“These people are fine,” he told the driver as he stepped onto the road. “But if another woman isn’t wearing the right hijab, don’t let her on!” he barked, waving the bus away.
Under orders from the Ministry to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue, Obeid has stepped up patrols since the decree earlier this month requiring all Afghan women to cover themselves from head to toe, including their face. But he described his mandate as much broader than enforcing the dress code.
“The people of Kabul are full of all kinds of corruption after the last 20 years, so now it’s up to us to clean them all,” he said.
More than nine months after Taliban rule, the Ministry of Vice and Virtue is expanding its reach to all aspects of Afghan society. Women have been the target of the ministry’s new laws, but on patrol its staff are enforcing gender segregation, responding to allegations of bribery and demanding that men pray regularly.
“In the beginning we hoped the Taliban would be gentler, but now my home is the only safe place for me,” said Negina Lali, 22, a university student who was recently expelled from class for not being fully dressed in black .
Lali has put away her brightly colored scarves, but even as she conforms to the Taliban’s new dress code, her parents are afraid she’ll go out.
“My mother remembers the previous Taliban government, so she is very afraid for me. She tells me stories from that time more and more often,” she says.
When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s, one of their most feared institutions was the Ministry of Vice and Virtue.
As a young woman, Lali’s mother said that she was beaten on the street by Ministry enforcers for forgetting to wear socks. Another time she was flogged in front of her young children when the scarf covering her head and face was blown away by a gust of wind.
“All of this is to wipe out women,” Lali said. “They don’t want to see us outside at all. I just expect the situation to get worse.”
Days after ruling women must cover up in public, the Department of Vice and Virtue issued another regulation requiring women to cover their faces on television as well.
TV news in Kabul protested, but during a meeting shortly after the announcement, a ministry team ended the debate before it could begin.
“The door is closed,” the team said, according to Khpolwak Sapai, director of ToloNews, Afghanistan’s largest independent news network, who was present at the meeting. Sapai has been in regular contact with the Ministry of Vice and Virtue for months about what he is allowed to broadcast.
“In the beginning it was like we were having normal conversations,” Sapai said, referring to the first time he was called out to discuss a ban on female actors in television dramas. “But with each order they have become stricter. We used to see a way forward, but after this last decision, I can’t imagine that anymore.”
Khatera Ahmadi, a news anchor at ToloNews, said she had no choice but to comply with the ruling. On air, she now wears a black scarf that covers her head and face below the eyes.
“I don’t care if I have to cover my face, our voice is the most important thing,” said the 26-year-old. “My goal is to raise the voices of millions of Afghan women. But I’m worried that the next step will be to completely ban us from coming to work.”
Mohammad Sadiq Akif, spokesman for the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, insists that restrictions on women’s rights and public life are for the common good.
“Hijab enforcement is an important part of cleansing a society. When women wear the right hijab, it prevents bad behavior from others,” he said, claiming that the way Afghan women dressed in cities like Kabul before the Taliban takeover encouraged male sexual harassment.
“It’s not a violation of women’s rights, it gives women more freedom,” he said.
Akif estimates that since the head-to-toe covering ruling, two dozen families have been summoned to the ministry because their female relatives had broken the dress code. In all cases, he said, male relatives agreed to enforce the verdict.
Akif dismissed international outrage at the Taliban’s treatment of women.
“No other country should interfere in our internal affairs,” he said. “The world must respect Afghanistan’s decision.”
During another Vices and Virtues patrol, a team stopped at a bazaar. They went from store to store asking shopkeepers if they took breaks to pray and if they had seen corruption, and they warned against ministering to women who are not fully insured.
“Why are you asking about these things?” asked a man stepping out of the crowd. “The government should focus on other issues like rehabilitating the economy and creating jobs,” he said, identifying himself as Abdul Ahad, a 24-year-old doctor.
The team told him to raise his concerns with the Department of Labor or other relevant government agencies.
“But you’re the only government people I see, nobody else comes here,” he said as the team walked away.
An amusement park owner in Kabul made a similar observation about the growing reach of the vice and virtue teams.
“They’re everywhere. In every part of our lives and in every part of the country,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Teams visit his park regularly, and he blames them for the drop in attendance. He says gender segregation makes it almost impossible for a family to visit together.
“If we just watch the news, we hear more about the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue than any other ministry. It seems they are responsible for everything important,” he said.
Lali, the student, feels her life shrinking with each new restriction.
“It’s not just about clothes, they take away our freedom to make our own choices,” she said. “It’s like they don’t accept women as people.”
But the ministry has repeatedly argued that it is simply implementing Islamic law.
“The criticism in the media is just propaganda,” Obeid said as his team ended the day with an ice stop. He’s been on hundreds of patrols in Kabul, he said, and “no woman has ever told me we’re taking away their rights.”
When pressed, he snapped.
“We are doing God’s mission. It doesn’t matter what women say they want.”