The Afghan Taliban has “softened” their stance on female education. When an Afghan government delegation met Taliban representatives last week, the 20-person Afghan government delegation included three women. The Afghan government and its key partners including the US have largely failed to include women in previous talks with the Taliban. Taliban participants reportedly pledged support for women’s education up to the university level and vowed to permit women to work outside the home. These are rights were almost entirely banned under the pre-2001 Taliban government. Taliban negotiators also expressed support for women’s participation in politics, women’s right to inherit, and to choose a husband. What to make of this? Well, first, one should hope very much that it’s true. But healthy scepticism is 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 holes in law making and policy, for the Taliban or the Ulema Council to take U-turns as they please, and the Ulema Council is already threatening to squash civil rights demonstrations.

Powerful religious leaders in Afghanistan are growing uneasy about the challenge to their authority and widespread anger over the lynching of a young woman wrongly accused of burning a Koran. In recent months, a women’s rights activist walked around Kabul in a body suit with large breasts and buttocks. In another demonstration, a group of brave men assembled in public wearing the all-covering blue burqas. The highest religious authority, the Ulema Council remains deeply conservative and highly offended. With 3,000 clerics and scholars, and headed by a 150-strong National Council, the Ulema can sway public opinion significantly through mosques across the country. “We ask the government to tell them (civil rights groups) to stop. Otherwise, we know how to stop them,” said an Ulema Council member. “I have 7,000 supporters who will obey any orders I give them.”

The example here at home of the Islamic Ideology Council can be a lesson to those who are struggling for political and social rights. Give the Ulemas an inch, and they will take a mile with their fatwas and pledges to “protect” Islam. 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 and cannot be forgiven, even when they are putting forward a more cooperative face. Any efforts to change the Constitution – something the Taliban has demanded – should be seen with scepticism. Afghan women and men who lived through the years of Taliban rule will always have an uphill battle.