Yvonne Ridley: finding feminism in Islam

Posted on 17 March 2012


Posted on 16 March 2012.
Lucy Miller
WVoN co-editor

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.

WVoN spoke to her about feminism, faith and fundamentalism.

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 are your main criticisms of western feminism?

The feminism I supported in the 70s tended to exclude huge groups of women from the Muslim and Asian communities. I don’t think it was deliberate, just thoughtless.

What would you say to critics that claim the nikab exists to protect wearers from the advances of men in the first place, thus seeming to restrict women’s behaviour rather than attempting to tackle the behaviour of those who may seek to oppress them?

There are two references in the Qur’an about what women should wear and essentially they say we should be covered and dress modestly. The nikab is worn by a few women – mainly white, western converts – who feel it brings them closer to God.

It is wrong to punish a woman for her piety. The ‘hiding ourselves from men’ thing is a bit of polemic when it comes to the nikab.

I would defend a woman’s right to wear what she wants.

How would you respond to the claim that it is a barrier to communication in Britain, because it covers the face?

We live in an age of emails, faxes, text messaging, radio – none of which involve eye contact or direct communication. How can it be a barrier when we have all these multi-communication systems at our finger tips?

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.

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.

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.

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.

You were fired by Al Jazeera in 2003 for being ‘too vocal’, and won a case for sexual discrimination against the Islam Channel in 2008. How has the fight for rights of female journalists been going since then?

I have learned not to take crap from anyone. I knew I had been wronged by my male bosses and so I challenged them through the courts. I even offered to go through the Shari’a route with Al Jazeera.

The courts in Qatar supported me right up to the Court of Appeal, as did the employment courts in London over the Islam Channel.

And yet I was sneered at by Islamaphobes and criticised by some Muslim men for taking action. If you are wronged it doesn’t matter by whom. Justice is justice and it should be available to everyone in equal measure.

In your article ‘Hijab is my choice, not compulsion’ you state that ‘in Islam, superiority is achieved by piety’. What of those in religious societies who do not want to follow this path?

My belief, like Christians, Jews and Muslims, is that one day we will all be answerable to God and it is He alone who will judge us. He will not judge us on degrees, work records, the size of our wealth or homes. We will be judged on our good deeds, character – our piety.

And so, on the Day of Judgement, that is how we will be judged and success in this life is no guarantee of a fast track in the next. If someone does not believe this then that is fine. I’m not here to judge anyone but we will all, I believe, be answerable for our deeds one day. And for this we have to take individual responsibility.

My job is to promote respect and tolerance across people of faith and no faith but only if they come to me and ask. I’m not an evangelical or someone who goes out to try and convert people.

I am the same person I was 10 years ago but now I wear a hijab and don’t drink alcohol. For this I’ve been called brainwashed, a Taliban apologist, a terrorist supporter and even my family who are not Muslims have received abuse.