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When an Afghan government delegation met Taliban representatives for talks in Qatar this week, several unusual things happened. The first is that the 20-person Afghan government delegation included three women. The women who attended said they found the Taliban delegation surprisingly ready to discuss issues with them.

The Afghan government and its key partners including the US have largely failed to include women in previous talks with the Taliban. This meeting was the first such discussion since President Ashraf Ghani took office in September 2014.

When activists have pushed for women’s participation in talks with the Taliban, one response from donors and the Afghan government behind closed doors has been that this demand is counter-productive because the Taliban would refuse to negotiate with women. The May meeting should end that argument for good. Ghani’s inclusion of women in these talks is a positive step and should set the vital precedent that no future talks will go forward without women in significant roles.

A second unusual development was that the Taliban said some right things about women’s rights. Taliban participants reportedly pledged support for women’s education up to the university level and vowed to permit women to work outside the home, “even in male-dominated professions like engineering.” These are rights almost entirely banned under the pre-2001 Taliban government, which basically relegated women to their homes except when under male supervision. Taliban negotiators also expressed support for women’s participation in politics, women’s right to inherit, and to choose a husband. Some of these positions even appear in the Taliban’s written statement about the meeting.

What to make of this? Well, first, one should hope very much that it’s true.

But healthy scepticism is also warranted. The Taliban have made statements over the years expressing support for women’s rights – but always with caveats about women’s rights being in line with “Islamic values.” This leaves open the question of where the change has come since 2001, when their government was notorious for its repression of women. The Taliban statement expresses commitment to rights of women “bestowed upon them in the sacred religion of Islam… [and] will ensure and provide all these rights in a balanced way in which they are neither deprived of their just and legitimate rights nor are their human dignity and Islamic values are jeopardized.”

In short, the Taliban often says one thing and does another. During the long conflict with the Afghan government, the Taliban have often attacked girls’ schools and teachers, and threatened and killed women’s rights activists and women in public life. These attacks continue.

If talks proceed, women always need to be at the table to challenge discrepancies between what the Taliban says and what it does, and to demand details, not vague assurances. Women, and the international community also need to closely monitor any efforts to change the Constitution – something the Taliban has demanded – in ways that could set back women’s rights.

The Taliban’s statements this week are a positive development. But Afghan women who lived through the years of Taliban rule and the anti-women attacks in the years since have every reason to be sceptical. 

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