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Rights Group Says Taliban Imposing Harsher 'Vice' Rules Than Publicly Announced

Afghan women protest against the Taliban's restrictions on their rights in Kabul on October 21.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Taliban officials in Afghanistan's provinces are imposing even stricter rules than those announced by the group's leaders in Kabul, while often ignoring the meager rights protections they themselves had set out.

The Taliban last year issued the By-Law of the Commission for Preaching and Guidance, Recruitment and Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice and came up with a revised version of the manual in February as it was extending its control over larger areas of Afghanistan, HRW said in a statement on October 29.

The Taliban’s Vice and Virtue Ministry has used the bylaw in a number of provinces since the Taliban took over Kabul in August.

The New York-based HRW said the provisions of the manual are in stark contrast with the Taliban's attempts to present a more moderate and rights-friendly image to the outside world as it seeks to gain recognition and much-needed aid.

“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 HRW. “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 Vice and Virtue Ministry, which replaced the Western-backed government's Women's Affairs Ministry and took over its building after the militant group seized Kabul, became notorious for its abuses, particularly against women and girls, during the previous Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001.

HRW says the manual mostly contains rules against "vice" but also sets out guidelines for the Afghan population, including harsh restrictions on the conduct of women and girls, instructing religious figures 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.'"

The text also sets out restrictions and prohibitions on personal liberties, including sex outside marriage, adultery, homosexual relations, and "immorality and vice," HRW said, adding that during the Taliban's previous reign "there were reports that they executed some men found to have engaged in same-sex relations."

The manual also discourages contacts with people of different religions, including helping "infidels."

It prohibits holding parties or listening to music that is audible outside a residence and bars cinemas, gambling, and the “inappropriate use of tape cassettes, satellite antennas, computer and mobile [phones].” Such prohibitions, which led to the destruction in public of audio and video tapes, were strictly enforced during the group's previous period in power from 1996 to 2001.

The text also contains some rules regarding the protection of human rights which, if complied with, appear aimed at reining in Taliban abuses. Taliban fighters are instructed not to kidnap people for ransom and not to maim people, enter their homes, or destroy their property.

Despite passages saying all should respect the rights of women, including the right not to be forced into marriage and the right of women and girls not to be harassed as they collect water or attend school, HRW and other groups "have documented widespread harassment of women and adolescent girls on the streets by Taliban members," HRW said.

The rights group also notes that although Taliban members are banned from recruiting child soldiers, the UN has verified "hundreds of individual cases in recent years in which the Taliban have recruited and used children, including a sharp spike in 2020."

“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,” the statement concludes.

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