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Yvonne Ridley was a hard-drinking, hard-nosed news reporter until her capture by the Taliban |
and subsequent conversion to Islam. She tells Eloise Napier how the Koran changed her life
It was September 28 2001 - just 17 days after the
destruction of the World Trade Centre. Yvonne Ridley,
a 43-year-old single mother, and chief reporter at the
Sunday Express, had been sent to Islamabad in nearby
Pakistan to cover the start of George Bush's "war on
terror". In search of a scoop, she had dressed in a
burka and made an illegal sortie over the border into
It was on the return journey, just two miles from the
border, that her careful plans unravelled, with
disastrous consequences. Ridley was passing by a
Taliban checkpoint when her donkey bolted. She was
just attempting to scoop up the reins when her camera
slipped from her shoulder and into full view of a
Ridley thought she was either going to be gang-raped or stoned to death.
"I wondered how much pain I could take and prayed that, whatever happened, I would die quickly," she says.
In the event, she was only taken to jail, first in Jalalabad and then in Kabul, and held for a total of 10 days.
In her diary, she recorded: "They [her Taliban captors] constantly refer to me as their guest and say that they are sad if I am sad.
I can't believe it ... I wish everyone at home knew how I was being treated.
I bet people think I am being tortured, beaten and sexually abused.
Instead, I am being treated with kindness and respect. It is unbelievable."
Her capture was to mark a watershed in Ridley's life -
it began her own road to Islam and her decision to
become a committed peace campaigner. She quit her job
at the Sunday Express and moved to Qatar, leaving her
only child in the UK.
"I always wanted to be an actress," says Ridley with a
lopsided smile. It is now two years and three months
since her capture, and we are sitting beside a
swimming pool in the well-heeled compound where she
lives in Doha, Qatar's capital. It is midwinter, and
the heat from the sun is gentle on our backs. Far from
wearing the voluminous robes sported by many Muslim
women in Qatar, she is clad in green combat-style
trousers and a large black T-shirt bearing the words
"Don't panic, I'm Islamic!"
When, last year, Ridley converted from C of E to
Islam, some commentators suggested that she was
suffering from Stockholm syndrome - the psychological
condition in which captives divest themselves of
former beliefs and adopt those of their captors.
Ridley rejects this, saying that at no time did anyone
try to brainwash her. She tells me that, at one point,
she was visited by a cleric who asked if she wanted to
convert to Islam. She refused but said that she would
read the Koran if she ever got out. She kept her word,
and what began as an academic exercise became a
It seems ironic that such a strident believer in the equality of the sexes should choose a religion that
appears to encourage the subjugation of women. "On the contrary," she says,
"the Koran makes it clear that women are equal in spirituality, worth and education.
What everyone forgets is that Islam is perfect; people are not."
What has impressed Ridley more than anything else is
the sisterhood among Muslim women. "They are always
helping each other in matters such as childcare,
fundraising and studying. They want each other to do
well. I hadn't expected this. In the west we're all
too busy pinching each other's boyfriends, and
criticising each other's clothes or weight."
The daughter of a miner from Durham, Ridley started in
provincial newspapers before progressing to jobs with
the Daily Mirror, the News of the World, the Sunday
Times and the Daily and Sunday Express. "I reached the
rank of editor by being one of the boys, although I
didn't recognise this until much later," she says.
Things changed when Ridley had her daughter, Daisy -
the result, as she bitterly regrets admitting, of a
burst condom. Suddenly, she couldn't do the after-work
drinks where all the networking was done and deals
were struck. For her, motherhood was "like being in a
three-legged race with a ball and chain on the legs".
Her solution to the problem was to send Daisy, now 11,
to boarding school in the Lake District. (Daisy's
father and grandparents live close by and provide a
stable home life for her.) In the holidays, Daisy
often flies out to join her mother and the two of them
take off on travel expeditions.
