By Shanika Sriyananda/DailyFT
Colombo, June 9: British journalist Yvonne Ridley, who converted to Islam, says that she feels empowered by Islam. She had been detained by the Taliban in Afghanistan and was asked to convert to Islam, but she told her captors that she would do so only after reading about Islam thoroughly. Eventually she did so, even as she was a journalist in the British paper, Sunday Express.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
Q: Although you are a household name in Britain, ‘Yvonne Ridley’ is not much known among Sri Lankan readers. How do you introduce yourself?
The easiest way to introduce me is as ‘the woman who fell off a donkey in Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban.’
Q: Why did you wish to take to journalism?
Ever since I was a teenager, I wanted to become a journalist because I realised the power of the pen. As the saying goes, the pen is mightier than the sword; a well written article can move politicians, move people and bring about a change in the political landscape. Therefore, I thought I can make a difference through my words and that thought appealed to me. That’s the reason I wanted to be a journalist. I also wanted to expose people who do bad things and do justice for innocent victims. I wanted to change things at least a little bit through my writings. I didn’t have ambitions to become a globe- trotting journalist or someone who went into war zones. But I did things by which I could make a difference.
Q: If you recall your risky journey in the Taliban controlled land, what was your motive to step into that land of terror?
I took that risky decision because I wanted to hear the voice of the ordinary Afghans and see for myself their plight. I wanted to witness how they lived their life – whether it was bad or worse under Taliban rule. Was it the same as George W. Bush and Tony Blair claimed, and were they the most brutal men in the world? We all know that politicians lie. Therefore, I wanted to find out the truth from the ordinary folk to ascertain whether there was any truth in it and the real situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Q: For most people when they hear the name Taliban, it sends a shiver down their spine. After a 12-day stay with them, were you able to find out how gruesome they were?
I think some of the Taliban are still being counseled from the experience. I was scared and kept thinking that it was my last day on earth, wondering whether they would execute me today, or tomorrow. I feared for my life. But once you have faced the worst, for me it was losing my life, the fear I had for them had diminished. On the thought that you don’t kiss the hand that slaps you, I decided to be the prisoner from hell. So, I threw things at them, spat on them, scolded them and when they released me on humanitarian grounds, I still couldn’t put my feelings into words when I crossed over to Pakistan. The Ambassador of the Taliban to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Saleem Zaeef said “We are releasing the English woman who has a very bad mouth”.
My mother was furious not with him but with me and said, “I brought you up to be better than this”. They have been brutal. The Taliban conquered Afghanistan and emerged triumphant but they couldn’t have done it without the support of the ordinary people who helped to sweep them back to power. That was a backlash to the elected government that had been stolen by the occupying forces, and should be a humble lesson to every politician no matter which part of the world he lives in. Politicians are the people’s servants and shouldn’t think of the people as their servants.
Q: You once said that your experience with the Taliban was terrifying but you were not physically hurt. Do you mean that there is respect for women under Taliban rule?
I was not harmed, I was treated with respect, compared to how some Afghan women are being treated at present. I did fly to Kabul last year when they had assumed power. The first person I met was their Education Minister to question why his government was denying girls their right to education because Islam makes it perfectly clear that women are equal in spirituality and education. The first word in the Quran that was pronounced by the Prophet was the word ‘IQRA’ which means read.
Some in the Taliban were delighted to hear that I had embraced Islam and many tried to take credit saying they showed me the path to true Islam. I am using the power of Islam to show that women are equal spiritually and have equal right to education. This decision they have taken to isolate schoolgirls is wrong. It is against Islam. However, I am confident they will reverse this decision and open the universities and the schools for older girls soon.
While there, a senior Taliban commander proudly showed me pictures of his two daughters and said one wanted to become a doctor. He has promised her to help her pursue her dream. I am sure the Taliban will change their policies and have a fair and just government as promised.
Q: How dangerous is it for a female reporter to undertake such assignments?
