Afghanistan's "vice and virtue" police

A repressive Taliban institution is poised to return, with potentially dire consequences for women's rights.

Published September 8, 2006 7:00PM (EDT)

For every heartening sign of progress in the rebuilding of Afghanistan (the reopening of Kabul University, the dramatic increase in the number of Afghan kids in school) there's also ample evidence of the country's continuing problems (violence and suicide bombings on the rise, insufficient funds for rebuilding and the abuse of child brides). And women's rights are often treated as a measure of the country's progress. Which is why this week's news that Afghanistan may reinstate the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice -- a much-feared Taliban institution that frequently punished women -- is so distressing.

According to Reuters Alertnet, the so-called vice and virtue police "enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law and beat women for 'offenses' such as showing their wrists or ankles, wearing nail varnish or going outside their home without a male relative. Women were also stopped from attending school, working, or being seen by a male physician, while women doctors and nurses were banned from working."

The wire service notes that the vice squad wasn't just bad news for women; Afghan men could also be beaten for trimming their beards.

The country's Parliament is widely expected to approve the proposal; proponents of the plan claim that the revived department will serve a different function than the morals police of old, with a new focus on drug and alcohol prevention. Still, the Afghan Women's Network is protesting the move, asking the government not to backslide on women's rights. "We are demanding a firm and binding commitment from our government that this department, should it become a reality, make an active, substantial and public commitment to the continued freedom and development of the women in Afghanistan," the organization said in a statement. Let's hope some of the people in power are listening.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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