Zainab Salbi - March 6, 2009 9:30am-10:30am Pacific Standard Time

Zainab Salbi lived through the bombs of the Iran-Iraq war and the lies of Saddam Hussein's regime. She writes about those terrifying years in her memoir Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam.

She escaped Iraq, and, at 23 years of age, founded Women for Women International, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing interpersonal, economic, and educational support to women survivors of armed conflicts and political upheaval. Her most recent book, The Other Side of War: Women's Stories of Survival and Hope chronicles the stories of women who overcome the horrors of war and rebuild their families and countries.

Ms. Salbi serves on several advisory boards, including the International Museum of Women's Global Council. She was the featured speaker at I.M.O.W.'s Annual Gala on Wednesday, March 4 in San Francisco.


Moderator: Welcome to our live discussion with Zainab Salbi. We'll be starting in a few minutes. Please submit your questions at any time.

Zainab Salbi: Hello, everyone. It is an honor to be in a place where we can have a dialogue with each other on what is needed to galvanize and mobilize women and men around the world … as we work on resetting the world and building lasting and sustainable peace. Today is a dialogue over the Internet. I hope one day we will meet in the streets and our voices will be heard loud and clear.

Moderator: Renee, San Francisco: I very much appreciated the personal stories about women in your book. How did women respond to your request sharing their very intimate stories? Were some hesitant?

Zainab Salbi: In my experience, women who have gone through a lot, and who have lost a lot, are always more willing to speak and to share. And in many ways they actually need a witness to hear their stories. In my personal experience, I have found many more women who are willing to share their stories at a grassroots level. They are willing to share their stories. Where I have noticed there is much more hesitation to share stories is the middle class and the upper class. I suspect there are more rigid social expectations in these classes.

Overall, I find women much more willing to reach out and share their stories in general, regardless of their socioeconomic background, than men. For example, in the Middle East, much more stories are coming from women than from men. Women are willing to share their stories in a proactive way. That is the process of healing that we all need: the telling of our truth and the seeking of our reconciliation. That is what I did in my memoir and that is what I work on every single day.

Moderator: Sanja, San Francisco: In your speech at the Museum’s Gala you spoke of the need to see women as part of the “macro” solution in addition to the “micro.” What strategies does Women for Women International use to get women involved in “macro” solutions?

Zainab Salbi: First allow me to clarify that Women for Women still work on micro opportunities for women, both in that we operate a microcredit program for women in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Also women we work with start small cooperatives and run businesses on their own on their small savings. And in addition we are working on projects that work on macro solutions.

In Rwanda and Sudan, we are working on hundreds of acres of land where we feature women working on organic farms. In Rwanda we are training 3,000 women to farm produce from pineapple to passion fruit to others and link them to buyers. In the future we also plan on training women how to process such produce and can them and manage the whole enterprise altogether. That is one way we have women take control of a whole supply chain in one area. That is how we are addressing the macro discussion of women’s economic contributions.

Moderator: Morgan, San Francisco: At I.M.O.W.’s Gala, you pointed to Rwanda as an example of women who turned the crisis of war into an opportunity to become more involved in running the country. What can the Iraqi women learn from Rwandan women at the time of their own rebuilding?

Zainab Salbi: I think not only Iraqi women have a lot to learn from Rwandese women; all of us have a lot to learn from Rwandese women. One, women were organized and they knew their international rights, and their contributions were loud and clear, to stopping the genocide. They were not shy, or hiding it. Second, there was a leadership commitment in Rwanda to the promotion of women. If we are to talk about Iraq, under the leadership there, there was not the commitment to the inclusion of women and restructuring the political structure. This came equally from the American administration and Iraqi leadership as well. And last but not least, Rwandese women have also said, this is what we’re committed to and we’re going to go and do, and we’re not going to wait for approval. Many Iraqi women often wait for approval before we step forward. We can't be shy about asking for 50% representation. We're not going to say, oh just give us 30%, that's enough. We have to understand, we are good enough as we are, and our contributions are big enough as they are. Let's not be shy about claiming our rights and asking for them.

Moderator: Masum, Palo Alto, CA, U.S.: Do you believe that economic empowerment leads to other forms of empowerment?

