KABUL -- Thousands of influential Afghans have gathered in Kabul to discuss pressing national issues, but the Taliban organizers of the meeting have shown that women and beleaguered minorities are not welcome in shaping Afghanistan's future.
After weeks of uncertainty about the agenda and participants in the gathering, dubbed a "grand assembly of ulema (religious scholars)" by the Taliban, the fundamentalist group's deputy prime minister, Abdul Salam Hanafi, waited until the eve of the June 30-July 2 event to provide some insight into what could be expected.
Speaking to the state broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan on June 29, Hanafi said participants will discuss Islamic governance, national unity and security, and economic and social issues. He also clarified that politicians, businessmen, and traders would be among the up to 3,000 people in attendance.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Taliban's supreme leader, Mawlawi Haibuatullah Akhundzada, may participate in the gathering. If so, it would be his first public appearance in Kabul.
The inclusion of politicians and entrepreneurs indicates that the event may not exclusively be a traditional meeting of the ulema and would somewhat resemble a long-promised Loya Jirga (grand council) -- a centuries-old institution that provides representatives from Afghanistan's diverse ethnic, religious, and tribal communities an opportunity to say how the nation will be governed.
But while all provinces and districts are expected to send at least three delegates, it is presumed they will be hand-picked by the Taliban and specific ethnic and religious minorities will not be represented.
When asked about the glaring lack of invitations for women -- who make up more than half the population and whose rights have been severely restricted under Taliban rule -- Hanafi countered that they would be "somehow involved" because "their sons will be part of the gathering."
It was not the answer that Afghans and observers were looking for as they seek assurances that women's rights will be respected and girls will be allowed to attend school, in keeping with the Taliban's pledges to the international community to form an inclusive government.
"The more we understood exactly who [the Taliban] invited, the clearer it became that they only invited their supporters," Heather Barr, co-director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi ahead of the gathering. "This cannot boost their legitimacy because they ignored others, especially women, who have no place in this meeting."
The Pashtun-dominated Taliban was infamous for its oppressive rule during its first stint in power from 1996 to 2001, confining women to their homes and forcing them to wear full Islamic dress, banning music and entertainment, and carrying out public executions of dissidents and convicts. After retaking power in August following the withdrawal of the U.S.-led foreign forces who ousted the Taliban in 2001, the group has cast itself as more moderate even as it has reinstated many former policies based on its hard-line interpretation of Islamic law.
As the grand assembly convenes, women have been barred from the workforce and ordered to wear the compulsory hijab. Music has also been banned, and religious and ethnic minorities such as the Hazara and Tajiks are being persecuted, as are political opponents and supporters of the previous, Western-backed government.
The makeup of the handpicked grand assembly has fed concerns that the gathering is essentially an exercise to validate the Taliban's rule and does not truly represent the Afghan people.
"I do not think this is a really a comprehensive jirga with representatives of political or ethnic opposition groups," Barr said.
When the meeting started on June 30 at the Loya Jirga hall in Kabul, a copy of the day's agenda distributed on Twitter by Afghanistan Rights Watch confirmed some of the suspicions.
The first item on the agenda was "supporting the Taliban government," while the second topic of discussion was "cooperation with the Taliban government for security."
An ulema council would normally only include Islamic scholars who would address questions posed by the state or the people and deliver opinions considered to be fatwas, according to Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East Studies at the U.S.'s Marine Corps University.
Hanafi's announcement that senior personalities, businessmen, and traders from around the country will also be in attendance has made it unclear how much influence the gathering will have.
"It sounds almost like a Loya Jirga, because it is not just the ulema, and this is what makes it a bit more confusing," Tarzi said, describing the event as a hybrid of the two traditional gatherings.
"This seems to be a combination of the ulema and others, and the mechanism is not clear -- whether the ulema are the only ones to make a decision and the others are just there just to listen, or to present their opinions, or to be a rubber stamp" that would give Taliban decisions some legitimacy, he added.
Whatever is decided upon can be presented as the will of the grand gathering, which the Taliban has said was ordered by the Afghan people.
But, while Taliban spokesman Mujahid told Radio Azadi that the reopening of girls schools would be discussed, he declined to provide specifics about that or other topics.
While the event's debates could heavily shape the Taliban's future policies -- and possibly pave a way for younger girls to return to school -- media access to the gathering will be heavily restricted, a Taliban source told Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity.
Gul Mohammad Gran, a leading member of the Federation of Journalists and Media Institutions of Afghanistan, decried the development, saying that governments have a responsibility to be transparent in their decision-making.
"Access to information is the right of the people, and people have a right to know about all meetings or programs and decisions that relate to their lives," he told Radio Azadi.