Middle East

No music, no Western-style haircuts: UN report details life in Afghanistan under Taliban’s moral enforcers

By Lex Harvey, CNN

CNN  — 

Listening to music, smoking hookah, and getting a Western-style haircut are all punishable acts under the suffocating rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to a new UN report.

The Taliban’s so-called morality police have curtailed human rights – disproportionately targeting women and girls – creating a “climate of fear and intimidation,” said the report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) published Tuesday.

The Ministry of the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (MPVPV), established by the Taliban when it seized power in 2021, is charged with legislating and enforcing the Taliban’s strict interpretations of Islamic law.

Those interpretations include a ban on activities deemed to be “un-Islamic” including displaying images of humans and animals and celebrating Valentine’s Day. Moreover, the report said, the Taliban’s instructions are issued in a variety of formats – often only verbally – and are inconsistently and unpredictably enforced.

A Taliban fighter stands in front of a men's barber shop in Zaranj, the capital of Afghanistan's Nimroz province, on October 14, 2021.

When the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021 in a lightning takeover following the chaotic withdrawal of US-led troops after two decades of war, the radical Islamist group appeared keen to distance itself from its earlier period of rule in the 1990s, presenting itself as more moderate.

However, this report found many of the same rules of that era have been revived, despite the Taliban’s earlier pledge to honor women’s rights within the norms of “Islamic law.”

Between August 15, 2021, and March 31, 2024, the UN documented at least 1,033 instances where Taliban officers had used violence to enforce their rules.

“The de facto MPVPV reportedly has a broad mandate and various enforcement methods have been used, including verbal intimidation, arrests and detentions, ill treatment and public lashing,” said the report, which was compiled using public announcements and documented reports of human rights violations.

The Taliban’s violations against women and girls are so severe that one senior UN official recently said they could amount to “crimes against humanity.” This report details how the MPVPV is enforcing rules on the way women dress and access public places.

The Taliban has arbitrarily shuttered women-owned businesses, made it illegal for women to appear in movies, closed women’s beauty salons and restricted access to birth control, the UN report said.

Women in Afghanistan are not allowed to access parks, gyms and public baths – sometimes the only way to get hot water in the winter – and must be accompanied by a male guardian (a mahram) when traveling more than 78 kilometers (48.5 miles) from their homes, according to the report.

While women must wear a hijab, men must also follow rules about beard length and hairstyles.

In December 2023, the morality police closed 20 barbershops for one night after barbers allegedly shaved and trimmed beards, as well as Western-style haircuts, the report said. The Taliban denied claims two barbers were detained for two nights. The report said they were only released after promising not to give those haircuts again.

A Taliban fighter stands guard as women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 23, 2023.

UN says Taliban is legally obligated to protect human rights

Afghanistan is party to seven international human rights instruments and as a result is legally obliged to protect and promote the human rights of its citizens, the UN report pointed out.

These rules violate a slew of human rights, from the right to work and attain a living, to the rights of freedom of movement and expression, to sexual and reproductive rights, the report added.

In a statement, the Taliban called the UN’s criticism “unfounded” and said the report’s authors were “attempting to evaluate Afghanistan from a Western perspective, which is incorrect.”

An Afghan woman walks past beauty salons with defaced window decorations, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021.

“Afghanistan should be assessed as a Muslim society, where the vast majority of the population are Muslims who have made significant sacrifices for the establishment of a Sharia system,” the statement said.

However, reports from Afghanistan suggest the Taliban’s repressive control over women has led to a sharp rise in suicide attempts.

CNN interviewed a 16-year-old girl who drank battery acid to escape life under the Taliban, saying she was “overwhelmed by hopelessness” after spending months at home due to a ban on girls in secondary education.

Among the Taliban’s list of prohibitions, according to the report, is the public display of human and animal images, which it deems “un-Islamic.”

This law has resulted in the removal of advertising signage and the covering of shop mannequins, the report said. The UN reported some cases where NGOs were told to remove human images from materials meant to alert children or other people with limited literacy about the risk of unexploded artillery and other public health issues.

A Taliban spokesman addresses a press conference in Kabul on June 29, 2024.

Media is heavily restricted, and residents live in a surveillance state, the report added.

“People’s right to privacy is violated through searches for prohibited items in their phone or cars, having their attendance at mosques recorded, or being required to show proof of family relationship in public places.”

The Taliban met with top UN officials and global envoys in Qatar in June in a two-day conference that excluded Afghan women, sparking outcry from human rights groups.

In a press conference after the meeting, Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN’s under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, called the discussions “frank” and “useful,” and said that the “concerns and views of Afghan women and civil society were front and center.”

This was the third UN meeting about Afghanistan in Doha, but the first the Taliban has attended.

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