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British journalist Yvonne Ridley, who converted to Islam after being captured by the Taliban, says that there is a way to be a feminist Muslim.|
Yvonne's veil betrays her from afar as she enters the Westgate House, where she works for the London studio of the newly launched Iranian Press TV channel.
Made up of two pieces matching in color, where the upper one surrounds the top of her head, the style is unique. It is that of a British feminist whose journey to Islam began in an Afghan cell.
Yvonne made international headlines when she was captured by the Taliban in September 2001, on the brink of the American offensive. Disguised as an Afghan woman in a head-to-toe burka, and riding on a donkey, the Sunday Express reporter entered the country without her passport. She intended to talk to ordinary Afghans and write a human-interest feature.
But the Taliban suspected her of being a spy for the Americans at a time when Afghans flew by thousands to secure their lives outside their country's borders. Yvonne, then 42, replied to them: "If I was to be an American spy, then God help the Americans."
Yvonne describes her cell as "very basic, with no running water," although the staff treated her with respect which she arrogantly rejected, especially when she was prevented from telephoning her daughter Daisy on her 8th birthday. "I spat at my captors, I threw things at them," she now confesses. "I don't know who was happier when I crossed the border to freedom, they or me -- they just wanted to get rid of me."
Eventually, Taliban leader Mullah Omar ordered her release "on humanitarian grounds."
Newspapers then stopped telling Yvonne's story. But here started the process that switched the wine and cigarette admirer into a devout Muslim who prays five times a day.
Rejecting people's initial rumors which suggested that she suffers from the Stockholm syndrome, Yvonne says she made the step by pure conviction.
"To suffer from that disease, you have to bond with your captors over a long period of time," she argues. "I was there for only 10 days. I did not bond with the Taliban. The only people I bonded with in this very short time were six amazing Christian fundamentalist women whom I shared a cell with. So, if I were suffering from any syndrome, it would have been with my cellmates, and I should be in Texas now, running a tambourine and going halleluiah."
Yvonne's passage to Islam started with the promise she made to the Taliban that, once freed, she would read the Koran. "The fulfillment of this promise turned very soon to a spiritual journey for me," she says, "because, after having finished reading this book, I started an academic exercise and read the supporting literature."
But how on earth can a feminist as feisty as Yvonne turn to an "extremist Muslim," as people libel her, after being captured by the regime known as the most brutal in the world towards women?
When initially reading the Muslims' holy book, Yvonne recalls, her aim was to "find out how it teaches men to beat their wives." But she emerged entranced. "The Koran makes it crystal clear that women are equal to men in spirituality, worth and education," she realized.
Then, in March 2002, after the fall of the Taliban, she returned to Afghanistan; but there her surprise was even greater.
The very same cell in the Kabul women prison where she had been detained was now "packed with young girls aged 12-16 whose only crime was that they had run away from home because they didn't want to be second and third wives for men twice their ages," Yvonne says. "The whole thing of ing a girl, which was forbidden and stamped out by the Taliban, is now widely practiced."
Comparing the women's situation under both, the former and the current Afghan regimes, she observes: "There are no career women coming out in Afghanistan except a few individuals who saw their lives improving," adding, "some women told me they missed the security they had under the Taliban."