Afghanistan's notorious Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which was set up by the Taliban to enforce bans on women doing anything from working to wearing nail varnish or laughing out loud, is to be recreated by the Government in Kabul.
The decision has provoked an outcry among women and human rights activists who fear a return to the days when religious police patrolled the streets, beating or arresting any woman who was not properly covered by a burka or accompanied by a male relative.
re-establish the department, and the measure will go to Afghanistan's parliament when it reconvenes. The conservative complexion of the assembly makes it likely to be passed.
A British soldier from the 16 Air Assault Brigade walks past three women wearing burkas during a foot patrol in Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan's Helmand province, May 2006.(AFP/File/John D McHugh)
"When we talk of 'vice and virtue' ... the one introduced by the Taliban comes to our minds. But it won't be like that," insisted Mohammad Karim Rahimi, a spokesman for the president. "It
"This is a very bad idea at a bad time," said Sam Zia-Zarifi, the Asia research director of Human Rights Watch. "We're close to the edge in Afghanistan. It really could all go wrong and it is alarming that the United Nations and Western governments are not speaking out on this issue."
President Hamid Karzai's cabinet has approved the proposal to will be an organisation which will work on promoting morality in society as it exists in any other Islamic country."
Nematullah Shahrani, the religious affairs minister who will oversee the department, claims it will focus on alcohol, drugs, crime and corruption. But critics say that Afghanistan's criminal laws already address these issues and claim that once the department has been re-established, it will be easy to misuse.
"We are worried that there are no clear terms of reference for this body," said Nader Nadery, of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "It will remind people of the Taliban.
"They haven't even bothered to change the name," said Malalai Joya, a courageous female MP whose outspokenness means she has to travel with bodyguards and move every day because of threats to her life.
Joya, 27, was physically attacked in parliament in May after she criticised warlords.
"The situation for women in Afghanistan has not improved," she said. "People in the outside world say Afghan women don't have to wear burkas any more and yes, it's true that in some provinces like Kabul, Jalalabad and Herat, women can go outside without a burka.
"They can go and work in offices, and we have 68 women MPs. But more and more women are wearing burkas because of the lack of security. Look at the high rate of suicide among our women -- Afghan women prefer to die than live. "What we have in power under the mask of democracy are the brothers of Taliban -- fundamentalists, warlords and drug lords."
Afghan women recall with horror the department's religious police who ruthlessly enforced religious restrictions through public beatings and imprisonment under Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001.
Women were publicly beaten for wearing white shoes or heels that clicked, using lipstick or going outside unaccompanied by a close male relative.
The department banned women from educating their daughters in home-based schools as well as working or begging, leaving thousands of widows with no means of supporting their families. They also beat men for trimming their beards, which had to be at least the length of a fist.
The repression of women was often cited in the West as a reason to intervene and oust the Taliban. Both the US First Lady and the wife of the British Prime Minister made passionate speeches on the subject.
Laura Bush took over her husband's weekly radio address in November 2001 to boast that "because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment".
Yet almost five years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghan women are far from achieving these aims. There have already been more attacks in the first half of this year than all of last year and according to a UN official, barely a day goes by without a school being burnt or teacher killed.
© The Australian