YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Afghans Hope to Limit Vice

Alcohol, prostitutes and porn are now available in the Islamic country, causing a backlash. But few want a return to draconian Taliban ways.

October 01, 2006|Kim Barker | Chicago Tribune

KABUL, Afghanistan — Vice is almost as common as dust here. Most shops sell Heineken to Afghans, even though alcohol is illegal. In one theater, men use their camera phones to record sultry dance scenes from "Lust," an Indian movie. Chinese prostitutes offer sex to foreign contractors -- and some Afghans.

But the party could be ending. The government is pushing to stop the sale of liquor and may resurrect the department to promote virtue and get rid of vice, the office so hated under the Taliban.

"This will stop these violations in our society," said Solaiman Hamed, the deputy minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs, who would oversee the vice and virtue department. "And the sooner the better."

Since the fall of the Taliban almost five years ago, the country has struggled to balance its conservative traditions and Islam with the influx of foreign aid workers and Western culture. Tribal elders and top religious figures have pressured the government to crack down on perceived un-Islamic behavior.

It's a crucial time now; a renewed Taliban and other insurgent groups are recruiting fighters partly by portraying the government as an immoral Western puppet.

The government has been listening. Police have deported foreign prostitutes and seized liquor from shops. The top customs officer has announced plans to ban the sale of alcohol to most foreigners. And some officials have announced plans to resurrect the controversial vice and virtue department.

Many Islamic states have similar offices, but in Afghanistan, the idea evokes images of the Taliban rule. From 1996 to 2001, the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was known for beating women who walked alone and for forcing men to grow long beards and cut their hair.

Any new vice department would not be like the religious police under the Taliban, officials say. They describe a kinder, gentler department that would coordinate Friday prayers, tell people to visit the sick, and explain why drinking goes against Islam. It would prohibit alcohol in restaurants and shops, but there would be no police with whips, Hamed said. Instead, virtue and vice workers would use gentle persuasion, officials said.

"If we see women with short skirts or showing any part of their bodies or not wearing a head scarf, we will kindly advise them to obey the rules of an Islamic culture," said Hamed. He said there was a similar agency decades before the Taliban era.

Human rights activists, Western aid workers and liberal Afghans said such advice is worrisome. A new department is not the answer to Afghanistan's issues, they said, but a convenient way to appease conservatives.

Many Afghans in Kabul no longer wear traditional clothing. Many women wear jeans. A few have stopped covering their hair. Many men drink beer, watch Bollywood movies and shave.

And a few, such as Sanjar Qiam, 25, have fully embraced the West. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt, with long hair and a visible tattoo., Qiam said he did not understand the logic of a new vice and virtue department.

"That sucks," he said. "It's a bad idea. They've got to stop mixing business, government and religion."

Since the fall of the Taliban, the government has unofficially permitted a two-tier society -- one for Afghans, another for Westerners. Foreigners showing passports were allowed to buy alcohol at two stores, although the Afghan constitution prohibits alcohol. Restaurants were allowed to serve alcohol to foreigners, but not Afghans. Brothels with Chinese and Eastern European women were ignored, as long as they did not allow Afghans. TV stations, movie theaters and government officials were supposed to censor sexy scenes.

Afghans described the system as "one roof, with two kinds of weather." Predictably, it has not worked. Some Afghans have foreign passports, and alcohol has seeped into the local market.

Several TV stations played the movies and music videos they wanted. Plenty of steamy scenes got past government censors. And satellite TV became easily available; one hotel in Kandahar offers dozens of pornographic channels.

The proposed vice and virtue department is only one example of how the government is trying to push back. The Tourism Ministry is asking restaurants to stop selling alcohol to Afghans or any Muslim. In addition to seizing alcohol from local markets, police recently started making shopkeepers sign pledges not to sell it.

In August, the customs office decided that the two major stores that have sold alcohol to foreigners can sell only to those affiliated with international troops, a small number here. Diplomats may buy liquor only on their embassy grounds.

"No more," said Abdul Jalil Jumriany, the director general of customs in the Ministry of Finance. "The thing is, it's all affecting the country of Afghanistan. If you ask any of the Afghans, they'll tell you all of our culture is now gone."

Many Afghans said they would welcome a vice and virtue department as long as it enforced true Islam, not the harsh code of the Taliban's religious police. Women in gauzy head scarves at a modern coffee shop said they wanted the new department. So did two men as they watched "Lust."

"If you go to a market now, you will see women like this, without a head scarf," said Mosanef Shah, 24, as he pointed at a bikini-clad Indian woman on the screen. "If you take the scarf off the head of a woman, you take her dignity. Then she'll be able to do anything."

Los Angeles Times Articles