Afghanistan: the Taliban’s manual of “vice” is abusive

(New York) – Taliban officials in Afghan provinces are using a manual that imposes tougher rules than the abusive policies announced by their leaders in Kabul. And the Taliban authorities often do not respect the rights protections set out in the manual of the Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue.

The Taliban issued the “Commission Regulations for the Preaching and Guidance, Recruitment and Spreading of Virtue, and the Prevention of Vice” in 2020, and a revised version in February 2021 when it controlled the Growth Zones from the country. The ministry has used it in several provinces since the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15.

“The Taliban have tried to reassure the world that they respect human rights, including the rights of women and girls,” said Heather Barr, associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “But the rules educating their officials are a patchwork of abusive policies enforcing gender and LGBT discrimination, and a severe crackdown on autonomy and freedom of expression.”

The Ministry of Vice and Virtue was included in the interim government that the Taliban announced on September 7, with a clergyman appointed minister. He took over the building of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which was removed. During the previous Taliban regime, from 1996 to 2001, the Ministry of Vice and Virtue became a notorious symbol of abuse, especially against women and girls.

It prohibited women from educating girls in homeschools, working and begging. He imposed draconian restrictions on women and men through beatings and public detention. Ministry officials publicly beat women for clothing deemed “immodest”; show their wrists, hands or ankles; and not be accompanied by a close male relative. Officials beat men to trim beards.

The manual is largely devoted to enforcing the rules against “vice,” but its final chapters set out guidelines for all Afghans and for members of the Taliban, including severe restrictions on the conduct of women and girls. He asks religious leaders to teach people which male family members can act as a mahram (a chaperone) for older women and girls and states that women “should be commanded to put on a veil when confronted with non-mahrams”. Another provision states: “Women will be prohibited from wearing the hijab and veil in public and against non-mahrams”, but adds that these mandates should be applied “in a simple and friendly manner”.

The manual also imposes undue restrictions on personal autonomy and other freedoms. It prohibits sex outside marriage – which the penal code adopted by the previous government also prohibited – as well as adultery, homosexual relations and “immorality and vice”. “Serious allegations” of adultery or homosexuality should be reported to the ministry’s district director for further action, presumably penalties. When the Taliban were previously in power, it was reported that they executed men suspected of having had same-sex relationships.

In the handbook, the Taliban discourage people from “helping, befriending … infidels” and asking religious leaders to advise men on how to grow beards. Those who do not pray or fast as required by religious obligations should be reported. It prohibits parties and listening to audible music outside a home, cinemas, gambling, and “the inappropriate use of audio cassettes, satellite dishes, computers and mobiles” .

The Taliban also tolerates abusive responses to the so-called “vice.” The manual sets out five steps for people to react to prohibited acts, starting with educating the person and moving on to guidance, then banning the vice in “an aggressive, angry and frightening way”, banning the action “physically” , and finally by reporting it to the district director for action.

Some provisions set out rules that would protect human rights and limit abuses by the Taliban. For example, Taliban fighters are instructed not to engage in kidnappings for ransom or “amputations such as gouging out people’s eyes, cutting off people’s ears and noses” and waiting for a court judgment. before punishing the prisoners. Several provisions prohibit the authorities from entering people’s homes and destroying their property.

Other provisions would also be positive steps, if Taliban officials complied. They prohibit harassing women and girls when they go to fetch water or go to school. Human Rights Watch and others documented the widespread harassment of women and adolescent girls in the streets by members of the Taliban who arbitrarily impose the obligation to be accompanied by a mahram and to wear clothing they deem sufficiently modest.

The manual states: “It will be commanded to the people [by the imams] treat their children equally. But on September 18, the Taliban ordered students and teachers to return to boys’ high schools but not to girls’ high schools, creating a de facto ban on girls’ secondary education. In the weeks that followed, some girls’ schools reopened in a few provinces, apparently in response to pressure from community members to want girls to study. But the majority of girls’ secondary schools across the country remain closed, with millions of girls deprived of education and falling behind in their studies every day.

The manual also says that everyone should respect women’s rights, including the right not to be forced into marriage. But the Taliban, by closing girls’ high schools and imposing severe new restrictions on women attending universities, have dramatically increased the risk of forced marriage. Research from around the world identifies the lack of access to education for girls as one of the main risk factors for child marriage. Another driver of child marriage is poverty: Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy has collapsed as donors withheld funds for reasons such as the Taliban closing girls’ high schools.

The manual also prohibits members of the Taliban from recruiting child soldiers. But the United Nations has verified hundreds of individual cases in recent years in which the Taliban has recruited and used children, including a sharp increase in 2020, and has noted that the real numbers are most likely much higher.

“The Taliban’s worldview and abusive practices have been relatively consistent, as this handbook demonstrates,” Barr said. “Countries that have spent the past 20 years promoting human rights in Afghanistan must negotiate with the Taliban to try to end the escalation of human rights violations, including against women and girls.

About Rachel Gooch

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