It was Yvonne’s camera that betrayed her to the Taliban in September 2001, landing her in an Afghan cell for ten days and starting a long process in her life.
In front of a Taliban soldier, it slipped from her shoulder when, disguised as an Afghan woman with a head-to-toe burka, she entered the country without her passport on the brink of the US-led invasion. The Sunday Express reporter wanted to talk to ordinary Afghans and write a human interest feature.
But the Taliban suspected Yvonne 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.” Mullah Omar eventually ordered her release on “humanitarian grounds”. But the camera was never to be returned to her.
“I’m sorry, the Taliban confiscated my camera when I was arrested, so I have no picture from that period,” reads her email to me when I asked her if she has a photo of her cell to illustrate this feature.
Yvonne describes the prison as “very basic, with no running water”, although the staff treated her with respect, which she, the feisty British journalist, brutally rejected. “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.”
With the fall of the Taliban, the cellmates were exchanged. When Yvonne returned to Afghanistan after her release and visited the cell in the women’s section of a Kabul prison, she was surprised.
“It was 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,” says Yvonne, who is a campaigning feminist. “The whole thing of selling 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.”
The first Afghan Minister of women’s affairs to work after the fall of the Taliban, Dr Sima Samar, did not even have her own office, Yvonne realized when she met her in March 2002. “In the end she was hounded out of office,” she says.
“Being a woman in Afghanistan is a tough life,” Yvonne concludes. “But it has been for centuries – it has to do with customs and traditions.” Even if women are often subjugated in Muslim societies, Islam stands far from these traditions, claims the Muslim feminist.
It was Yvonne’s capture by the Taliban that sparked the process switching her from a 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 explains. “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 Quran (the book Muslims believe to be God’s word). “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.”
When initially reading the Quran, Yvonne recalls, she intended to find out “how it teaches men to beat their wives”. But she emerged entranced. “The Quran makes it crystal clear that women are equal to men in spirituality, worth and education,” she realized.
Gradually, she began adopting Islamic practices and cutting out un-Islamic customs like alcohol and cigarettes. “I had a battle with cigarettes which I finally won – at last,” she jokes.
Yvonne also began covering her head, finding it “liberating not to be judged by the size of her legs”.
But then it was her own society that she felt oppressed by. “I’ve always been outspoken,” she says, referring, for instance, to her critical views against the way detainees in the war on terror are held captive without charge, and often tortured. “I have been a trade unionist all my live; I’ve been passionate against the war; I’ve spoken on anti-war platforms, on Muslim and non-Muslim events. But as soon as I put on a hijab (the Arabic word for the Muslim veil), I was called an extremist for my views.”
Yvonne finds that interesting. “You can’t win,” she fiercely says. “You’re criticized one minute for being silent, subjugated, oppressed and not saying anything. And when you do say something, they say: ‘Oh, she’s an extremist.'”
Although, before her conversion, she recalls looking at veiled women as ‘silent, oppressed creatures’, she now wears her veil as a means to show her Muslim identity, and to be respected as a Muslim who does not want to be offered a glass of wine.
Now that she has ‘seen the veil from both sides’, as she describes herself, Yvonne knows what she defends – Islam purely and simply.
The grades used – largely by Western media – to measure the levels of Islam such as ‘moderate Muslim’ and ‘Islamist’, are nonsense in her eyes. “What is a moderate and what is an extremist? I really don’t know,” she says. “I am a simple Muslim. I follow no scholars or sects. I merely follow the Prophet Mohammad and the Sunnah (the Arabic word for Prophet Muhammad’s tradition). Does that make me an extremist?
“I once said being a Muslim is a bit like being pregnant. You are or you are not. Whoever heard of anyone being moderately or extremely pregnant?”
Yvonne strongly opposes distortions and manipulations about Islam. She once declined an offer by a Hollywood producer who, after having read her book, In the hands of the Taliban, expressed an interest in making a film, but had misinterpreted the Taliban as “dirty, filthy, stinking Arabs”.
“First of all, the Taliban are not dirty filthy stinking Arabs as you call them,” Yvonne replied her. “They’re largely from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Furthermore, they were all very handsome young men.”
When her agent then insisted on Yvonne to agree for producing the story, she said, “I never had money in my life, so I don’t know what I’m missing, but there is no way I am going to allow somebody with such a narrow vision to do that story, because it would be totally distorted.”
It seems that, if not confiscated, Yvonne’s camera would have pictured the Afghans from a different perspective than many others’. But her pen did.
© 2007 Asma Hanif.