Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2001-2002

East is East and West is West – and when it comes to liberty sometimes the twain do meet

Yvonne Ridley is a feisty journalist who says what she means. Chief reporter on the Sunday Express, Ridley was captured by the Taliban and held for ten days in Jalalabad and Kabul before being released just after the Americans had begun to bomb Afghanistan as part of the “war on terrorism”.

What emerges from her memories of those uncertain days is the way she was treated – with courtesy and respect – by the Taliban guards and officials. The West, she seems to be saying, wished it were different.

At 43, Ridley – who has a young daughter whose father is a Palestinian – hid under a burqa in order to get into Afghanistan. Part of the subterfuge meant she had to be told when to stand, when to sit, when to speak and when to shut up. That is something she says she will remember for the rest of her life.

Already, Yvonne Ridley has written a book about her experiences, which is reviewed here. It’s called In the Hands of the Taliban, and in it she points the finger at a possible American attempt to keep her there.

Ridley’s story is a remarkable one – and she reflects on some aspects of it here, for G&LH.

When Our Freedom is Under Attack

some thoughts from Yvonne Ridley

On “Blunkett’s Law” and incitement to religious hatred ...

This government has totally lost it. Tony Blair’s drunk on power. David Blunkett has become a humourless politician; and [as for] this attempt to bring in internment – Ben Franklin once said that any nation that attempts to sacrifice freedom for security deserves neither.

And yet Blunkett ...! Our soldiers are going out to fight for the very freedoms that Blunkett and Blair are attacking at home. Where is it going to stop? Everyone should be concerned. I mean, films like The Life of Brian we’re not going to be able to watch.

The implications are far-reaching. Anything that restricts freedom of speech has to be bad, and we try as much as we can to protect our freedom, but it’s under attack all the time.

It really is. The Taliban told me Tony Blair would want me to be released and I said, “You must be joking. I’ve written so many bad things about his government he’ll be laughing his head off that you’ve got me here; he’d be a very happy man.”

On her treatment by the Taliban ...

They treated me very well, and I keep going back to this respect and courtesy thing but the way that I saw women being treated – well, ironically the worst experience for me was before I was captured, when I had to pretend I was an Afghan woman and I was told to sit and stand and wait in the car.

And that was horrendous. Wearing the burqa – that was probably, well, I was in tears at one stage when they were sending me off to Kabul and they told me to put the burqa back on and I said, “Please, please, don’t make me do that”, because it was just such a horrendous garment – for me, anyway. It was a nightmare.

And when the Northern Alliance liberated Kabul – after [the BBC’s] John Simpson! – I thought: Great, they’ll be burning burqas. There were a few for the benefit of the media, but as soon as the cameras went the burqas were back on.

And then the next day or the day after they had a cinema opening for the first time in Kabul and crowds were there – and they were all men. Women are still not featuring in this society.

The Taliban introduced the burqa. They used the mujehedin as an excuse saying they’d raped and abused their women and it would never ever happen again. And they had to stay at home, not go out to work – and if they did go out they had to wear a burqa.

On how the Taliban treat women ...

It does make everything more thought-provoking. For instance, a lot of the Taliban have never come into contact with women before. You know, they’ve been orphaned, they’ve been brought up in these madrases [religious schools], they’ve been preached to by these mullahs and so they’ve got no experience of women.

And of course, because they would put them in the burqa, it’s so much easier to beat somebody when you can’t see their face.

I was interviewed by the BBC World Service, their Russian Department, and they said, “Oh, you said these men were incredibly good-looking” and I said, “I have to say that they were the best-looking army I’ve ever seen – they were gorgeous.” And he said, “Did they try to abuse you?” and I said, “Neither physically nor sexually, no.” And he said, “Oh, right. So, then, er, do you think they’re gay?” And I thought: How on earth has he made that leap from one thing to another?

And it’s obviously the way that the Russians were thinking. I don’t know whether the Russians are homophobic or what, but they hate to see the Taliban. And so they were obviously wanting me to draw some sort of ridiculous comparison about their sexuality. Kabul was always regarded as Sin City, and in the major cities the restrictions [on women] are enforced more rigidly, but it’s not practical in the countryside. I think the women in the countryside have more freedoms.

Somebody was telling me when I was in prison in Kabul that one of the prison governors had said something like “I’ve got to go home to meet the boss.” And he was actually referring to his wife! So, within the home, some women obviously rule the roost. Others don’t. There are women who have been brutalised by men in homes in England.

And as for lesbians ...

It’s a women’s thing I don’t think the men would notice. The Taliban are a very young people.

Most of them are in their teens and early twenties and they’ve had no contact with women at all, so if they fell over two lesbians they wouldn’t know what they’d fallen over.

The women I did meet were really strong and feisty and lovely.

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Created : Sunday, 2002-02-17 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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