As we wander back to Ridley's villa, with its airy
rooms and marble floor, I comment that private
education doesn't come cheap. She gives me a
semi-smile. "In my bleakest, blackest moments I look
at Daisy and I think: 'Porsche Boxster!' "
Ridley has no zeal to convert the rest of the world to
Islam, and is happy for Daisy to be brought up a
Christian - although "of course, it's a very good
stepping-stone to Islam." In the background, the call
to prayer echoes through the windows. I ask her if she
prays five times a day, as good Muslims are supposed
to do. She says she tries to, although she hasn't
appeared to do so while I have been with her - despite
having heard the call several times already.
The indiscriminate bombing of civilians during the war
in order to destroy Afghan morale affected Ridley more
than anything before or since. As a result of her
disgust, she contacted the anti-war campaigner and
Labour MP, Alan Simpson. He persuaded her to talk at
the Stop the War Coalition rally in Trafalgar Square
in September 2002. Since then, she has travelled
across the world addressing anti-war conferences,
meetings and rallies.
Her retainer with the Sunday Express ended in February
2003 and, shortly afterwards, al-Jazeera offered her a
job as senior editor of its English-language website.
Life at the new job was rosy to start with but, within
six months, a secretary from the office was sent round
to her home with the message: "You've been
Her dismissal has never been fully explained by the
news station, though a spokesman cites "administrative
reasons". Reading between the lines, it seems that
Ridley was just more trouble than she was worth. Not
only did she attempt to set up the first branch of the
National Union of Journalists in the Middle East, but
her reports on the conduct of US soldiers in Iraq are
also said to have angered the White House. When
al-Jazeera suggested she sign an inferior contract,
Ridley refused. In retaliation, her former employers
declined to sanction her exit visa and so, when I
visited her, she was stuck in Doha, twiddling her
thumbs while the lawyers tried to thrash out the
Unprompted, she reveals that al-Jazeera is sitting on several Osama bin Laden videotapes,
none of which has been released because of White House fears that they will incite more terrorist attacks.
She then mentions that the UK intelligence services called her in for questioning after her business cards
were found on terrorist suspects. With a certain panache, she refused to be questioned in Scotland Yard and, instead,
insisted on meeting her interviewers in Patisserie Valerie on London's Old Compton Street.
With rows of croissants and strawberry tarts sitting prettily behind the glass counter, she told the officers firmly:
"If I was involved in anything suspicious, do you think I'd be stupid enough to give my card to a known suspect?"
Next, Ridley brings up the subject of possible
sleeping al-Qaida terrorist cells in the UK. "My
theory is that MI6 knows full well who some of the
players are," she says. "I suspect there is an
unwritten agreement that nothing [terrorist attacks]
will happen in the UK, so long as MI6 is kept in the
loop." I ask her how she has come to this conclusion,
and her answer is simple. "Through talking to people
from all backgrounds - the intelligence service, the
Muslim world ..."
Later that evening, we visit a restaurant close to her
home. The food is delicious, although Ridley, now
swathed in dramatic black robes, eats little and
instead puffs cherry tobacco from a large, ornate
hookah. A few of her former colleagues from al-Jazeera
join us. They are all British Muslims, bright and
younger than Ridley. They have an open affection for
her and, when the conversation is not centred on
office gossip, they tease her gently. She entertains
everyone with an anecdote from her Taliban odyssey.
The last few days of her incarceration were spent in a
Kabul jail, where a group of evangelical Christian
missionaries were imprisoned. They were accused of
trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, a charge
they hotly denied. When Ridley made a second trip to
Afghanistan the following year, she discovered that
the Christians' headquarters had been located right
next door to Osama bin Laden's former house. They had
had no idea.
Ridley's first novel, Ticket to Paradise, has just
been published in the US. Rife with thinly disguised
scandal, it is likely to stir up a hornet's nest in
Fleet Street. More novels and a move into politics
look likely; she is considering standing for the
European parliament. She has no regrets about the path
her life has taken. The sobriety that has come with
her new lifestyle has made her realise that much of
her old confidence was founded on alcohol.
"I don't know how long my celebrity/notoriety is going
to last, but I am going to use it for as long as I am
able, to highlight injustices and atrocities," says
Ridley. "Hopefully, it will change perceptions, or at
least get people talking more about what is happening
- and how bombs and bullets are not necessarily the