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'I've met some very aggressive Christian evangelicals. A number have issued death threats while others have called me Satan and said I will go to Hell.'

14th March 2012

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Yvonne Ridley is a journalist, author, peace activist and film-maker. She was captured by the Taliban in September 2001 after crossing the Afghan border wearing a burqa. After her release she read the Qur’an and subsequently converted to Islam. TNS spoke to her on International Women’s Day. 

Tell us about your conversion.

I was quite happy as a practising Christian and was not looking for a new faith when I was captured by the Taliban.

I offered to read the Qur’an if they released me. Against all the odds, while holding on to other westerners, they did release me. I kept my word and began reading the Qur’an and supporting Islamic literature. It was the fulfilment of a promise but, as a journalist covering the Middle East and Asia, it seemed shocking I knew so little about a religion which was clearly a way of life for people.

What can Islam offer to the West – and to western women?

I am a feminist, radicalised in the working class pit villages of County Durham, so when I began reading the Qur’an I was very interested to know about Islam’s position on women.

The Qur’an made it crystal clear women are equal in spirituality, worth and education. The first convert to Islam was a woman and women held an equal role in society from the beginning. I began to realise male-dominated cultures had hijacked the religion and tried to use their cultures to subjugate and oppress women. I soon realised that honour killings, forced marriages, FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) had absolutely nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with these patriarchal societies.

What are your views on the main things that need to be done now for women in the Middle East, and for Islamic women in the West?

Women of faith and no faith need to learn from each other and, through mutual respect, strengthen their understandings. The treatment of women globally is shocking. For instance in America of the 1200 murdered annually around 400 die through domestic violence. Making a comparative study across the globe women in the USA are less safe in the home than women in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

By the time we die at least one in three of us globally will have experienced some form of abuse or violence at the hands of a man.  This abuse crosses faith, cultures, classes etc. Women need to unite to use our strengths to combat this.

The sisterhood should become a global entity and not be mutually exclusive to women of faith or to those of no faith.

What do you think is the biggest threat to western women? And to women in the Middle East/ North Africa?

Men are the biggest threat … and those few women who mistakenly support the sort of men who undermine women daily in the classroom, boardrooms, workplace etc.

What is your opinion on the Egyptian ‘naked blogger’ Aliaa Mahdy – by refusing to cover up as her culture would expect her to, what message do you think that she sent out, whether inadvertently or deliberately?

There are attention seekers who want to make a point in every culture and they are courted and encouraged by those with their own agendas. At the end of the day she was exploited although she might not feel she was.

What would you say to these comments, published in the Guardian last year?

When a woman is the sum total of her headscarf and hymen – that is, what's on her head and what is between her legs – then nakedness and sex become weapons of political resistance.”

I don’t know a single Muslim woman who is judged purely on her hijab or virginity. It’s a grossly offensive thing to say and ignores the complexities, characteristics and personality of the individual. To view a woman purely as a hijabi is so one dimensional.

Aliaa Mahdy told her critics: "Put on trial the artists' models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hang-ups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression."

I would ask her to think carefully about her actions and how they impact on others because with freedom of expression comes responsibility. But just because I don't agree with someone doesn't mean I can't respect from where they're coming. We are all victims of exploitation one way or another and we just have to be careful not to fall in to that trap.

The journalist who made the 'headscarf and hymen' comment is Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian and Muslim who has worked for years in the Middle East.

I'm aware of Mona's work, some of it I respect and some I don't but that's what makes a great columnist. You have to be outspoken and provocative. Mona is typical of Arab women - opinionated, bright and quite forceful and yet there are those in the west who continue not to see beyond someone's geographic location or postcode before putting them in a pigeon hole. As a young girl from mining communities in the North East, I recognise this problem.

If I had a message it would be: Stop trying to put us in boxes.

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