported in 2018 that “unwilling conversions and cajoled marriages with non-Kalasha are among the immediate threats facing the community.”
In 1895, local history has it that Amir Abdurrahman, an Afghan ruler, conquered the area and ordered a five-day general slaughter of the Kalasha. He demolished and burnt all the forts and great towns and forced inhabitants to convert to Islam. Some people recount this event with pride. One of my friends Khatija Noor*, recently shared her experience about indirect, forced conversion, “A few days back, I met a man who was very proud to be a relative of Amir Abdur Rehman from Afghanistan, and he was very excited to tell me how Amir Abdur Rehman converted the red kafirs and killed those who refused. I was not able to sleep the entire night. How could someone be proud of the cruelty he advised me to convert to Islam? And he also questions my education that I do not count as educated if I am still Kalash and threatens me about my after-death life. I was surprised that most of the time, people are concerned about my grave punishment.”
In an interview in February 2022, another Kalasha woman, Bahar Bano* said, “indirect force is more dangerous; it kills the culture silently. Our children are going to school to learn more about other religions than Kalash. It’s our fault we never taught our kids about our religion. Kalashas protect Kalasha; nobody can do it for us”.
Furthermore, a young female student from the Kalasha community told me, “I hide my identity because people dislike Kalashas, especially Muslims.”
In another interview with a senior lady from Birir valley Gul Bahar*, she shared her own family story of how her daughter and mother were converted to Islam. She explained with a heavy heart, “Muslim neighbours convinced my mother if she becomes Muslim, she may find peace and will never become ill again, my mother was manipulated for the sake of her health, but now after converting to Islam, she is more ill and more depressed, those who converted her never ask about her health.”
When asked her about her daughter, she said, “I came to know that my daughter is involved in an affair with a Muslim boy and I asked her don’t do this, and in response, she shouted at me and asked where is our holy book? What religion are we following? There is no holy book; there is no daily prayer. I was speechless and had no idea how to control her. Finally, she left me and eloped with the Muslim man. Such situations make us insecure and worried about our culture”.
A working lady Gul-e- Laila* shared her opinion that she is very proud to be Kalasha but sometimes she hides her identity to avoid ridiculous questions.
This love war or love Jihad has destroyed many girls’ lives, as many divorced Kalasha women in the community are left destitute. When they fall in love as young as 16 years of age, they elope with Muslim boys. There is no proper system for their nikah. Maulvis, who converted the girl, also act as the girls’ witness to Nikah and fix a low amount for Haq Mehr. According to Islamic teachings in the hadith, mehr is the amount to be paid by the groom to the bride at the time of marriage. The mehr is for the wife to spend as she wishes. As a result, these Kalasha girls get nothing after they separate or divorce, and the girl’s life is destroyed. There is no way for her to return to her culture, and she becomes a burden for her family.
During an interview, a working lady Gul-e- Laila* shared her opinion that she is very proud to be Kalasha but sometimes she hides her identity to avoid ridiculous questions, such as ‘You are so lovely. Why are you not Muslim?’ or ‘Do you look like a Muslim? How amiable are you? But if you become Muslim, you will conquer both worlds’. Once when she was in her office, she treated an older man nicely; the older man was happy and about to put his hand to her head for a blessing. The moment she told him she was Kalasha, the man took his hand back. She shared that when people learn she is Kalasha, they treat them differently. ‘We never received any praising remarks or blessings from older adults like our colleagues,’ she said.
As a result of conversions to Islam, a PTI MPA, Wazir Zada Kalash, who worked for a local non-government organization (NGO) for about 12 years in the Kalasha valleys, confirmed that in 2019 the number of Kalasha people had decreased, due to conversions.
A way forward
By sharing these stories, I do not mean that there are all bad people in the country. Some good people support us, encourage our culture, and give us all the opportunities we deserve. I do not mean to say that Muslims are bad or that Kalashas are good. There are good and bad people in every society.
Education is the backbone of society. We must initiate interfaith harmony in the community because the Kalasha culture is a part of the beauty of our country. This ancient culture is like a living museum, and an example to the world of how 3,000 people survived for centuries. We should treat Kalashas as Pakistani citizens and provide them with equal human rights. Civil society, sadly enough, has also been guilty of ignoring the Kalasha. Very few reports on the status of minorities issued recently touch on the plight of the Kalasha people. This, too, must change.
To promote international awareness and support for the Kalasha ethnic-religious community, UNESCO and the Government of Pakistan are urged to arrange foreign visits, fund Kalasha cultural projects, and provide appropriate development aid aligned with Kalasha’s priorities. The Government of Pakistan must allocate a separate seat for the Kalasha minority in both the Provincial and National Assemblies, as well.
The blog has been published in collaboration with Ravadar – a series that documents lives of religious minorities in Pakistan.
*Note: The names of the interviewees and the author have been changed to protect their identity.