The most surprising thing that happened to me as a female journalist after this incident was the hostility thrown at me by people who asked me why I stepped into that land being a mother and a wife. It was to undermine my position and work as a female journalist.
Is there anybody who has ever questioned male war correspondents as to why they should take up such assignments since they’ve got wives and children at home? It is because a woman has always had to face misogynistic attention towards her and that really annoyed me. It was depressing. But you have to ignore and rise above it and carry on. Sadly much of the criticism on gender comes from other women writers.
Q: You were asked by the Taliban to convert to Islam but after you read the Quran you were influenced to embrace Islam. What made you do so, was it because it provides more freedom and equality to women?
I started reading the Quran and studying Islam more deeply, I found it to be a very fair, just and equitable religion. It is far from the popular perception in the West that says Islam oppresses and persecutes women. It is an incorrect notion.
During my visit, in Sri Lanka I addressed an audience of 50 to 60 women at an event organised by the Merci Lanka Foundation. Had I walked into this room 20 or 30 years ago, I would have seen a group of poor, oppressed women, but today I saw community leaders, doctors, clinicians and engineers, multi-skilled and talented. It was I who was wearing a veil of bigotry. Earlier my views were prejudiced but today I meet a lot of Muslim female professionals and wonder at their skills and potential. This is because I realised that Islam has given more freedom and liberation through education to Muslim women.
Q: You have written two books – In the Hands of the Taliban and Ticket to Paradise. Were they penned based on your true story while in the custody of the Taliban?
Yes, I have written the first book based on that experience and later I have written half a dozen other books including one on Prophet Mohammed and another on torture posing the question if it really has a place in 21st century armies. I understand it is now being used by members of the US military.
Q: How has life been since then and how did you manage to face any adverse response from people after you converted to Islam.
Well, people were shocked when I embraced Islam. They tried to find an excuse or a reason why I had embraced Islam. They even asked me whether I converted because of a man. Why would anyone make such a life changing decision because of a man, what a disempowering thing to say!
It is not a reason that any feminist would give for changing her faith. Why should I do such a thing? They think so mainly because they believe Islam is a restrictive doctrine which presses women. It is not so. The more I immersed myself into Islam and the more the really learned people I spoke to, the more I began to realise that if you know your Islam you can stand up to the misogyny and patriarchy.
If you can give enough evidence and cite the Holy Quran, which we believe is the word of God there is none alive on this planet who will say ‘no that’s wrong’. Therefore, today I urge the young Muslim women who came for the meeting to get to know Islam and use it as a shield to stand up to misogyny. Not only among Muslims but misogynists are everywhere in this world.
Q: You are conducting lectures in many universities on topics such as, ‘Women in Islam’, ‘ the War on Terror and Journalism’. Being a converted Muslim are you against unethical conversions of people, especially women, into Islam?
There is a very important verse in the Quran which states: “there is no compulsion in the religion’. It says nothing, including marriages, is done by force. It is part of living and nothing could be done forcefully. If you are conversant with the Quran, you are aware that you can take shelter in Islam, it not only protects you but also enforces your rights. Given the chance, men will seize control wherever they are and whatever they get. It is not just in Islam, this is common to men of all faith.
Q: Your new faith – Islam- what has it given you to change your life as a woman and as an activist?
As a woman, I feel more empowered, more calm, more confident and I respect myself more. I feel I have really benefited by Islam as I no longer smoke or drink alcohol and am healthier. I have a lot to be thankful to Islam.
As an activist, I am quite fearless as I feel there are a lot of people on my side. I was given some advice by a brother who lived in Egypt when he saw my optimism. Giving an example he said, in a confrontation with police authorities instead of standing in front of a tank to stop it rolling on, why don’t you just walk around the tank and continue your journey without stopping every obstacle wanting to fight. That was fine advice. This is what I am doing as an activist. I am moving forward amid stumbling blocks. I have a great belief in people’s power, when people mobilize, astonishing things can happen.