Zainab Salbi: I think it is very important that we discuss economic access to resources, plus access to knowledge. That’s what leads to lasting change. In my opinion, when we focus only on economic empowerment without addressing the need for knowledge and education, there’s a limit to how much change and progress can happen. Just because one has more money does not make one more politically aware. And when we only address knowledge and not the economic reality of a person, it has its own limitation. Just because someone has more awareness does not mean they can act on it when they are restricted tremendously economically. It’s the combination of the two that is necessary. I really believe we need a parallel approach. The two together are what lead to lasting change, and that is the foundation of Women for Women International's thinking.

Moderator: Laura, San Francisco: I feel that many people feel that storytelling is nice…but ultimately ineffective. Why do you feel it is so important to tell women’s stories?

Zainab Salbi: I think women still need to tell their stories. I think we really still need to break our silence and tell our truth fully. And unless we break our silence and get rid of our shame and embarassment and whatever prevents us from telling our truth fully, we will be stuck in a vicious cycle of oppression, discrimination, marginalization in the world.

So I think women's stories have not been told fully yet, and we don't have the full range of stories. Because women's stories are not just about victimhood but about change, courage, resilience and beauty. So we all have a long way to go, not only women from the "Third World" but also American women, European women, Latina women. All women - whether we work in the corporate structure or a government structure or whether we are survivors of war, it doesn't matter - have a story. And unless we break our silence, we can't move forward. So I think there's a huge power to the story, not for its entertainment value, but to help us all break our silence and hopefully stop the vicious cycle that we are stuck in.

I learned that from Congolese women, particularly one woman who told me, if I could tell the whole world my story, I would, so hopefully that would prevent other women from going through what I went through. If that woman, who was 52 years old at the time, gang-raped with her 9-year-old daughter, 21-year-old daughter, has that awareness, that telling her story has an impact on other women - we all need to have that knowledge and awareness. That telling our story has an impact on the larger picture.

Moderator: Kathryn, San Francisco: Zainab, we are honored that you are taking time away from your important work to speak to us about your history and your work with women survivors of war. Everyone has been affected by the current global economic crisis. What kind of an impact has it had or will it have on the women you work with?

Zainab Salbi: This is a very important question. Because as we are discussing the impact of the crisis on our daily lives here, we really have to remember it's having triple the impact on the lives of poor women, survivors of war, and people in poor countries. Remember that the food crisis is still there, and that's topped with the reduction in humanitarian and charitable assistance. And topped with the conflicts that are already existing, which we all fear may increase in proportion due to the increase in poverty. The impact people are facing in other countries is a life and death impact. And it's huge and significant.

It's so important for us to remember today, more than any other day, as we are experiencing an impact, to put things in perspective. Today, more than any other day, it is a moral responsbility to reach out to other parts of the world and continue our assistance to them. Not doing so may tremendously increase the poverty lines that international agencies are expecting and can only lead to an increase in wars. And that will have a huge impact on all of us in a very small world. So it is important, as we reduce our own budgets, that we keep up with outreach efforts to help others in other parts of the world to stabilize their lives. Remember, for them, it is about life and death.

Moderator: Lora, SF, CA: What do you think individuals can do to begin to working towards reconciliation between the U.S. and Iraq?

Zainab Salbi: I think the need for telling truth and seeking reconciliation in Iraq is important. And we need two levels. First, we need a reconciliation commission between Iraq and America. What happened in the last six years is a full and utter destruction of a country. Unless we take stock of what happened and where were the mistakes and where do the responsibilities lie, we cannot move on in building solid, sustainable relationships between the two countries. Documenting the history of what happened is important for the future of both countries. The second level is that the Iraqis themselves need a truth and reconciliation process. As a society, we have not taken the time to tell the stories of each community and what they have gone through in the last 40 years. Unless we take that step, Iraqis are now continuing the cycle of violence started by Saddam Hussein. We need that moment, of documenting our history and telling our stories, so we can start and have a new, healthy beginning. In the absence of these two processes, I find it very hard to believe any discussion about building a peaceful or sustainable future for Iraq.

Moderator: Constanza, Los Angeles: You advocate for a more holistic approach to women's empowerment, where monetary contribution, education and a clear path to self-sufficiency are necessary. Yet, this aid is still coming from the outside. How does Women for Women International address this disconnect and work together to create a sustainable and long-lasting solution?

