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Taliban fighters stand guard at the entrance to the former Ministry of Women Affairs, which the Taliban has replaced with the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which oversees the implementation of hardline Islamic rules in Afghanistan. © 2021 Oliver Weiken/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(New York) – Taliban officials in Afghanistan’s provinces are using a manual that imposes rules harsher than the abusive policies announced by their leaders in Kabul. And Taliban authorities often do not comply with the rights protections that the manual, from the Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue, sets out.

The Taliban issued the “By-Law of the Commission for Preaching and Guidance, Recruitment and Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” in 2020, and a revised version in February 2021 when it was controlling growing areas of the country. The ministry has used it in a number of provinces since the Taliban took over 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 women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “But the rules instructing their officials are a patchwork of abusive policies enforcing gender and LGBT discrimination, and harsh repression of autonomy and free expression.”

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

It barred women from educating girls in home-based schools, from working, and from begging. It enforced draconian restrictions on women and men through public beatings and detention. Ministry officials beat women publicly for dress deemed “immodest”; showing their wrists, hands, or ankles; and not being accompanied by a close male relative. The officials beat men for trimming their beards.

The manual is largely devoted to enforcing rules against “vice,” but its final chapters set out guidelines for all Afghans and for Taliban members, including tough restrictions on the conduct of women and girls. It instructs religious leaders to teach people about which male family members can act as a mahram (a chaperone) for women and older girls and states that women “shall be commanded to put on a veil when faced with non-mahrams.” Another provision states: “Women shall be prohibited from not wearing hijab and veil in public and against non-mahrams,” but adds that these mandates should be enforced in “an easy and kind way.”

The manual also imposes abusive restrictions on personal autonomy and other liberties. It prohibits sex outside of marriage – which the penal code adopted by the previous government also prohibited – along with adultery, same-sex relations, and “immorality and vice.” “Strong allegations” of adultery or homosexuality must be reported to the ministry’s district manager for further action, presumably punishment. When the Taliban were previously in power, they executed women and men for adultery and there were reports that they executed some men found to have engaged in same-sex relations.

In the manual, the Taliban discourages people from “helping, befriending…infidels” and instructs religious leaders to advise men on growing their beards. Those who fail to pray or fast as required by religious obligations are to be reported. It prohibits parties and listening to music audible outside a home, cinemas, gambling, and “inappropriate use of tape cassettes, dish antenna, computer and mobile.”

The Taliban also condone abusive responses to so-called “vice.” The manual sets out five stages for people to respond to prohibited acts, beginning with educating the person and graduating to guidance, then prohibiting the vice in “an aggressive, angry and scary manner,” prohibiting the action “physically,” and finally reporting it to the district manager for action.

Some provisions set out rules that would protect human rights and rein in Taliban abuses. For example, Taliban fighters are instructed not to engage in kidnapping for ransom or “amputation such as removing the eyes, cutting ears and noses of the people” and to await a court’s judgment before punishing prisoners. Several provisions ban authorities from entering people’s homes and from destroying their property.

Other provisions would also be positive steps, if Taliban officials complied with them. They prohibit harassing women and girls as they collect water or attend school. Human Rights Watch and others have documented widespread harassment of women and adolescent girls on the streets by Taliban members who arbitrarily enforce requirements to be accompanied by a mahram and to wear clothing they deem sufficiently modest.  

The manual states: “The people shall be commanded [by the imams] to treat their children equally.” But on September 18, the Taliban issued an order for students and teachers to return to boys’ secondary schools but not to girls’ secondary schools, creating a de facto ban on girls’ secondary education. In the weeks since, some girls’ schools have reopened in a few provinces, apparently in response to pressure from community members who want girls to study. But the majority of girls’ secondary schools across the country remain shuttered, with millions of girls deprived of education and falling further behind in their studies every day.

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

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

“The Taliban’s world view and abusive practices have been relatively consistent, as this manual demonstrates,” Barr said. “Countries that spent the last 20 years promoting human rights in Afghanistan need to negotiate with the Taliban to try to end worsening rights violations, including against women and girls.”

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