Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Gypsies Demand Their Rights

Afghan Jogi, sometimes known as gypsies, have few legal rights, despite having been in Afghanistan for hundreds of years.
By Najibullah Frotan
Zahra sits in the shade of a tree next to Rauza, Mazar-e-Sharif’s dominant monument. She wears a long green coat, her hair tied back with a scarf, a dirty box beside her. For a few coins, she will read the palms of passers-by, telling them their fortune.

She is from the Jogi, an ethnic group known in various countries by different names. Their counterparts in Europe and North America are often called gypsies.

“Work is hard, but I am used to it,” said Zahra. “When I was small I used to go with my mother, and I learned astrology.”

Palm-reading is a Jogi tradition, as is the practice of women working, said Zahra.

“It is our custom that men should stay at home while women go out to earn money,” she explained. “Any woman who does not work is called a coward.”

Before she is engaged, a Jogi girl is asked whether she can earn a living, said Zahra, and only after she agrees can the marriage take place.

The Jogi say they have been in Afghanistan for 150 years, migrating from Azerbaijan, Bukhara, and other areas. But they are still living without civil rights – they are denied even the basic privilege of Afghan citizenship, the tazkira, or identity card.

This is completely unacceptable, says Saheb Nazar, a leader of the Jogi in Balkh province.

“Don’t we belong to this land?” he demanded. “Aren’t we humans who have been created by God? [If not] the government should just kick us out, then, so we will understand that we do not belong here.”

The Jogi are scattered in various provinces of Afghanistan, but face the same situation everywhere, said Nazar.

“We are not granted the status of human beings,” he fumed. “We do not even have tazkira. You cannot find a single piece of land in this country that belongs to the Jogi. We live in tents or ruined buildings where people throw their garbage. Jogi have not received even one kilogramme of wheat out of the billions of dollars that this government has received in aid.”

He demanded that the Afghan government give the Jogi at least identity papers and some land to live on.

There are no exact statistics about the Jogi of Afghanistan, but according to the Jogi themselves there are about 1,000 families living in Balkh province alone.

Abdul Khaleq Rostayee, chairman of the department of population in Balkh, told IWPR that his hands were tied regarding the Jogi.

“Yes, they came here many years ago,” he said. “But they have never asked for tazkira. Unless they select a representative and register themselves with the ministry of the interior, we cannot give them identity cards.”

Nazar rejects this claim, insisting that his people have tried many times to register, but are not even allowed to enter the offices of government officials.

“We are looked down on,” he said. “Officials hate us. They do not even consider us as human beings. Where are we supposed to go?”

Without a tazkira, he added, Jogi children cannot attend school, adults cannot get passports.

“I have an invitation from my relatives in Azerbaijan,” he said. “But I cannot go, because no one will give me a passport because I have no tazkira. Nobody is giving us the right to live in this country.”

Sayed Mohammad Samey, head of the human rights commission in Mazar-e-Sharif, capital of Balkh province, told IWPR that his office has begun comprehensive research on the Jogi.

“We are saying that Jogi should have full rights like any Afghan citizen, or like any human being,” he said. “They should be able to take full advantage of Islamic and civil law in this country. The government is obligated to give them tazkira.”

Mohammad Saleh Gardesh, the head of the publications department of the Sadat Institute of Higher Education in Mazar, told IWPR that his institute had conducted a number of studies of the Jogi.

“There are two main theories for the origin of the Jogi,” said Gardesh. “Some think that they belong to a Kushan tribe called Yogi.” The little-known Kushan period in Afghanistan lasted from the first to the fourth centuries AD.

“With the passage of time, their name changed to Jogi,” continued Gardesh. “The other theory is that they are from India, and have come to Afghanistan many years ago. A large number of Jogi now live in Pakistan, and share a similar language to the Punjabis. From the attire and language of Jogi living in Afghanistan today, we can conclude that they came from central Asian countries such as Tajikistan 200 to 250 years ago.”

To a large extent, the Jogi stand apart from the rest of Afghan society. They own no land or property, and spend most of their lives in tents. The men generally stay at home while the women go out to beg in the cities or villages.

Like many outsiders, Jogi fall victim to negative stereotypes. Rumours are spread that they are not really Muslims, that they engage in promiscuity or have other outlandish practices.

“This is nonsense,” said Nazar, the Jogi community leader. “We are Sunni Muslims. We accept the words of the one God and the teachings of the Prophet. Our major customs and ceremonies are like those of other Afghans. There may be some small differences in tradition, that is all.”

Najibullah Frotan is an IWPR trainee in Balkh province.

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