Comparisons between the work of Junior Leagues and that of Zainab Salbi are not as far-fetched as they may seem—at least once you take the AK-47s out of the picture. The impassioned advocate for women victims of violence and deprivation may touch down in battlegrounds on several continents in a single month, but her ultimate goal is one that Junior League members share: improving the lives of others by learning their stories and negotiating with local influencers to take on challenges in a sustainable and meaningful way.
“If you want to empower leadership, you’ve got to go through the war and peace within,” says the three-time author who delivered the keynote address at AJLI’s 91st Annual Conference in Washington, D.C.
In her speech, entitled “Women, War and Peace,” the Iraqi-American explained how she parlayed her survival of brutal oppression in Saddam Hussein’s inner circle—and an abusive marriage—into a career supporting women in conflict zones around the world. She brought delegates to their feet.
The daughter of a teacher and a pilot who worked directly for the dictator, Salbi was shipped off to the States in 1990 via an arranged marriage that her parents believed would protect her from Hussein and the threats endemic to his Baathist regime.
Cruel and destructive, the marriage failed, and in 1993, after being simultaneously horrified
by the atrocities taking place in Bosnia and her study of the Holocaust, she founded Women for Women International in order to support women in places of unrest. She was 23 years old.
“There was genocide going on,” she says. “It was a similar story to what went on in the concentration camps and yet after the Holocaust everyone had said ‘never again.’ We needed to do something about it.”
Turned down by the philanthropies to which she appealed for help in addressing the violence,
she was at last sponsored by the board of directors of a Unitarian church. Women for Women International was born.
Though she has since left the role of CEO, the agency is now 750 staffers strong with offices in 10 countries. It has provided $100 million in aid to 300,000 women in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Iraq, Colombia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Nigeria and elsewhere. The aid takes the form of micro-lending, vocational training, career preparation, correspondence between women experiencing hardship and their sponsors, and instruction in women’s rights.
Slowly, through her exposure to women who’d survived unspeakable events—rape at knife point, starvation after fleeing their homelands as refugees, poverty after watching their houses set on fire or prostitution by force in brothels (she believes they’re as awful as war)—she began to realize that she was suppressing the story of the experience she had personally endured. And that this denial was preventing her from fully connecting with the women she supports.
“We think of poverty and rape and violence as separate from us, so we don’t take ownership
of our inner story. If every woman spoke up and broke the silence with her own story, whether in a corporate structure or in a small village, there would be a huge change.”
In the 20 years since she founded her not-for-profit, Salbi says that violence is not occurring any less often and that the marginalization of women has not waned. What has changed, she says, is that women are speaking up more frequently and that they have more ways in which to own their stories.
“The women’s issue is a global issue,” she says. “It happens to everyone—rich and poor, black and white, literate and illiterate, highly educated and less educated.”
The peripatetic humanitarian is now co-producing a documentary about the women of the Arab Spring that focuses on young Muslim women in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“This is where I believe the fire is on high,” she says.
Now using the media as a forum, she has also established a companion charity.
“We’re figuring out how to give these young women the platform and the space to speak up.”
Salbi, who has won a slew of awards and honors, including being named to the Clinton Global Initiative and to the UN Secretary General’s Civil Society Advisory Group, says that her own anger at what she was seeing almost destroyed her. But learning from the women she helps—she says they’re trapped “in the heart of darkness”—how to release it is what enabled her to carry on.
“Those I was supposed to save ended up saving me. Now all I care about is being able to walk and live my truth every single day.”