By RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi
January 6, 2022
When the Taliban seized power in August, the militant group vowed it would not resurrect the violent religious policing it enforced during its first stint in power. The hard-liners claimed they would limit themselves to preaching Islamic values of modesty and dignity.
But nearly five months after regaining power, the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has reclaimed its role as the enforcer of the group’s radical interpretation of Islamic law.
In a spate of decrees issued in recent weeks, the ministry has imposed restrictions on the behavior, movement, and appearances of residents, particularly those of women and girls.
While the militants have claimed the decrees are only recommendations, Taliban religious police have enforced the new laws, sometimes violently, in many areas.
Many Afghans have voiced their anger at the Taliban’s religious policing, saying it is a tool for humiliating citizens and controlling every aspect of their lives.
For Afghans, the decrees are reminiscent of the draconian rules the Taliban imposed during its brutal rule from 1996 to 2001. The Taliban forced men to pray and grow beards and women to cover from head to toe. They beat, maimed, or executed anyone who contravened their draconian laws.
In the 1990s, the feared Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was responsible for enforcing the Taliban’s morality laws, including its strict dress code and gender segregation in society. The ministry’s dreaded police were notorious for publicly beating offenders, including women.
Obaidullah Baheer, a Kabul-based academic, said by forcing its own interpretation of Shari’a law upon Afghans, the Taliban is “locking out the population from decision-making” and exposing its “tyrannical tendencies.”
Baheer said the Taliban views “any challenge to [its] policies as a challenge to the faith itself.”
Last month, the Taliban ordered shop owners in the western city of Herat to cut off the heads of mannequins, insisting they were un-Islamic.
The order angered local shopkeepers, who are already reeling from an economic crisis triggered by the Taliban takeover and the sudden halt in international assistance.
“These mannequins will be ruined if I am forced to behead them,” Mohammad Irshad, who owns three retail stores in Herat, told Radio Azadi. “It will negatively impact all our customers — men, women, and children. They will lose their appetite [for shopping].”
Abdul Wadud Faizada, the head of Herat’s Chamber of Commerce, said the “heads of mannequins should be covered and not destroyed.” The Taliban has said that did not go far enough.
“Our traders will suffer financially,” Faizada told Radio Azadi, noting that each mannequin typically costs between $70 and $100.
Some shopkeepers appeared to be already complying with the orders by sawing off the heads of shop dummies.
Shaikh Azizur Rahman, the head of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Herat Province, said mannequins were “idols and thus are forbidden.”
Under Islam, idolatry is a sin, and the worship of idols is banned.
“If their heads are removed, they won’t appear as idols,” Rahman told Radio Azadi. “Thus, Islamic laws against idolatry won’t apply to them.”
But Mohammad Mohiq, an Islamic scholar, said the Taliban’s interpretation was incorrect. Dolls, he told Radio Azadi, were in “no way related to the idea or concept of an idol.”
In late December, the Taliban announced that women seeking to travel more than 72 kilometers should be refused transport unless they were accompanied by a close male relative.
The advisory distributed by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice also directed all vehicle drivers to refrain from playing music in their cars and not to pick up female passengers who did not wear an Islamic hijab covering their hair.
Since then, Taliban religious police have erected checkpoints across Kabul to inspect whether taxi drivers were complying with the orders.
“When we were stopped at one checkpoint, Taliban fighters said that women should observe strict hijab so that only their eyes are visible,” a female doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Radio Azadi. She added that the militants also told her not to travel without a male chaperone.
The Taliban imposed the wearing of all-encompassing burqas in the 1990s. This time, the militants have not formally reintroduced the rule.
Last week, the Taliban also shut down all public bathhouses for women in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. Such facilities are considered crucial because many Afghans do not have access to heating or electricity at home.
Rabia, a woman in Mazar-e Sharif who did not reveal her real name, said the Taliban was directing all its resources into controlling the lives of citizens rather than addressing the myriad of problems facing the country, including a freefalling economy and a devastating humanitarian crisis.
The Taliban “needs to pay attention to many more important issues we are grappling with,” she said.
Tamana Siddiqi, a women’s rights activist in Mazar-e Sharif, criticized the Taliban’s closure of public bathhouses for women.
“People are dealing with growing economic pains, which means that not everyone can afford a hot bath inside their house,” she told Radio Azadi.
The new rules further infringe on the rights of women in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover. The militants have excluded women from their interim government. They have also banned secondary school education for many girls and ordered the vast majority of women not to return to work.
Taliban officials appeared to disagree over the closures of the bathhouses.
Sardar Mohammad Haidari, head of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in the northern province of Balkh, announced last week that all female bathhouses had been shut in Mazar-e Sharif, the provincial capital.
But Mohammad Sadiq Akif, a spokesman for the ministry, said no order had been issued from Kabul.
There are signs that disagreement over moral policing is splitting the Taliban.
Nun Asia, a pro-Taliban website, removed an op-ed calling for the Taliban to scrap the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The article said the ministry was harmful to the reputation of the regime because it infringed on people’s privacy and encouraged the Taliban to spy on people.
Beards And Prayers For Men
Men face new regulations, too, as the Taliban’s religious police have instructed them to grow beards.
The militants claim maintaining a long beard is an essential element of Sunnah — an Islamic concept that requires Muslims to follow the practices of the Prophet Muhammad.
Akif, the Taliban spokesman, has claimed the group was not forcing men to grow beards.
“Our fighters cannot enforce this,” he told Radio Azadi. “They can only advise people.”
Hakmatullah, a resident of the southern province of Uruzgan, said the Taliban should not “interfere in such issues.”
“Ultimately, [each individual] will be accountable and have to bear the guilt or reap the rewards for their actions before God,” he told Radio Azadi.
In a decree issued in late September, the Taliban banned the shaving of beards and trimming of hair in Uruzgan. Violations can result in severe punishment, while barbers who were directly ordered to halt the practice are now struggling to make ends meet.
In some areas of Afghanistan, the Taliban has made it mandatory for all men to attend congregational prayers at mosques.
In parts of Kabul and the northern province of Takhar, the Taliban has fined residents who did not show up for prayers. Repeat offenders have faced arrest or beatings, locals said.
A Kabul resident told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi that officials from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice recently announced the new rules at the Abu Hanifa Mosque in central Kabul.
“They said absence will first be fined,” said the resident, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of Taliban retribution. “Then [a repeat offender] will be punished.”
The resident said the Taliban had ordered clerics at mosques in the capital to take a roll call and report those who failed to turn up.
In Takhar’s Rustaq district, Taliban fighters recently beat up two men who failed to attend prayers, locals said.
“In the Rustaq district, almost all mosques are open for worshipers, and those who do not attend prayers are fined and beaten,” said Sultan, a local resident who did not want to reveal his full name.