Her approach to terror, violence, and dread was one of optimism, for she believed in its power. Humanitarian activist and writer, Zainab Salbi, committed her life to promoting the independence and rights of women.
First and foremost, she had faith in herself, in other women, and their resilience.
Arabisk London had the honour to speak with Mrs. Zainab Salbi in an insightful discussion regarding women’s power and how it affects others around them and the whole globe!
Interviewer: Wassim Razzouk
Using your own words, who is the humanitarian activist Zainab Salbi?
Zainab Salbi is a lady who always asserts that nothing in life is consistent. But one aspect of my personality that never changes is my love for God and people, as well as the environment in which we live. Despite my experience working in conflict zones and seeing the worst atrocities against people, I continue to believe that love and hope have a greater power than fear and violence.
President Bill Clinton of the United States named you one of the heroes of the twenty-first century. What is the mystery behind your classification, and why did you get picked in particular?
I am not aware of the reason for my selection as one of the heroes of the twenty-first century. My heart’s decisions determine everything I do in life. Both people who honoured my work by celebrating me and giving me prizes are present, as well as others who battled and ridiculed me. Helping and supporting socially marginalised people who are voiceless and impoverished in society is the ultimate objective of my work. Since women often make up the bulk of the marginalised, I thus supported the women by standing alongside them.
For women in particular, why is Zainab Salbi regarded as the most powerful person in the world today in terms of spiritual influence?
I was hesitant to discuss my spiritual side because I wanted people to know that I was a humanitarian activist who helped women in conflict zones. Additionally, I place a high value on my connection with God and consider myself to be spiritual. Previously, I feared that people would judge me, but four years ago, I had a significant improvement in my connection with God. This was due to a major health issue, which is why I decided to dedicate my life to helping others achieve the same level of intimacy with God.
You founded the international humanitarian organisation “Women for Women” to assist women who have survived conflicts. Tell us about it and how you help these ladies feel supported.
Having witnessed the first Gulf War between Iraq and Iran, since my early years, I have observed that there are opposing sides in any conflict, one, which discusses battle, weaponry and the winning side in the conflict, is what we read in newspapers and watch on television, while the other one has to do with women. In my opinion, given that women are the ones who maintain life throughout conflicts, nobody discusses how crucial their role is during these times. Therefore, there needs to be greater emphasis on the role that women played in warfare.—not just as victims, but also as leaders who elevate the status of humanity throughout conflict.
I grew up during the tenure of the former President Saddam Hussein, moreover, the walls frightened us since we lacked freedom of speech at that time. However, after moving to the United States and discovering that it was a democratic nation, I decided to focus on supporting women who had survived wars.
By giving them both material and emotional assistance, as I have personally witnessed in a number of nations, including Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the organisation has contributed to the empowerment of women in these nations to get back on their feet and construct their homes, lives, and careers.
In 1989, at the age of 19, you migrated to the United States of America. How did you start off, and what were the biggest challenges you faced while residing there?
My journey to America was made more challenging by the fact that I was married to a stranger at the beginning. My mother was the one who forced me into this marriage. Unfortunately, though, I was abused verbally and physically by my ex-husband, and I left him after just three months of marriage. Starting over with just $400 in my pocket, after losing all I owned including my nation, spouse, and family, I succeeded in founding the international organisation “Women for Women” in just three years.
Could you tell us about the costs you and your family paid as a result of your father’s employment as a personal pilot for former President Saddam Hussein, as well as the psychological pain you experienced?
In fact, I wrote about this topic in my book “Between Two Worlds,” in which I detailed every aspect of my life. While we shared some of the suffering of the Iraqi people, who were constantly living in fear, the pilot’s family was at that time more closely associated with suffering.
At $100 million, you have helped almost 400,000 women in war zones and situations of conflict. Why does Zainab Salbi spend so much money helping these women?
Today’s aid has changed from what the organisation offered in the past, as we have helped over 500,000 women with both financial and psychological support. Currently, we have invested over $150 million to aid women who have endured wars around the globe.
You launched a talk show called “Nidaa” in 2015 intending to uplift Arab women. From your perspective, what significance does this work have?
My entire heart was truly captivated by the “Nidaa” programme. I chose to return to the Arab world 25 years after I fled Iraq for America to share with them the lessons, I had learnt from working with women and throughout conflicts. The Nidaa programme seeks to convey our history, traditions, and values through empowering women in Arab culture and creating bridges amongst women in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, and other countries.
Unfortunately, the year I started the Nidaa programme was challenging because it was the “ISIS” organisation’s first year in Iraq. As a result, the programme did not have much success. Nevertheless, I hope to get another chance to share my love and passion with the Arab world, especially with Arab women.
One terrifying tale involves you going to a dance club in Baghdad when Uday, the son of Saddam Hussein, shows up. He shuts the windows and doors, but how did you manage to escape the club?
I was sixteen years old at the time, and my cousin and a few other young men and women were also with me. After we successfully fled the club through the ground floor window, we got home to find my parents frightened and concerned about me since they had heard that Uday Saddam Hussein had made his way to the club.
What are the most notable distinctions and awards you have won during your career?
Although I have received many awards for my efforts to support women who have survived conflicts, the “Arabian Magazine” award is still the most significant one. I received it in the Arab world, where I was selected to receive the Arab Woman Award in recognition of my humanitarian efforts. I respect and value these awards, but it’s not anything I’m arrogant or glad about. It’s not just me in my line of business. Women’s rights and environmental advocacy are the focus of my whole team.
What qualities and attributes does a woman need to possess to become well-known and get respect from society as a whole?
The most essential trait for every woman to possess is self-confidence, which she can only attain by soul-touching, self-discovery, and gratitude for her physical attributes, overall health, and everything in her life. She gains confidence from this in both her words and deeds.
The second is financial independence. No matter how affluent a woman is, she should have the flexibility to manage her finances. Some wealthy women do not have this freedom, and vice versa.
Cultural awareness is the last factor, which entails women becoming aware of their legal, social, political, and cultural rights as citizens. Consequently, the convergence of self-assurance, financial autonomy, and cultural values may transform the lives of women worldwide.
Regarding your long-term objectives, besides continuing to support women as a humanitarian, would you like to assume a different and unique role?
I established the “Daughters for Earth” organisation a year and a half ago. Since it is impossible to address climate change head-on without valuing women’s perspectives and including their experience in decision-making processes. The “Daughters for Earth” organisation aims to achieve three objectives:
First, the ladies who labour in environmental protection.
Second, we honour women’s contributions to the preservation of the environment, fauna, and flora.
The third is teaching all women about the global issue of climate change and the actions that need to be taken to combat it.
After establishing “Daughters for Earth”, in just 18 months, we provided financial assistance to over 100 organisations that advocate for women.