Agence France Presse (AFP), March 10, 2004

Taliban-style restrictions alive in west Afghanistan


Women are stopped from working, girls are prevented from being with men they are not closely related to and men working in government offices must wear a beard and never a neck-tie -- these are some of the restrictions in place in the western Afghan city of Herat.

One of the wealthiest and best educated provinces in Afghanistan, under the governorship of warlord Ismael Khan, Herat has also reverted to some of the more regressive elements previously enforced under the Taliban, according to rights activists.

"In Herat the atmosphere is a bit more closed and restrictive than in Kabul," says Abdul Azeem Akeed of the Herat office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

"None can say anything which is against the thinking of the community or against the administration because they can be arrested, they can be threatened, there may even be life risks for them."

Herat, one of the three most progressive Afghan cities along with Jalalabad in the east and northern Mazar-i-Sharif, with its educated population and professional class is considered a test case for rights development in Afghanistan as the country emerges from more than two decades of conflict.

Akeed says while the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban's feared Department of Vice and Virtue no longer exists, "people take it upon themselves to enforce the rules," and forced marriages are also common, he says.

This means that clothes store are not allowed to show the faces of female mannequins, women are prevented from working and girls as young as three must wear a headscarf.

"Men working for the government, whether military or not, have to have a beard. Wearing a tie is considered a sin, they say it's Christian," he adds.

These rules are not the will of the people, he says, but those of warlord Ismael Khan who has done much to rebuild Herat and foster economic development in the province.

"Ismael Khan says this is what the people want, this is not what the people want.

"In the beginning after the collapse of the Taliban people started to wear neck-ties, a number of men in the army started to shave their beards -- and they were beaten. People were scared after that."

In an interview with AFP last week, Khan denied that there was any intimidation of those opposed to his rule. "In Herat there is also opposition," he said.

The governor, who was jailed by the Taliban and fought against them after his escape from prison, said the media had exaggerated conditions in the province.

Akeed said women felt they would be attacked in the street if they did not wear the head-to-toe burqa worn by women all over Afghanistan.

On Monday, a young woman was arrested by intelligence police in Herat city while sitting with a young man in his car. The head of the intelligence police, Hajji Gul said the couple had been seen near the governor's house and only briefly detained.

"There is no freedom of speech in Herat," says Rafiq Shahir, who heads Herat's Professionals' Shura or council.

"In Kabul there is more freedom, society is a bit more sophisticated than in Herat. People have more rights in the capital than here."

Shahir says a wedding party was recently interrupted by police because music was heard. "After that incident people tried not to have parties like that, and if they have them, they are more secretive."

Herat's businessmen also confirmed that their work practices were being monitored by the provincial government.

One shopkeeper, who asked not to be named, said his shop was closed for several days because women were working there selling cosmetics and ladies clothing. The women were working in a part of the shop accessible only to other females but they were closed down on Ismael Khan's orders, he said.

"A provincial representative went directly to the women's side and pulled back the curtain and shouted at them: 'Get out of this store, you shouldn't work here,'" he told AFP.

When the man complained to the governor he was told there was no problem with women working with women and the shop was reopened. However, he no longer employs women.

Another shopkeeper told AFP that he had been threatened many times for having female mannequins in his shop window. He said he also previously had women working in his factory sewing the clothes but this was no longer allowed.

"They can beg on the streets but they are not allowed to work," he says.

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