Afghan Women Wary Of Vice & Virtue

Afghan women wearing burqa shop in market, Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, 2002/9/1.
Women learning to work as skilled laborers alongside men would seem a perfect example of how Afghanistan has banished the Taliban mentality. But, as CBS News Correspondent Allen Pizzey reports, in a development Washington is watching closely, the Kabul government has re-instituted the department of vice and virtue to safeguard Islamic values.

"It was a demand by some groups and we have accommodated it, but the real trend in Afghanistan is to move toward a civil society," says presidential spokesman Saeed Fazul Akhbar.

The Taliban's brutal "vice and virtue police" beat women for even minor violations of strict rules of dress and conduct. There is no suggestion such excesses are about to recur -- but bad memories linger.

"All of the things that came out of that office made the women of Afghanistan ... made their lives a living hell," says Theresa Loar, of the group Vital Voices. "Many of the Afghan women we are working with ... are looking at this, they are very concerned, very cautious."

The new incarnation of vice and virtue falls under the Ministry of Justice and department head Mustafa Qassimi, who says it will merely "advise" on Islamic norms.

"Advice" in the form of snide remarks from local men has been given to the women working on the American charity-run building site. Mercy Corp Project Manager Storai Sadat dismisses the verbal harassment as the price of progress.

"Just some sentences like 'Look at them they are working like foreigners,' so I say you have to deal with these small sentences," says Sadat.

Partly out of tradition and partly to avoid the problems that are a legacy of the Taliban, many women here still wear the all-encompassing burqa.

But they are also determined to keep and build on their new-won rights. At the end of an eight hour day which earns them $1, the women builders spend another hour learning to read and write.

"I will be happy if I can help my children with their lessons," a woman says through a translator.

And she can draw hope and inspiration from the fact that women now hold cabinet posts and serve as deputy ministers.

"If the woman is working very hard, I'm sure they will get the power," says Tajwar Kakar, the deputy minister of women's affairs.

But neither hard work nor virtue police will deter these Afghan women.