Zainab Salbi: The idea of women taking ownership of their resources and voice, and sharing it with other sisters in different parts of the world, is a healthy experience. We are living in a globalized world where borders have changed in their meaning and definitions. It's important also to know that WfW sponsors, who are committed to helping one survivor of war at a time, come from 105 countries. They are Bangladeshi women supporting Nigerian women; Zambian women supporting Bosnian women. The Web of women crossing borders and supporting each other through the letters and their funding is an exciting thing. It's showing that our care for each other goes beyond our borders. As for sustainability, it's about how the women receiving the support can stand on their feet. And that is one of WfW's major goals. And that is why we are focusing a lot on building sustainable economic opportunities for the women we serve: from integrated commercial farming to small cooperatives to microcredit lending. Jobs and sustainable income are what can help women stand on their feet and make their lives and their progress sustainable.

Moderator: Iman, Sudan: Can you talk more about WFW’s work in Sudan? In which region of Sudan can we find the organic farms?

Zainab Salbi: WfW works in southern Sudan, with a particular focus on Rumbek and surrounding areas. That's where women are implementing organic farming initiatives and they are earning anywhere from $20 - $200 per month through this project.

Moderator: Elizabeth, San Francisco: Last year I visited Rwanda and thought that a country that was so devastated by violence and genocide had made a remarkable recovery to what appeared to be a country peacefully living together, led by a majority of women in the government. But I have recently been told by someone who works there that the real government of Rwanda is so repressive, women still don't really have a voice. Can you comment on the different perspectives?

Zainab Salbi: I don't think of the Rwandese government as oppressive to its women. I really don't believe they are, whatsoever. Women's participation there has been tremendous and there has been great progress on women organizing and getting their voices heard. The judgement of Rwanda has to be put in perspective, considering they literally just finished a genocide that killed a million people in only 1994. To make such a leapfrog in their progress and their dealing with one of the most horrible atrocities in recent history - I think they need to be given slack. However, that by no means justifies Rwanda's contribution to the war in Congo and the millions of people who have been killed as a result and the hundreds of thousands of women who have been raped as a result. That's a completely different issue, where Rwanda's policies need to be addressed in a different way, and separate from what Rwanda is doing vis a vis its own country.

Moderator: Jo, Boston: You are a tireless champion of women survivors of war. Does forgiveness have a role in the healing of the women you work with? How about atonement? Is it ever possible for perpetrators of these unspeakable crimes--rape, torture, abuse--to atone for what they have done? Does atonement play a role in healing?

Zainab Salbi: This reminds me of an interview I had conducted with an Iraqi executioner, who participated in the massacre of the Kurds in the 1980s. I was shocked when he was describing to me the details of how he shot women, children, men while holding a Pepsi can in his other hand. And I asked him, why are you telling me all of these things? Have you ever had any remorse? And he told me that he needed to acknowledge it, he needed someone to hear what he had done. Not to threaten as much as witness. I don't know whether he had remorse or not, but he definitely was trying to understand and deal with what he had done. Is it important for a perpetrator to go through this process? I think very much so. We can't evolve or heal if there is no acknowldgement of the crimes, and if the perpretrators don't acknowldgement their contribution to the crimes. So, the process to atonement is a very important part.

As for forgiveness, I think we need to forgive for our own health and healing. Without forgiveness, it's hard to move on. So, in my own experience of the forgiveness I had to do in my life, and in working with other women, it's for their own ability to live a healthy life. It is very dangerous when you meet people who have not forgiven. Because that's when you see the seeds of revenge and the possibility of staying in a vicious cycle of atrocities. I worry less about the women who we work with but about their children, and whether they are able to forgive and heal. And that is more important for me, because it's in their hands - whether to carry on the fighting or to stop it. And much needs to be addressed about the children's ability to forgive and heal.

Moderator: Kathryn Robinson, San Francisco : You are a force for women's rights. Growing up in Baghdad, under Sadam Hussein's regime, did you ever imagine, as a young girl, that you would someday be running your own nonprofit organization and helping millions of women in war devastated regions empower themselves? And what advice can you give young women around the world who would like to affect positive change in their communities and the world but don't feel they have the resources to do it?

Zainab Salbi: I knew that I wanted to work with women, since I was 15 years old. My mother told me growing up about the different ways in which women have been oppressed and violated. She was very adamant that economic independence is very crucial for me to have, so as never to be dependent on any person. She was adamant that I never allow anyone to talk with me or to touch me in the wrong way. Through the combination of stories she told me about my grandmother and other women in her life and the challenges they faced as women, along with her message of having to be strong and independent to survive, I knew I wanted to help women reach that.

