British journalist Yvonne Ridley made headlines when she was captured by the Taliban in 2001. She came out unscathed, and two years later, converted to Islam. Allan Koay finds out how her life has changed since then.
Barely had the ashes of the World Trade Centre in New York settled when Sunday Express journalist Yvonne Ridley found herself captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan and held for 10 days. She was duly released unharmed, and two years later, in a remarkable twist, she converted to Islam.
Yvonne Ridley: 'I see the shocking images of Guantanamo Bay and ... I thank Allah I was captured by the most evil and brutal regime in the world and not by the Americans.'
Ridley, who had gone to Afghanistan to report for the British paper, found herself becoming the news instead. And her story could not have been more full of surprises and irony.
Ridley, who was in Kuala Lumpur last Saturday to give a talk as part of a fund-raising effort for Islamic social service organization Al-Khaadem, was a portrait of calm and grace as she spoke about her experiences and the changes in her life. It was a picture far removed from her pre-conversion, hard-drinking, firebrand journalist image as described by the media.
On Sept 28, 2001, Ridley, then 43, was trying to cross illegally into Afghanistan from Pakistan. At a Taliban checkpoint, her donkey bolted and her camera fell out of the burqa she was wearing. She was subsequently thrown into prison, and questioned every day.
But to her surprise, the so-called "evil regime" treated her with respect and courtesy, and the men with the electrodes and torture tools never appeared. Instead she was given three meals a day, despite her hunger strike, and her captors even came to wash her hands for her at mealtimes. They referred to her as their "guest" and "sister".
"The whole experience had taught me a very valuable lesson, and that is not to believe propaganda that powerful people in powerful places want us to believe," says Ridley.
"When I look back at my experience now, and I see the shocking images of Guantanamo Bay, and the horrendous images and stories emerging from the Abu Ghraib prison, I thank Allah I was captured by the most evil and brutal regime in the world and not by the Americans."
During her time in the Taliban prison, a cleric came to her one day and asked if she would like to convert to Islam. Fearing any response would be taken as adverse, she made a promise to him that she would read the Quran if she were released.
She kept her promise, and what started out as a purely academic exercise turned into a spiritual one as Ridley discovered that the Quran was not about oppression or violence but about peace, tolerance and understanding. Most of all, she was surprised to find that Muslim women were not subjugated or oppressed but were afforded equality.
In August 2003, she embraced the faith.
Today, Ridley, who admitted that she used to "work hard and play hard" and was a "prolific drinker", finds herself healthier, happier, and more content and fulfilled.
"And my girlfriends can see this, and they ask: 'What is this that has changed your life so much?'" she says. "And I say it's Islam. And they say: 'No, really, what is it?'"
Ridley has also become a fervent anti-war campaigner since her release. She has supported the Stop the War Coalition and traveled around the world addressing anti-war gatherings. She is a founding member of Women in Journalism and the patron of British organization Stop Political Terror, which looks into the welfare of Muslims in Britain, especially those being held in the Belmarsh and Woodhill prisons.
She has written two books: In The Hands of the Taliban, about her experience as a captive; and a fictional thriller, Ticket to Paradise, which she says is banned in Israel because it features a Hamas fighter on the cover. She still writes for the Sunday Express, and also for Muslims Weekly in New York. She is currently involved with the Islam Channel, a satellite broadcast that started about a year ago in Britain.
One of the things that Ridley had to face when returning home from Afghanistan in 2001 was a media that accused her of being an irresponsible and selfish single mother (she has a daughter, Daisy, 12) and foolhardy to have entered Afghanistan at a volatile time. Others even claimed she did not enter Afghanistan at all but was picked up at the border in Pakistan.
She regarded the views that came from her colleagues and the British press as outrageous, and saw no difference between their opinions and views and those of the Taliban, with regards to a woman's role in work.
"I was verbally 'stoned' by journalists who picked on me as a single parent going into a war zone," she says. "And not one single male journalist I can think of has ever been questioned about his role as a parent. It made me realise then that we still have a long, long way to go to achieve any sort of equality. And what was most hurtful, because I am a founding member of Women in Journalism in Britain, was that most of these comments were from women columnists.
"I just thought they've set the women's movement back two or three decades by questioning my integrity as a journalist ? to single me out and attack me as a mother. I thought that was a bit like shooting yourself in the foot."
Ridley also discovered to her surprise that during her capture, someone had tried to get her killed by sending a dossier to the Taliban that made her out to be a spy, a "female equivalent of James Bond".
She claims that with help from her contacts and fellow journalists, she found out that the dossier had been prepared by the American intelligence and Mossad. She believes it was an effort to silence the anti-war movement.
"Had I been shot or executed, this would have helped justify the bombing of Afghanistan. It would have further demonized the Taliban. I was told by one intelligence officer: 'Don't take this personally. It wasn't against you,'" she laughs.
Putting all that behind her, Ridley has also made headway into the political realm. She is an active member of the RESPECT political party in Britain, a party born in January this year out of the anti-war movement that realized it had no political voice.
"I stood as a candidate in the European elections and we got a quarter of a million votes nationally," says Ridley. "It didn't translate into a seat but we are going to be fielding candidates in the general elections which may be held in May next year.
"What is particularly significant is if I am successful, I would become the first female Muslim politician to sit in Westminster and probably the first woman wearing a hijab to sit in the houses of parliament.
"It's still a long way off, but there is a ground swell of support from people who feel as though they no longer have a voice in the party headed by a British prime minister who appears to prefer to take his orders from Washington rather than from the people who elected him."
Source: The Star
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