Critics are skeptical about whether a recently reported rare meeting between the reclusive supreme leader of Afghanistan's Taliban and the prime minister of Qatar would lead to the removal of sweeping restrictions imposed on Afghan women's access to education and work.
Hibatullah Akhundzada's secret talks with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani, first reported by Reuters, were held May 12 in the Afghan city of Kandahar. It was the first meeting the Taliban chief is known to have had with a foreign leader.
The discussions reportedly focused on the need to lift Taliban bans on women and girls and further Kabul's dialogue with the world to help end the isolation of the de facto Afghan rulers who took control of the country in August 2021.
Neither Taliban officials nor officials in Qatar have since acknowledged or shared any details of the meeting, though the Afghan side confirmed at the time al-Thani's trip to Kandahar and released pictures of his meeting with then-Taliban prime minister Mullah Hasan Akhund.
In a statement on May 16, Qatar's official news agency quoted its foreign ministry as saying that the prime minister's visit to Afghanistan was part of Doha's "political role in communicating with various parties in addition to facilitating the relations between the caretaker [Taliban] government and the international community."
Analysts noted that al-Thani's reported talks with Akhundzada had come just days after Doha hosted an international meeting on May 1 convened and chaired by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
In a post-meeting statement, the U.N. chief rejected the Taliban's bans on girls' education and women working for aid groups as unacceptable.
"Western donors would like to help Afghanistan, but with the harsh treatment of women in Afghanistan by the Taliban, it is impossible to lobby for more funds," said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan official and regional analyst.
The "Taliban are isolated. Qatar PM brought the message that by opening teenage girls' schools and letting women back at work, this isolation could end," Farhadi told VOA in written comments.
Skeptics such as Heather Barr at Human Rights Watch did not see the meeting signaling a willingness by Akhundzada to withdraw his edicts against Afghan women.
"I don't think it's a new willingness — just new to see Akhundzada," Barr said on Twitter. "The Taliban have always been keen, since Aug 2021, to press their demands— for engagement, aid, recognition, congratulations. Parallel to these talks, their crackdown on women/girls has steadily continued & deepened," she wrote.
The U.N. and nongovernmental organizations say that the ban on their Afghan female staff has undermined relief activities in a country where 28 million people, or two-thirds of the population, need humanitarian assistance.
The hard-line Taliban have repeatedly pledged to ease restrictions on women and girls, saying they are preparing "guidelines" for them in line with Afghan culture and Islamic law — Shariah.
The Taliban Foreign Ministry has renewed the pledge in a report prepared for the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
"Recently, girls' education for a short period of time has been suspended for an interim time; in this short time of suspension, we are working on a comprehensive plan to provide better conditions for girls. After drafting a plan, girls' higher education will resume," according to a copy of the report Afghan rights activists have shared on social media.
VOA has reached out to the Taliban to ascertain the authenticity of the document.
The United States has led calls for Taliban authorities to lift all restrictions on women, including those working for U.N. agencies and humanitarian groups, to restore their freedom of movement and govern the conflict-ravaged country through a politically inclusive system, where all Afghan groups have representation.
Akhundzada, who rarely leaves Kandahar, known as the birthplace of the Taliban, has rejected international criticism of his government and calls for removing curbs on women as interfering in Afghan matters.
"It is the success and good fortune of the Afghan nation that Allah has blessed them with an Islamic Shariah system. … I have promised Allah that so long as I am alive, no law of infidelity will find a place in Afghanistan," the Taliban chief told worshipers in Kandahar in April.
"I will not move even one step with you or interact with you … at the cost of this Shariah," Akhundzada said in an earlier speech.
U.N. and global human rights groups have warned in their recent reports that the treatment of Afghan women by the Taliban could amount to crimes against humanity.
The Taliban reclaimed power nearly two years ago when U.S.-led international troops departed the country following two decades of involvement in the Afghan war. No country has since recognized the Taliban government, citing the treatment of Afghan women and other human rights concerns.
Qatar has maintained close contacts with the Taliban since the group was waging insurgent attacks on international forces in Afghanistan and allowed them to open a political office in Doha in 2013.
The tiny Gulf state hosted talks between the U.S. and Taliban insurgents that produced the 2020 deal for a withdrawal of all American and allied troops in return for Taliban counterterrorism assurances.