Q: Being a convert to Islam, who has studied the Quran from A to Z, what are your views about extremism and how evil is it to world peace?
I think world peace cannot be achieved until the warmongers step down. The G 7 – it is run by a group of old men and the Arab League is the same. Women have to get more involved in politics because I think women are more likely to sit around the table and negotiate than dropping bombs at each other. If we want peace we have to stop trying to bring peace at gunpoint. The British and the US went into Afghanistan in the name of peace. How can you bring peace when you are dropping bombs?
Extremism of any kind is not welcome in religion. In Islam we strive for a balance. Most extremists are men. It’s a problem with men which is why more women need to engage in politics. In Scandinavian countries there is a good representation of women in politics. The whole world order is changing at present and China is emerging as the next super power. America is losing.
Q: What is your advice to female journalists, taking leading roles in media assignments from day to day news to war stories?
Never be afraid to tell the truth. Never be afraid of your work because your work can change lives. I think that conflicts and war reporting are the best areas of reporting for female correspondents as they would have more insights into the plights of women and children suffering in war zones. They will give a more humane approach to bringing out the hardships of a war.
Q: Wearing the burqa has become a controversial subject around the world. What is your feeling in wearing it?
I live in the Scottish borders where Muslims are extremely rare. If I dress like this I would immediately attract attention. So I want to blend in. Hijab is about modesty. I think in Islam, it says dress modestly. I think most Muslim women fulfill the modest dress code. Too many people express opinions about what we women wear. I often say to men: “get the hell out of our wardrobes. “
We need to be able to distinguish between culture and Islam. The abaya is an Arab garment, so is the nikab.
Q: Why are you in Sri Lanka and what is your feeling about this country?
Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with very hospitable people. Something special happened, when I was covering the war in Sri Lanka in 2006. I went to the North and it was in Kilinochchi. I was standing in front of a mosque and the villagers had already fled the land. I went into the mosque and Qurans were blown apart damaged by a shell attack a few minutes away. I escaped any harm, miraculously. It was really traumatic and I helplessly prayed in a corner of the mosque.
I was in a difficult situation, there was a man in England who wanted to marry me. I remembered him and prayed to God, that if He gets me out of that risky situation I would realize half my dream. I managed to escape the risk and when I got back to Colombo, I texted him saying if you are still interested in me, the answer is ‘yes’. Now he is my husband. Since then, I have had a great love for Sri Lanka for the role it played in finding the love of my life.
I am happy to see that Sri Lanka is getting back on its own feet, there are no signs of a civil war and everything is getting normal now. That is the resilience of Sri Lankans that I saw through the Merci Lanka Foundation, a charity which gives hope to people who need a little bit of help. It is a wonderful organisation that offers interest free micro loans to people for start-up businesses to develop their entrepreneur skills and help stand on their own feet.
I have seen there are many charities in Sri Lanka but they charge high interest and people end up with bigger debts. But the Merci Lanka Foundation not only gives interest free loans but helps people in various fields like how to market their products and enhance their skills. It helps people to help themselves. It is like giving someone a fishing rod instead of a fish, for them to be sustainable and stand on their own feet, not become dependents.
Q: What are your future plans as a journalist and activist?
My next assignment is to complete the last fictional book in a trilogy with a Scottish historical backdrop. The second book should be published later this year. The third book will be out next year. Palestine is very close to my heart and I hope to do more things for them, help Palestinians to overcome their plight. I am a member of the Scottish political party – Alba, which is working for Scottish independence.
Q: Amid your tight schedules, how do you manage time to work in your farm in the Scottish borders where you raise bees and run a peafowl rescue centre and sanctuary?
I have a wonderful husband thanks to the prayers I did in Sri Lanka. I couldn’t do half of what I do without his support. Although I am a feminist, I don’t hate men as my biggest strength in my life is my husband.