THE LEVANT EXCLUSIVE – This week The Levant spoke to Yvonne Ridley, the British journalist and activist. An inspiration for many and a brilliant writer, Yvonne shared her thought with us.
THE LEVANT – I would like you to elaborate on your career as a western and Muslim woman. How you feel you’re being perceived and if your faith has given you a different outlook on issues you’re reporting on.
I was a successful journalist in the print media before I converted to Islam. After I started wearing a hijab the BBC called me ‘the former journalist, Yvonne Ridley’ until I corrected them. It was an extremely telling comment to make.
My Faith certainly has given me a wider outlook and now I believe I’m much more thoughtful in reporting especially when it comes to other peoples’ faiths, cultures and gender issues.
YVONNE RIDLEY – You covered issues relating to the Middle East and the Islamic world at great length, how would you define western misconception? And why do you think it is that western media still understand Islam as a inherent threat to Western civilization?
The stereotype that Muslim women are quiet, uneducated, subjigated creatures still holds and it is extremely annoying because most of the women I’ve met are quite the reverse; they’re bright, educated, opinionated and ambitious.
THE LEVANT – You always have been a great champion of women rights, how would you define your role now as a western Muslim woman? What would like people to know?
YVONNE RIDLEY – I was the youngest of three girls brought up in a working class community where men were the breadwinners in the coal-mining, steel-making and ship-building industries. Women, on the otherhand, were raised not to have high expectations beyond marriage and were pushed in the direction of the civil service, NHS and factory work.
THE LEVANT – How did you started your journey into journalism and what motivate you?
YVONNE RIDLEY – I read a piece by Robert Fisk about the massacre of Sabra and Shatilla and it made me cry it was so powerful – I revisited it last week and cried again. That was when I began to aspire to being a journalist, I think I was around 14 and my careers master tried to dissuade me – he tried to dissuade anyone who wasn’t in the A-stream and learning Latin, from having high expectations about their future.
When I was 16 I wrote to every newspaper group in the country and then did the same the following year and was accepted for a job on the local newspaper three miles from my family home – I had got a place at the London College of Printing for a magazine course and an interview at The Belfast Telegraph. It was the height of the Irish troubles and my parents freaked out at Belfast and the IRA was running a bombing campaign in London hitting a tube station near the LCP so I stayed at home.
THE LEVANT – What would you want to achieve moving forward?
YVONNE RIDLEY – I wish I had stayed within the mainstream media and tried to make a difference within although I’ve no regrets about moving in to online journalism, TV and radio.
THE LEVANT – What advice would give young aspiring journalists?
YVONNE RIDLEY -Learn to film, edit, present as well as write and then you will never be out of work or have to rely on another when working in remote or troublesome areas. Don’t worry about not being impartial but always report from the human end and support the victims or the oppressed so you can give them a voice.
THE LEVANT – Can you share with us an experience which particularly marked you, besides of course your encounter with the Taliban.
YVONNE RIDLEY – I was one of the first journalists to reach the town of Lockerbie the night Pan Am Flight 103 exploded above the Border Town; it set me off on a journey which would take me to Syria and become the first Western journalist to interview the PLFP leader Ahmed Jibril (ahead of Robert Fisk). Although I was aware of the Palestinian issue as a teenager this encounter really triggered my interest in the Middle East.
THE LEVANT – Looking back how do you think journalism changed over the years?
YVONNE RIDLEY – The accountants took over and destroyed investigative journalism and the industry as a whole. At one time every single district and county council was covered by journalists holding elected members to account. God only knows what sort of abuse of process and corruption is taking place now as no one is there to challenge and report on decisions being made. The army of regional journalists has dwindled along with weekly and daily regional titles and those that have survived have had their newsrooms shrunk beyond belief. Evening newspapers are now put to bed the day before whereas, for instance, The Newcastle Evening Chronicle used to have eight editions with the Late Night Final coming off the presses at 4.45pm and on sale in the streets by 5pm. News is no longer instant in printed media.
However it’s not all bad. Thanks to technology and citizen journalists we are getting images straight from war fronts thousands of miles away and it is becoming more difficult for powerful people in powerful places to commit atrocities without the world finding out.
THE LEVANT – Journalists have often been accused of bias. How do you reconcile impartiality when dealing with issues which pertain to Islam? Also where and when do you think one’s moral should kick in?
YVONNE RIDLEY – Impartiality has never existed in journalism but those of us who feel responsible do strive for balance. For instance you would never give equal space to the camp commandant of a concentration camp and his victims. Journalists are there to give voice to the voiceless and support the victims of atrocities whether man-made or natural disasters.
As for issues to islam, I use the same benchmark. Good is good and bad is bad regardless of faith and if Muslims do bad things then it should be written about and exposed. there are a lot of bad things happening in the Muslim communities home and abroad and, regardless of Faith, bad people need to be exposed.
THE LEVANT –Yvonne Ridley is a well-known media figure, what of the woman? Can you tell me a bit more?
YVONNE RIDLEY – Sadly I seem to polarize people so you’ll rarely find people indifferent to me. I get very sad by those who think they know me, write me off as barking mad and then it turns out they’ve never met me. I have to say everyone I have met and spoken to on a one-to-one basis usually change their mind but there are those who will bristle when they see me & for some reason think they have a right to be abusive.
THE LEVANT – Anything else you would like to share with The Levant?
YVONNE RIDLEY – Since I became a Muslim I’ve become a successful documentary-maker, a qualified beekeeper, graduated with an MA in Modern War Studies and run a small farm, have given media lectures in some of the world’s top universities, spoke in Tahrir Square in front of a million people two days before Hosni Mubarak stood down, been shot at in Afghanistan by the Taliban (again), arrested by a militia group in Tripoli, sat with tribal elders in Darfur to negotiate peace, addressed a security conference in Mexico on hostage-taking and have given advice and helped in hostage negotiations several times. I’ve also raised millions for charities and have broken the siege of Gaza by land after helping to found the Viva Palestina convoy which drove across North Africa as well as sailing into Gaza Port on the first boat in 41 years to break the siege by water. I have a bucket list that’s still bulging and nothing or no one will stop me just because I’m a Muslim woman.