Human Rights Watch, July 17, 2006

Afghanistan: Vice and Virtue Department Could Return

President Hamid Karzai's cabinet has approved the proposal to reestablish the department

(New York, July 18, 2006) - A proposal to reestablish the Department forthe Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice ( glossary.html#amro ) in Afghanistan raisesserious concerns about potential abuse of the rights of women andvulnerable groups, Human Rights Watch said today.

A UN human rights investigator called for the dismantling of the ruling Taliban's religious police because of systematic discrimination against women in Afghanistan. Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN Special Rapporteur for violence against women, said on return from Afghanistan.

She says "the ministry of vice and virtue is the most misogynist department in the whole world".
AFP, September 13, 1999

President Hamid Karzai's cabinet has approved the proposal to reestablishthe department, and it will go to Afghanistan's parliament when itreconvenes later this summer. It is not clear what the department'senforcement power would be. Nematullah Shahrani, the minister of Hajand religious affairs, who would oversee the department, has stated that itwould focus on alcohol, drugs, crime and corruption. Afghanistan'scriminal laws already address these issues.

"Afghan women and girls face increasing insecurity, and it's moreimportant for the government to address how to improve their access topublic life rather than limit it further," said Zama Coursen-Neff, seniorresearcher for Human Rights Watch. "Reinstatement of this controversialdepartment risks moving the discussion away from the vital security andhuman rights problems now engulfing the country."

In a recently released report, "Lesson in Terror: Attacks on Education inAfghanistan," Human Rights Watch identified the lack of access toeducation, especially for girls, as jeopardizing the country's futuredevelopment and security. Human Rights Watch pointed out that theproposed vice and virtue department does not address the real problems ofincreasing insecurity in the south and southeast, particularly attacks onschools, teachers and students that are preventing children from attendingschool.

"The proposed vice and virtue department's vague standards for upholdingmorality could be used to silence critical voices, and further limit women'sand girls' access to work, health care and education," Coursen-Neff said.

"Most Afghans are against this.... the warlords, the conservatives and the jihadis want to show how strong they are," said Malalai Joya ( ), 27, a female parliamentarian from the province of Farah. Although she has faced death threats, Ms. Joya has repeatedly spoken out against corruption and warlords.

"Our first priority is peace and stability and improving the economy and reconstruction of Afghanistan, not to introduce a vice-and-virtue department to force people to go to the mosque," she added.
The Globe and Mail, July 28, 2006

A female member of parliament told Human Rights Watch that theproposal was "a symbolic decision from the government but I'm worriedabout it, maybe as always there will be some extremist violence againstfreedom of speech on women's issues. The only hope is the Parliament."

Under the Taliban, the vice and virtue department became a notorioussymbol of arbitrary abuses, particularly against Afghan women and girls.The department ruthlessly enforced restrictions on women and menthrough public beatings and imprisonment. The department beat womenpublicly for, among other things, wearing socks that were not sufficientlyopaque; showing their wrists, hands, or ankles; and not being accompaniedby a close male relative. They stopped women from educating girls inhome-based schools, working, and begging. They also beat men fortrimming their beards.

President Karzai came under pressure from conservative political figurestwo months ago to reestablish the department in order to counter anti-Western propaganda by opposition groups. The president then appointed apanel with representatives from the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Hajand Religious Affairs, and the Supreme Court, which drafted a proposaland presented it to the cabinet. The cabinet approved the draft and plans tosubmit it for parliamentary approval when the Afghan National Assemblyreconvenes later this summer.

Human Rights Watch called on the international community to make cleara commitment to Afghanistan's long-term security and reconstruction, andto avoid a return to repressive past practices.

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