SAN FRANCISCO - An Afghan government proposal to re-establish the notorious Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has raised concerns among U.S. human rights advocates.
Under the Taliban, the virtue and vice department enforced restrictions on women and men through public beatings and imprisonment.
Its agents "beat women publicly for wearing socks that were not sufficiently opaque; showing their wrists, hands or ankles; and not being accompanied by a close male relative," Zama Coursin-Neff, of New York-based Human Rights Watch, told OneWorld.
Behind the curtain : An Afghan beautician stands behind the curtain of her beauty parlour in downtown Kabul. Since the overthrow of the harsh Taliban regime which denied women most of common rights including the right to attend school, many beauty parlors have emerged in the post-Taliban Kabul. (AFP/Farzana Wahidy)
"They also stopped women from educating girls in home-based schools, working, and begging. They beat men for trimming their beards," she added.
When the U.S. government overthrew the Taliban in 2001, the virtue department was scrapped. Now the cabinet of President Hamid Karzai is asking the country's elected parliament to re-instate the religion-based police force.
It remains unclear what the department's powers would be. Nematullah Shahrani, the minister of Haj and religious offices, has said it would focus on alcohol, drugs, crime, and corruption.
"The job of the department will be to tell people what is allowable and what is forbidden in Islam," Shahrani told Belfast's Telegraph newspaper. "In practical terms it will be quite different from Taliban times. We will preach...through radio, television, and special gatherings."
But human rights activists say offenses like drugs and corruption are already addressed by Afghanistan's criminal laws. They see no reason for creating a virtue and vice department except to implement fundamentalist edicts.
While outraged, women's rights activists are hardly surprised by the development.
"The vice and virtue department did not begin with the Taliban," noted Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the Los Angeles-based Afghan Women's Mission.
Instead, she said, fundamentalist policies began in the 1990s after U.S.-backed mujahadeen fighters ousted the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.
During the 1980s, the Reagan Administration backed Islamic fundamentalists to dislodge the Soviets. After the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the George W. Bush Administration dubbed many of these same warlords the "Northern Alliance" and used their military organizations to help oust the Taliban.
"If the fundamentalists who started this office are now back in power, it is not surprising that they should return to Afghanistan all the repressive measures they had once enforced," Kolhatkar added. "The Taliban did not invent any of these measures, they merely enforced them with more rigor."
One of the key backers of the plan to bring back the virtue and vice department, according to Human Rights Watch, is Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, who was implicated in widespread abductions and summary executions as well as pillage and the shelling of civilian areas when he controlled Kabul in the early 1990s.
His close ally, Fazl al-Shinwari, is now chief justice of Afghanistan's Supreme Court. According to Kolhatkar, he has appointed judges to lower courts who share his extreme beliefs. He refuses to appoint women to high court positions, has banned cable television in Afghanistan, and arrested journalists for blasphemy.
According to Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, there were at least 184 cases of self-immolation of women in the last year. During the same time period, 300 schools were set on fire and a number of teachers were killed. "This clearly indicates [the] insecurity level in the country, which has had intense impact on children's admission to school, especially girls," the body reported.
Human Rights Watch's Zama Coursin-Neff thinks Afghanistan's government would be better off putting its energies toward solving the many social and economic problems that have persisted following the fall of the Taliban.
She also faults governments in the U.S. and Europe for ignoring the country's reconstruction, noting that the Bush Administration has dedicated four times as many troops to Iraq as Afghanistan.
"The Taliban have been out of power for almost as long as they were in power," she noted. "But here we are five years later. Schools are being burned. Boys being raped on their way to school. Teachers being beheaded. There are no roads; no electricity."
Copyright © 2006 OneWorld.net.