The Taliban shut down the women’s affairs ministry on Friday and replaced a sign of the women’s ministry in Afghanistan with one for the morality police, the virtue and vice ministry, which once enforced strict religious doctrines.
Videos circulated on social media showed women employees outside the ministry offices, urging the Taliban to let them return to work.
The virtue and vice ministry had been known for its rigid Sharia law interpretations, during the Taliban rule in the 1990s, with police being sent into areas to enforce their version of Islamic policies.
In the last 20 years Afghan women have fought for and gained a number of basic rights, but there are now fears that progress is being upended by the Taliban’s new all-male interim government.
The BBC’s chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet, in Kabul, says that while Taliban leaders have made promises that they understand Afghanistan has changed – and that so have they – there seems to be a growing mismatch between promises and policies.
Human rights groups have previously criticised the virtue and vice ministry for silencing dissent, violently enforcing restrictions on citizens – especially women and girls – and spreading fear and distrust throughout communities.
But Taliban members say the institution is important: “The main purpose is to serve Islam. Therefore, it is compulsory to have [a]Ministry of Vice and Virtue,” a Taliban member, Mohammad Yousuf, told the New York Post.
The full name of the ministry according to the new sign on the Kabul compound, is the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
It was already in existence before the Taliban first came to power, but it expanded during their rule between 1996 and 2001.
It became known for beating women who it perceived were dressed “immodestly”, or who were outside without a male guardian. Girls were not allowed to be educated past primary school – a measure the group has now reportedly reintroduced.
Entertainment like music and dancing was banned, and activities such as playing chess or flying a kite were prohibited. Prayer times were strictly enforced, men were made to grow beards, and Western-style haircuts were frowned upon.
Anyone found to have violated the rules was harshly punished – flogging, beatings, amputation and public execution were not uncommon.
Two Taliban members in Kabul told The Washington Post newspaper that they did not expect the Taliban to use force in the same way the group had in the past, and that its enforcers would not be police or soldiers.
The ministry was disbanded after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, although then-President Hamid Karzai re-established a similar but less powerful department in 2006 following pressure from conservatives.
At the time, Human Rights Watch called the ministry a “notorious symbol of arbitrary abuses”. (Source: BBC)