Muslim women's sense of sisterhood makes "Western feminism pale into insignificance", says Yvonne Ridley, the tabloid journalist who converted to Islam after her experiences in a Taleban jail.

"I know I shouldn't generalise, but Western women are always bad-mouthing each other, pinching each other's husbands and boyfriends and trying to pull each other down," says Ms Ridley, a dryly witty Brit in her mid-40s who is speaking in New Zealand this week.

"Muslim women pull each other up and are encouraging of each other. They pull together."

That, coupled with her discovery that Islam was not the oppressor of women as she had believed, persuaded her to trade her Protestant faith for Islam in 2003.

Thrice-married and solo mum to 12-year-old Daisy, Ms Ridley exchanged a hedonistic life full of overwork and late-night boozing ("I used to be like a tightly coiled spring and I hated my own company") for alcohol-free piousness, full-time hijab (hair coverings) and five prayer sessions daily.

"I'm much calmer now," she admits. "Life is simpler. I'm happier and healthier."

Ms Ridley, now political editor of Islam Channel, a London-based satellite service, enjoys the respectful behaviour that her conversion prompts in others. It's a while since she has heard a really filthy joke and doesn't miss them. Her hijab has provoked hostile glares in public. She is not disturbed, but wonders what stokes such aggression.

With a foot in both Western and Muslim worlds, Ridley is a frank and often amusing commentator on the gulf between. She hit the headlines in 2001 after the September 11 attacks. Then a Sunday Express journalist, she sneaked into Afghanistan, at the time ruled by the fundamentalist Taleban.

According to her darkly funny book In the Hands of the Taliban, she was burqa-clad and posing as a deaf mute when the donkey she was mounting moved. Ridley yelled "Flaming Nora!" and as she reached for the reins, her camera - a banned item - swung into the view of a passing Taleban soldier.

During her 10 days in captivity, Ms Ridley was treated respectfully. Although terrified, she decided to behave as badly as possible, spitting and swearing. There was, she says wryly, no chance of getting Stockholm Syndrome - a condition in which hostages begin to side with their kidnappers.

Once home, she started reading up on Islam and got a shock: "The Koran makes it clear that women are the equal of men. The image I had ... was that they were shackled to the kitchen sink."

The Muslim women she met were welcoming. Still, it took her 2 1/2 years to convert.

Some friends "ran away, but they're creeping back". Her mum, a regular church-goer, was accepting; her father died two months ago still "in denial".

In New Zealand for the first time, Ms Ridley has been impressed by the cohesiveness of New Zealand's 40,000-strong Muslim community. Followers of different backgrounds mingle easily, something she says does not happen in Britain.

The openness reinforced what she had heard: that New Zealand "has a fantastic reputation for its humanitarian approach and welcoming refugees with open arms - and for refusing to get involved in an illegal war".

She is now an fervent anti-war campaigner - "bombs don't discriminate" - and admires New Zealand having the "guts to plough its own furrow".

* Yvonne Ridley speaks at a free open-to-all event at 6.45pm this Saturday, July 30, at the Gandhi Hall, 145 New North Rd, Eden Terrace, central Auckland. Her website is