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Arab American Women Making an Impact: Zainab Salbi

posted on: Nov 6, 2020

By: Ivey Noojin/Arab America Contributing Writer

Zainab Salbi is a life-long advocate for women’s rights from Iraq. She has used her voice to spread the message of heartache and triumph, garnering her several awards in the process. In 2016, Foreign Policy Magazine named her one of the 100 leading global thinkers, and People Magazine listed her as one of the 25 women changing the world.

“The good, the bad, and the ugly are in every culture and every country,” Salbi said. “I refuse to be engaged in a polarizing discussion about how great we are.”

That’s what makes her work so important. She encourages us to challenge society and never let our voices go silent.

Beginning of Life

Zainab Salbi was born in Baghdad, Iraq to a family that directly worked for Saddam Hussein. Even with this connection to a repressive dictatorship, her mom made sure to teach her about women’s rights.

“My mother was my first believer and first feminist in my life,” Salbi said.

She was happy in Iraq, but she had to leave for the United States at the age of 19. Salbi was a part of an arranged husband, moving across the globe to live with a man she had never met. Even though she had visited the U.S. every summer growing up, this trip would be very different; she was scared.

Two weeks after she came to the United States, her family left Iraq. Within a month in a half Hussein invaded Iraq. She did not see her family for nine years. Even with all of this hardship and after leaving her husband, she began to create a life for herself in this new country.

“I was received by extreme generosity by anyone I encountered,” Salbi said.

She was an Iraqi woman with familial ties to Saddam Hussein, but no one in her new country seemed to care. She had no money, no permanent visa, and couldn’t talk to her family; however, Salbi managed to make a life here. She graduated from George Mason University with a degree in sociology and women’s studies. Then, she earned a master’s degree in development studies from the London School of Economics. With her newfound freedom, she was creating a new identity for herself.

The Arab American Identity

“I am touched by the commitment to freedom in this country,” Salbi said.

She was able to be a feminist in the United States and use her voice to help other women who felt silenced. It did not matter that her family knew Saddam Hussein; people were much too impressed by her work to pay heed to her parents’ social circles.

“Back home, I don’t think I could be the woman I am today,” Salbi said.

Zainab Salbi used her ability to speak in the United States to advocate for her fellow Iraqis and oppressed women. All she could think about was war and the people who were hurt because of it.

“I cry when I think of Iraq,” Salbi said.

However, she still primarily identifies herself as Iraqi. That’s where she was born, and she will carry that part of her identity with her forever.

Zainab Salbi’s Impact

First Project

Thinking about women and war, Zainab Salbi founded Women for Women International in 1993 at 23 years old. She was the chief executive officer for the organization until 2011. She ultimately left Women for Women International because she vowed that she would leave after 20 years; Salbi firmly believes in term limits after growing up under a dictatorship.

Women for Women International is an organization that helps women survivors of war through support, tools, and access to skill sets. It has helped more than 400,000 women in eight conflict areas, distributing millions of dollars in direct aid and microloans. This organization even partnered with the fashion company Kate Spade to increase job opportunities for Afghani women.

During her time as CEO, Salbi wrote three books: “Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam,” “If You Knew Me You Would Care” and “The Other Side of War.”

She was dedicated to helping women in conflict zones around the world. At the time, Salbi thought she was only providing aid to a silent issue; now she realizes it was more than that.

“Every woman in war reflected my own inner story,” Salbi said.

She then decided to dedicate the new part of her career to helping women share their own stories.

Nad’a Al-Nissa

In 2012, Zainab Salbi founded Nida’a AlNissa, which is a production organization for documentary and entertainment geared toward women and youth. She hosts discussions with global and regional celebrities; she was the first person to interview Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad and the first in the Arab world to interview Oprah Winfrey. However, Salbi also highlights the lives of ordinary people.

“The agent of change is an inspiration,” Salbi said. “And that comes from other women.”

In her show, she talks about all women’s efforts, not just ones from war zones. She wanted to show how changes could originate from the Arab culture, not just incorporations from the West. Outlets from around the globe praised her work in addressing taboo topics and important events, but the Arab world was much more critical. Even though this show was hard, Salbi does not regret the work she did.

“I went at it with a full heart to serve my people,” Salbi said.

Current Projects

Salbi’s show “Nida’a AlNissa” influenced “The Zainab Salbi Project,” on which she is currently working. She traveled around the world to share stories about global issues and personal lives. Salbi uses this show to contribute to the discussions and issues in the United States. One example is her series on the MeToo movement and its impact on women.

Salbi is also an editor at large at Women in the World, a subsection of The New York Times. This year, she just released “Freedom Is an Inside Job,” which discusses the power of finding your own voice.

“In the end, you have a choice between loving your truth or making yourself small and silencing yourself,” Salbi said.

She advocates for being you, no matter the societal or family pressure. You are enough.

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