he World Cup 2010 in South Africa is in its first round of the knock-out stage. It has seen favourite teams crashing and others shining. Afghanistan did not qualify. It lost both first round Asia qualification matches against Syria 1:5 on aggregate. Afghanistan’s only scorer was Obaidullah Karimi who plays for Hamm United FC in Germany’s Landesliga North, the sixth-highest league. The ‘home leg’ had to played in Tajikistan for security reasons. Afghanistan currently ranks 189 (among 210 countries and territories) in the FIFA(*) world ranking. But many Afghans watch it nevertheless. Local TV stations have long made sure that they can broadcast it legally, and – as elsewhere – experts analyse each match after the final whistle. Only ten years ago, things looked differently here – as our senior analyst Kate Clark, then with the BBC, reported in 2000.
When the Taliban came to power, they established a special police force charged with finding and punishing people accused of moral crimes. The duty of these police is to promote virtue and prevent vice as interpreted by the Taliban’s strict version of Islam. But as Kate Clark reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul, resistance has not died completely.
Under Taliban rule, most fun is banned. Music, dancing, cinema, art, television are all illegal. Without music, weddings are tedious. And even the national Afghan past-time – going on picnics – have been reduced to dull all-male affairs.
There were rumours when the Taliban first came to Kabul that they would even stop people playing football. But after a few nervous months, matches started up again. The league is amateur, thriving and wildly popular. It attracts crowds that most first division teams in Britain would die for – but this is one of the few legal fun activities.
Last Friday, I was the only woman among nineteen-thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine men who packed out Kabul’s stadium.
We bought tickets – which cost just under four cents (2p) – and were ushered in. The guards were armed with kalashnikovs and lengths of electric cable to be used as whips, but they were polite and helpful; I’ve felt more threatened by policemen on horseback outside British football grounds. They forced the crowd to part and showed me up the stairs into the official stand.
The stadium is also where they carry out public executions and amptuations. But thank goodness on this Friday, the only attraction was seeing Maiwand Town play the International Committee of the Red Cross. The crowd was in good spirits. Someone bought me a pot of tea and the play began. The football was dreadful – but the match itself was a spectacle. Thousands of Afghans having fun is such a rare sight. They even clapped – that’s illegal here. But more daring resistance was to come.
Half way through the first half, it was time for the late afternoon prayers. Pick-ups full of police from Vice and Virtue drove into the stadium and circled round. Using loud-speakers, they ordered everyone to come onto the pitch and pray. A few thousand people straggled onto the grass and lined up ready to pray, but most remained resolutely standing. Policemen leapt into the stands, whips in hand. But the crowds just melted away before them, only to reform a little further up the stands. After twenty minutes, maybe a third of the crowd had been forced onto the pitch and prayers were said
It was a show of resistance. That’s unheard of in Kabul. People here are generally crushed and compliant – terrified of getting caught by Vice and Virtue.
What might seem like a minor misdemeanour can land you in jail. For men – not wearing a cap, trimming – or god forbid, shaving your beard. For women, not covering your face or travelling in a taxi unaccompanied by a male relative. People caught playing music in their cars are usually given the choice of seeing their cassette player smashed or spending some time in prison. Check-posts trail nests of tape taken from broken cassettes. There’s no appeal process – and unlike, other organs of the state, Vice and Virtue have a reputation for incorruptibility – ie you can’t bribe your way out of their clutches.
I’ve only been had up by them once – for the crime of sitting in the front seat of a car. My driver – a foreign man – was told off and ordered to make me sit in the back seat. As the man, he was seen as responsible for my behaviour. That was in Kandahar – the Taliban’s stronghold. Elsewhere in the country, I drive myself.
Vice and Virtue are probably the most feared part of the Taliban state. They’re central to its conception of itself as an Islamic state – enforcing the pure tenets of the religion. They are also the aspect of the Taliban which foreigners find most alien, going against individual rights, civil liberties and democracy. It has to be said that many of the relatively sophisticated citizens of Kabul, also find them alien – uneducated villagers enforcing their weird conception of Islam. The irony is that Afghanistan is easily the most devout country I’ve ever visited. Most people pray and fast here, quietly and without making a big fuss – but object to being ordered to.
But whatever the social and religious motivations of the Vice and Virtue, it’s most useful function is probably the demonstration of raw Taliban power. And on Friday afternoons in Kabul’s stadium, that power seems to ebb away a little.
Following the broadcast of this report, originally in English but subsequently in Pashto and Dari, Mullah Omar decreed that it was forbidden to stage public sports matches during prayer times.
(*) Don’t confuse with FEFA – the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan -, the country’s main non-governmental election observation organisation.
This report originally was broadcast by the BBC on 2 August 2000 in its programme ‘From Our Own Correspondent: Vice and Virtue’
This article was last updated on 21 Apr 2020