KABUL - The Afghan Taliban , condemned for their misogynistic ideology, were surprisingly open with female delegates who attended peace talks in Qatar, pledging support for women’s education and their right to work in ‘male-dominated professions’, activists said.

Women were brutally consigned to the shadows during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule in Afghanistan, denied basic human rights and not allowed to leave their homes without a male chaperone. But three women who were part of a 20-member Afghan delegation that held informal peace talks with insurgent representatives in Qatar last weekend said they were unanticipatedly receptive to their viewpoint.

‘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’.

 Heather Barr, a senior Human Rights Watch researcher on women’s rights in Asia, said in a statement. ‘These are rights almost entirely banned under the pre-2001 Taliban government, which basically relegated women to their homes except when under male supervision.’

Former MP and women’s rights activist Malalai Shinwari, who attended the talks, also said the Taliban representatives voiced support for female lawmakers and for the right of women to choose their own spouse. ‘They paid close attention when I told them ‘you made wearing the burqa compulsory, I used to see the world through small holes in the burqa, through a small window’,’ Shinwari told AFP this week.

‘I even told them the story of a woman in my village whose two sons died - one fighting for the government and the other for the Taliban. She is devastated after losing her sons,’ she said. Shinwari said she went into the meeting expecting the insurgent delegates would not even greet her, but one elderly Taliban member with a wispy white beard walked up to her and said he had tears in his eyes after hearing her speak.

But Shinwari’s revelations to the media triggered an avalanche of criticism from other activists who accused the Taliban of phony assurances. It also remains unclear whether the Taliban members have the wider support of insurgent commanders who have waged a war against US-led forces for nearly 14 years. Barr also weighed in with scepticism.

‘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,’ she said in her statement. Shinwari was accompanied by two young Afghan women who serve as defence lawyers for Taliban detainees. ‘I told the Taliban representatives: ‘You didn’t let these two women go to school, but after your regime ended, they completed university, and today they are lawyers defending the Taliban in government prisons’,’ she said.