I never knew how I would do that until I was 23 years old, and I had had my own journey of violation and injustice in my own personal life. And that's when I realized, I need to do something. My action in starting WfW back in 1993 was simply to do something about the rape camps and the concentration camps that existed in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the time. I had no idea nor any plans for this to become a major effort. I was just acting upon my belief that I had a responsibility to do something. Over the years, when WfW expanded and eventually served more 156,000 women and distributed US$49 million, I feel very blessed and deeply grateful that I could be part of this experience. And that so many women from around the world are my sisters in this. It made me believe to the core that every individual can make a difference. It is possible, it is doable, and I'm a witness of it. So my message for every young woman is to live your truth, live your truth, live your truth, every single day. And by doing that, all blessings can come. And one can feel good about contributing - even it's just a drop - to making this world a little bit better. Learning from one of my teachers, Angeles Arrion, I wake up every morning and say, it's a good day to fly and it's a good day to die. Life is beautiful in many ways and I'm grateful to have lived my truth in it. For if I die today, I die a content woman.

Moderator: Hansa, Chicago: In a speech, you mentioned that you start and end your days with Rumi's poetry. How and under what circumstances did you encounter this poetry? And do you think it's important for every activist to be able to tap a source of inspiration, especially when working in grim circumstances?

Zainab Salbi: It's important for every activist to take their time in doing their self-care and expressing their creativity and having fun in life and not taking themselves too seriously and in always rejuvenating themselves and creating the space for intellectual stimulation. What we work on is very important and we should never take our own contributions for granted. To have that time to take care of ourselves is crucial to our ability to last. I learned all of this the hard way. I learned this by depriving myself of everything I just talked about. Little did I know that by depriving myself of every little joy, I was only taking away from my contribution to what I believe so much in. It took me a long time to realize. Taking my moment every day to read Rumi, who was introduced to me by my ex-husband and wonderful friend, the co-founder of WfW, is important. Whether it's dancing, yoga - it's important for me to be able to do my work from my heart, every single day.

Moderator: Marilyn, Washington, DC: Who has been your greatest role model?

Zainab Salbi: I believe there are many wonderful people in the world, great teachers. I don't believe there is one role model. I don't believe in heroes. Heroes come from doing fantastic things in certain aspects of their lives, and they also come with weaknesses and shortcomings. So it's dangerous to make them into a role model. There are wonderful teachers - and that's how I choose to think about role models. Teachers come with shortcomings, but also valuable lessons and their commitment in life. Some of my favorite teachers are Desmond Tutu (probably my favorite), Honorata from Congo, my mother, the list goes on. Some of them are famous, some are not, but they have all been good teachers to me - for their perfection and for their imperfection.

Moderator: Preeti, San Francisco: During your powerful speech at the I.M.O.W. Gala you did not mention Palestine, especially during this crisis. I’d like to know why.

Zainab Salbi: There's no reason why Palestine was not mentioned. There are more wars than I can name that are taking place. Most are really horrible; Palestine is one of them.

Moderator: Britt, Oakland, CA: Your work is very intense. How do you prevent yourself from burning out?

Zainab Salbi: I wish I could say I have mastered it, but I have gotten a bit better. I dance. I love dancing. I try to dance as much as I can - in my home, in my hotel room, with my friends and sometimes in the street, and definitely my favorite - with the women I work with. And I try to create a space to exhibit my creativity through writing and painting as much as I can. The creation of that space for me means a lot and helps me keep excited and keep on going. And I make sure I practice my yoga at least 4 days a week. And I try to take a few minutes a day to do my meditation. When I'm really good, I last long. When I drop this, I don't last long.

Moderator: Renee, San Francisco: Do you have any book plans coming up? And what comes next for you?

Zainab Salbi: I do have some book plans, indeed. We'll leave it as a surprise. I'm trying to focus a lot of my energy on how we mobilize the building of a global women's movement, where we can all meet in the streets of our countries no matter where we are, and where we can all make our voices heard and our contributions to the solutions for all the crises in the world clear. And where we can all dance together and fill the streets in every corner of every country - women and men together!

Moderator: Thank you, Zainab. Our live chat has come to an end. Thank you to everyone who logged in and sent questions and comments.


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