Qatar: When the Taliban governed Afghanistan, their repression of women was renowned: They shut down girls’ schools, kept women out of the workplace and forced them to wear face-covering, head-to-toe burqas.

Now they are delivering a different message: If we return to power, we won’t roll back the progress Afghan women have made in the interim.

Delegates who attended a meeting with Taliban representatives in the Gulf emirate of Qatar this past weekend described a softer stance by the group on women’s rights. They said the Taliban pledged to support women’s access to school and university, as well as their right to work outside the home—even in male-dominated professions like engineering.

They also said women’s participation in politics would be allowed, and that their right to inherit, as well as to choose their own husband, would be safeguarded.

The Taliban addressed women’s rights as part of two days of informal discussions with activists and people close to the Kabul government aimed at facilitating reconciliation between Afghanistan’s warring parties.

Since the Taliban’s fall from power in 2001, the condition of Afghan women has improved, but the gains remain fragile and repressive views on women are still widespread throughout the country—including among people close to the U.S.-backed government.

And a political solution to the Afghan conflict is still far away. The Taliban are still refusing to formally speak to the Kabul administration, and the war continues in Afghanistan, with both sides, as well as civilians, suffering high casualties.

After the Qatar talks, participants said they were surprised by the apparent willingness of the Taliban delegation to compromise politically on a number of issues. The three Afghan women who took part in the discussion said they were pleased by the Taliban’s apparent opening on women’s rights, even as they challenged them on their stance.

“I told them: Under your regime, you made us to wear clothes that forced us to see the world through tiny holes,” said Malalai Shinwari, a former Afghan member of parliament, recalling how she was forced to wear the all-covering burqa. “They said they won’t make the same mistakes that they made in the past. They said they would accept the rights we have today.”

The plight of Afghan women was a rallying cry in support of the U.S.-led toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Much skepticism remains about whether the Taliban would genuinely change. Memories of life under their rule are still fresh, and Taliban insurgents continue to routinely shut down girls’ schools and target women teachers, politicians and activists.

“My worry is that the Taliban have a very different understanding of women’s right to education and political participation, and that it is based on their view that women are inherently inferior to men,” said Shaharzad Akbar, a Kabul-based activist.

Nevertheless, the meeting in Qatar has allayed some concerns that women would be excluded from possible peace talks, and that the hard-won gains of the past years would be sacrificed for the sake of a deal.

“This should get rid of the excuse that women shouldn’t participate at the negotiating table because the Taliban wouldn’t come if they sat at it,” said Heather Barr, a senior researcher on women’s rights with Human Rights Watch. “But it’s not enough for them to say they wouldn’t roll back rights: We need to know what that means.”

For instance, Ms. Barr says, while the movement in recent years has relaxed its position on girls’ education, it has also insisted schools be completely gender segregated.

In an official statement released after the conference, the Taliban said the movement “is committed to all the rights of women” but also said that “their human dignity and Islamic values [should not be] jeopardized.”

Participants of the Qatar meeting—which was organized by the Pugwash Council, an organization that works on conflict resolution—described the event as a first step in the right direction, and expressed hope it could eventually pave the way to formal peace negotiations.

While the Kabul government didn’t send an official delegation to Qatar, two members of Afghanistan’s top negotiating body and several people close to the country’s political leadership attended the event.

Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, the head of the eight-member Taliban delegation, outlined their position on women’s rights in a speech, attendees said. Taliban representatives also held informal discussions with women participants during tea breaks and meals, and were open to suggestions to hold more discussions on the issue in the future.

Among the women delegates was 24-year-old Lina Shinwari. She was six when the Taliban came to power and shut down her school. After the Taliban’s ouster, girls’ schools reopened and Ms. Shinwari was able to complete her education. She is now a criminal lawyer, and she takes up cases that no one else wants: She defends suspected Taliban insurgents.

“It was good to hear them speak about women’s rights within an Islamic framework,” she said. “It made me happy.”

Courtesy Wall Street Journal