The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, morality police roamed the streets, implementing the group’s austere interpretation of Islamic law — with harsh restrictions on women, strictly enforced prayer times and even bans on kite-flying and chess.
Nearly 20 years later, the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is back.
Following its return to power last month, the Taliban this week formed an interim government, announcing a slate of provisional ministers, all male and most from the Taliban’s old guard. Among them: a little known cleric called Mohamad Khalid, named to lead the restored department.
In an English-language list of new appointees distributed by the Taliban, the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was the only name not translated.
A body under the previous government, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, was not included at all, apparently having been disbanded. Protesters across major cities this week called on the militants to give women seats in government and to run the country with less repression than the last time around.
In Kabul, some people expressed fears that the return of the ministry meant that the Taliban would not seek to change.
“People have stopped listening to loud music in public … fearing the past experiences from when the Taliban last ruled,” said Gul, a Kabul resident who gave only his first name due to safety concerns. “I personally didn’t see any forced prayers. But there is fear in everyone’s minds.”
A Taliban spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the ministry or its mandate. On Wednesday, the Taliban’s Interior Ministry announced that protests were discouraged “for the time being.”
While the Taliban were in power from 1996 until 2001, the ministry enforced a severe interpretation of Islamic law.
It was disbanded by then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and replaced by the Ministry for Hajj and Religious Affairs. Karzai’s Cabinet approved a less powerful Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Discouragement of Vice in 2006 amid pressure from conservatives.
Religious policing predated Taliban rule. The government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who served as president between 1992 and 1996, created the vice and virtue ministry. But under the Taliban its role expanded. Human Rights Watch later called the institution a “notorious symbol of arbitrary abuses.”
For ordinary people, the ministry was the face of the regime, said Robert Crews, a historian of Afghanistan at Stanford University. “It is the institution that most Afghans were likely to encounter, and it is one that the leadership prioritized above all others.”
Accounts from the time detail forces patrolling the streets, shutting down shops and markets at prayer time. They beat people caught listening to music and frowned upon dancing, kite-flying and American-style haircuts.
Squads of the ministry’s morality police punished those who disobeyed modesty codes, with beards too thin or ankles that showed. They banished girls from school and women from the workplace and the public eye. A woman could not venture outside without a male guardian.
With these memories in mind, many Afghans remain skeptical of promises from the Islamist fighters that they have changed.
Two Taliban members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said the minister appointed to run the restored government body, Khalid, was a cleric well-versed in religious law.
“The ministry will have their own specific officials, but not police or soldiers,” one of the two told The Washington Post from Kabul.
“The ministry has not started working yet. Its duty will be to preach virtues and teachings of Islam, and prevent people from vice [and] unlawful acts,” he said. “It is an important ministry.”
The second member said he did not expect the Taliban to use force to apply guidelines in the same way as before.
While several residents of the Afghan capital said they had not encountered the militants enforcing strict regulations, they said people had changed their behavior in anticipation.
A woman who works for a private company said she had just gone back to work after spending nearly two weeks hiding at home.
“For the last three days, no one stopped me,” she said. “I am still moving in the streets, filled with nervousness that they might ask me at any time.”
The Taliban have put out mixed messages on whether women can return to work. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid has said that there would be “no discrimination against women,” but added, “of course, within the frameworks we have.”
Crews said that if the ministry tried to return to the past, it would probably face conflict in an Afghanistan that had changed much over two decades.
“There’s no reason to expect anything different this time from the Taliban, except that they seem to be surprised by how different Afghan society has become,” Crews said, adding that he “sees the puzzlement on the faces of Taliban fighters when in recent days they’ve encountered female protesters who do not back down, even at gunpoint.”