Bathed in the soft spring sunlight, the market at the Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama’ah conference looked idyllic, as children played on the bouncy castle or queued to have their faces painted. The fairy floss and ice cream stands did a roaring trade. Of course, the prevalence of women in headscarves and men with Islamic-style beards — never mind the smattering of women wearing face veils — would lead some commentators to describe such a scene as “unAustralian”, despite its overall resemblance to any busy local fete.

Among the list of speakers was Muslim “firebrand” Yvonne Ridley. Having seen Ridley lead a small class and share a coffee with a group of women the day before, I was keen to see her in action with a larger audience, as well as conduct a one-on-one interview.

If the Taliban and indeed the entire religion of Islam had confounded Ridley’s expectations, then Ridley herself had confounded mine. I had expected her to be dour and prudish, and somehow or other I had got the impression that she was an upper-class English dilettante — like a 21st-century incarnation of one of the more dysfunctional Mitford sisters. Instead she was warm, down-to-earth and very proud of her northern English working-class origins.

Her lecture attracted a packed house of women and girls, who listened appreciatively as she told them to push their limits, take advantage of educational opportunities and never believe that they could not achieve a worthwhile goal. She said that she had always regretted not having gone to university, but had enrolled in tertiary education late in life with the encouragement of Muslim sisters. When she had told them that it was too late for her to take such a step, they had asked her “are you a hypocrite?” and pointed out that she was always telling them never to give up on their ambitions. Importantly, she also spoke about the importance of women’s role in public life — a point that went down particularly well with her audience. As one young woman said: “We hear a lot about the importance of our role within the home, but she was saying that we have an important role talking about Islam outside the home.”

In the current hate-loaded environment, the conference and the youth centre that hosted it also provide a place of refuge. A woman who wore niqab said she had faced a heightened level of aggression since Jacqui Lambie’s ban-the-burqa spiel last week. “They yell at me while I’m driving. Men going” — wolf-whistle — “and screaming, ‘rip it off!'” Another young woman in hijab said she was reluctant to leave Broadmeadows — “Muslim central”. Outside of Broadmeadows, she has had people chase her, yelling at her to go back to where she came from.

Ridley has made global headlines over her bluntly expressed opinions on such a wide range of issues that it was difficult to know where to start. However, after witnessing her rock star reception from the women and girls at the conference, I decided to focus on the issue of gender. Ridley dismisses the notion that the Taliban had denied education to women and girls in Afghanistan as “propaganda”. I asked her whether she thought that the situation might have varied across the country.

“It varied, and it varied purely on the basis of finance. The Northern Alliance still had control of about 10% of the country and they were struggling to open girls’ schools as well, because the money just wasn’t coming in. What the Taliban didn’t want was Western-style curriculum, which they thought were flawed, in that they were trying to create an Islamic state, and they wanted a curriculum that reflected that.”

She conceded that girls’ schools in Pakistan had been subjected to Taliban attacks but added “the Pakistan Taliban is quite different to the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistan Taliban is made up of a whole range of organisations, ranging from criminal to ultra-religious.”

I confessed to having been taken by surprise by her earthy sense of humour. Ridley attributes this to her working-class origins, and says it helped her through her two-week imprisonment by the Taliban in 2001: “The whole Taliban experience, I was in a very dark place, but humour for me is a lifeline. I was able to laugh at the situation, and some of the things that happened were really, really funny — basically because of the clash of cultures.” Confronted by a man who was yelling, “How can you have a daughter if you don’t have a husband?”, laughter struck her as the most appropriate response to his “primary-school innocence”.

Ridley also expressed her admiration for British suffragettes such as Emily Davison, who threw herself under the king’s horse. The suffragettes, Ridley says, were regarded as “terrorists” in their day, throwing bricks through windows and vandalising property in the name of women’s rights. Their experience demonstrates that “given the chance, men will dominate and control. It’s in their nature.”

After reading Ridley’s description of Jacqui Lambie as “a daft bint”, a colleague had remarked that Ridley reminded her of Germaine Greer. I was interested to see whether Ridley was flattered or insulted by the comparison.

“I think Germaine Greer is an amazing woman, and I’m in awe of her. I would love to sit down with her and tell her my theory about how the feminist movement in the 1970s inadvertently excluded huge swathes of women — Asian women and especially women from Muslim backgrounds. It became a broader movement a few decades later with the anti-war movement, which allowed women of any faith or no faith to come together to protest about war. The anti-war movement was very empowering for Muslim women.”

Despite very obvious points of difference, Greer and Ridley are both intriguing figures who share a strong renegade quality. I would certainly pay good money to see them come face to face.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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