Navigating Kabul Under the Taliban’s Morality Police

This weekend, when Zahra, 25, approached a taxi driver in downtown Kabul to visit a hospital, the driver refused to transport her, for fear of being punished by the Taliban’s morality police. She was not covered up in a burqa, nor was she accompanied by a mahram, a male chaperon required by the Taliban. Zahra later negotiated her way with another cab driver who took the risk to give her a ride.

“The Taliban’s morality police appear anywhere,” she told KabulNow. “People are afraid of them. Sometimes taxi drivers have been beaten up, humiliated, and fined for transporting women without burqa. So, fewer women are traveling alone nowadays.”

For Zahra’s mother, Anisa, 53, these restrictions have brought eerie feelings of the first time the Taliban ruled in the late 1990s. Back then, the group denied women and girls their fundamental human rights, effectively rendering them invisible in public life.  

“Women were indoor slaves,” Anisa recalled appalling memories of her life in late 1999 in Kabul when she was months pregnant with her younger son, living in a rented house. “If we went outside, we had to cover our full body in a burqa, accompanied by a male relative. Women were stoned to death. We had no freedom.”

More than two years after their return to power, the Taliban have once again virtually erased women and girls from public life despite their promises of “respecting women’s rights.” The group’s supreme leader, who holds the ultimate decision-making power, has issued more than 50 draconian decrees and edicts to limit women’s freedom and participation in public life, barring their right to education and work and severely curbing their mobility, attire, access to social spaces such as parks or gyms.

“The Taliban are no less strict than their first rule,” Anisa said, adding “Only time has changed. Women and girls are more educated now, more aware of their rights and therefore resist through various means, mostly protests, despite crackdowns and waves of arrests, torture, and abuses by the Taliban forces.”

In Kabul, hundreds of women and girls staged several protests, demanding their rights, but they were suppressed as Taliban gunmen fired into the air to disperse demonstrators. Zahra, who participated in a few street protests in Kabul last year, stressed the role of social media and technology in the face of Taliban oppressing the dissent. “We get our concerns and grievances out to the world through social media platforms, and that is effective,” she said, “If it was otherwise, the Taliban would have detained, tortured, and publicly executed women on an unimaginable scale. Probably, in a more brutal manner than they did during the first time in power.”

The main task of enforcing the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islamic religious law, the  Sharia, lies within the group’s Ministry for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice, which controls the morality police.

The Ministry is housed in the compound used in the previous government by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs, a symbol of hope for women’s rights in a conservative and patriarchal society. Today, the officials of the vice and virtue ministry—dominated by male clerics and preachers—deploy morality police squads onto the streets to enforce the Taliban’s Sharia law. It has dismantled women’s rights which were enshrined in the former constitution in 2004, including the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which Afghanistan adopted in 2009.

“Although discrimination and violence against women and girls persisted before the Taliban takeover, we were at least allowed to pursue higher education,” said Zahra, who has missed two semesters of her undergraduate studies at a private university in Kabul due to the Taliban ban. “We were allowed to work outside, meet friends in cafes, and enjoy basic freedoms. But, all these have been reversed.”

Taliban’s morality police act according to a pocket handbook of extreme and forceful rules, punishing anyone who tries to defy them. The manual enforces harsh and abusive curbs on personal and social autonomy and liberties, which, among other things, orders women to wear hijab and avoid contacting non-mahram, and prohibits adultery and same-sex relations punishable by death. It also forbids people from assisting or befriending “infidels”, bars partying or listening to music, or “inappropriately” using mobile or computers. The guideline says morality police could use force as an option when offenders were not educated in the first step or impelled to change their behavior.

The morality police have attempted to silence dissents, especially women protestors, and spread fear and distrust among the general public. Men also face humiliation, beating, detention, and other ill-treatment if they do not comply with edicts, such as growing long beards, or if they play or listen to music.

“The Taliban’s morality police randomly patrols across the city,” Ahmadi [alias], a resident of Kabul, told KabulNow. “I have witnessed a few instances when they have vigorously treated people, such as beating or slapping.”

Ahmadi said that Kabul is no longer the bustling and vibrant city it used to be when girls and boys mingled in cafes and restaurants before the Taliban rule. Or when girls roamed around the city alone. “Today, girls less frequently venture outside, and, when they do, they are cautious to walk in a group, with a male companion, or member of family and relative.”

Mawlawi Mohammad Shebani, a senior Taliban official of the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, told the Guardian that the group’s morality police is structured as a network integrated into the group’s police force with links to mosques and religious schools. While the true strength of the morality police is unclear, it is estimated that hundreds of them have been stationed in Kabul as well as across other cities. In the first quarter of 2022 alone, defense, intelligence, policing, and vice and virtue encompassed the largest portion of the cash-strapped Taliban’s security ministries’ expenditure—$285.3 million which is 40.7% of the total budget.