By Abdul Qadir Sediqi
KABUL (Reuters) - Women will be included for the first time in the Taliban delegation to peace talks in Qatar this month, the movement's main spokesman said on Monday, ahead of the latest round of meetings aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan.
For a group notorious for its strictly conservative attitude to women's rights, the move represents a step towards addressing demands that women be included in the talks, intended to lay the foundations for a future peace settlement.
The April 19-21 meeting in Doha will be between the Taliban and a delegation comprising prominent Afghans, including opposition politicians and civil society activists. It follows similar talks between the two sides in Moscow in February.
The non-Taliban delegation that was in Moscow could be expanded next week to include some government officials, but acting in their private capacities as the insurgents have refused to hold formal talks with Kabul.
"There will be women among Taliban delegation members in the Doha, Qatar meeting," Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's main spokesman, said by telephone.
He did not name the women, but added, "These women have no family relationship with the senior members of the Taliban, they are normal Afghans, from inside and outside the country, who have been supporters and part of the struggle of the Islamic Emirate".
In a tweet, he specified that the women would only join the discussions with Afghan civil society and political representatives, not in the main negotiations with American officials, led by U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
Khalilzad has not yet set dates for the next round of talks with the Taliban, a State Department spokesperson said.
"We do not have new U.S. talks with the Taliban to announce at this time. Before additional talks, we look forward to knowing the outcome of the intra-Afghan dialogue," the spokesperson said in an email.
Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-born U.S. diplomat, is working to secure an accord with the Taliban on a U.S. troop pullout, measures to prevent al Qaeda and other extremists from using Afghanistan as a springboard for attacks, a ceasefire and inter-Afghan talks that include the government on the country's political future.
The Taliban have rejected formal talks with the government, which they dismiss as a "puppet" regime controlled by the United States.
While Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative country, especially in rural areas, there have been major advances in women's rights since the U.S-led campaign of 2001 that toppled the Taliban government. Many women fear that if the group regains some power, many of these gains could be erased.
The movement gained worldwide notoriety when it came to power in the 1990s by forcing women to wear full facial covering and imposing severe restrictions including banning girls from school and forbidding women from working outside the home.
However, Taliban spokesmen say the group has changed and it encourages girls' education and other women's rights within an Islamic Sharia system.
Civil society groups, the Western-backed government and Afghanistan's international partners have pressed for women to take part in the talks and news of the Taliban delegation was welcomed. Fawzia Koofi, a former member of parliament who took part in the meetings in Moscow, said the presence of women in the Taliban team was a "good step".
"Only women can feel the pain and miseries that Afghan women have suffered. The presence of women among the Taliban negotiators shows that the Taliban's ideology has changed."
Jeanne Shaheen, a member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, who has been pressing for women to play a role in the peace talks said the process should be inclusive.
Future international support for Afghanistan could be affected by whether women's rights were properly respected in any settlement, she said.
"There are certain levers that we have, that the Taliban are interested in," she told reporters in Kabul, where she was visiting as part of a Congressional delegation. "There is going to be an interest in economic support after the conflict ends."
"I think if the Taliban has any interest in getting international support ... it would be in their interest to recognise the importance of including women and including human rights as part of any settlement that happens."
(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Frances Kerry, Toby Chopra and Neil Fullick)