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  • Sue Shanahan

Zainab Salbi: Truth Be Told

“I have spent my life amplifying the voices of women who have been silenced and unheard.” - Zainab Salbi

Zainab Salbi grew up in Iraq under the ruthless dictatorship of Saddam Hussain. As a teenager her mother began giving her books on feminism, freedom, and even anti-slavery. By encouraging her daughter to absorb their messages it seemed as if she was preparing her for what was to come. I started my interview off by commenting on how interesting it was that her mother envisioned a higher purpose for Zainab when she was so young.

“What you just said actually brings tears to my eyes. It was like my mother was tattooing in me what it means to be a strong and independent woman. And because she couldn’t articulate the fear we were living in, it was her way of helping me to survive. When I was fifteen and decided that I would dedicate my life to helping women, she looked at me and she said ‘You can, and you will.’ That just made all the difference in my life, you know? And it set me on the road that I'm still on.”

Growing up in Iraq, Zainab understood early on that it was not safe to speak her truth. When she was eleven, her father was appointed Saddam Hussain’s personal pilot. It was not something her family would have chosen. On the outside, they lived a life of privilege, but their inner lives were fraught with terror. Horror stories were circulated about citizens being tortured or thrown into prison for any perceived misstep. Zainab describes it as growing up in a cell with bars all around, but not being able to prove that they exist.

When she was nineteen, her mother became concerned about the attention her daughter was receiving from Saddam. She knew it was just a matter of time before Zainab was raped by him. Her mother arranged for her to marry a much older man in the United States. Zainab was puzzled and resisted. Previously, her mother had insisted on the importance of marrying for love.

Finally Zainab bowed to her mother’s wishes and married the man chosen for her. Soon after she began her new life in the United States, she realized she had been put in a horrible situation. Her husband was a cruel and violent partner. Four years later they divorced, and with only $400 to her name, Zainab embarked upon the life she was born to live.

Using her experience of living in a war torn country, and her marriage to an abuser, Zainab founded the organization, Women for Women International. She says the idea behind it was simple. “I am a storyteller. I will tell women’s stories to the rest of the world so I can raise money and attention to help other women.” To do that Zainab shined a light on women in war zones by connecting them with their sisters from other countries. Sharing their stories through letters and a $30 a month sponsorship, would help empower them to transform their lives.

When Zainab left her marriage, she didn’t appear to have the skills needed to build a global charity from scratch. But never underestimate the fire that burns within. Although she had little education at the time and no capital, she did know how to go inside and listen.

“I'm not joking when I say, I never planned for any of this. I just followed my heart. I listened to the instincts that we all have, you know? We all dream, I just explored the unconscious and incorporated it into the conscious. I don’t separate them. As a matter of fact they are both very intertwined for me. My dreams are my compass you know?"

In Zainab’s world, doing what you love and your calling are the same thing.

“I don't distinguish them from each other. I have such a dedication to helping my sisters with marginalized voices. I am not trying to impress anybody. I'm just living my passion. I am not doing it to get acknowledgment or awards. I look at accolades as a message from a higher source letting me know I am going in the right direction. They help fuel me to keep going. But I'm ultimately doing it because it’s what I was born to do.”

“When someone breaks their own silence that person becomes like a candle to other people.” - Zainab Salbi

Zainab learned much from her time at Women for Women International, but one lesson stands out in particular. From the non-profit’s beginning she lovingly guarded women whose stories she had illuminated. She understood the courage it took for them to speak their truth. Yet there was still one woman whose story she was keeping under wraps. That woman was herself.

She could see that she had been hiding behind the women whose voices she had helped amplify. No one knew of Zainab’s family’s relationship with Saddam Husain. “I was ashamed. I was convinced if I told anybody they would no longer see me and see his face instead.” It was time for her to tell humanity who she was. To her amazement, she was embraced with open arms. Zainab discovered that by owning her story, she broke out of her shame. She had become vulnerable in a way that actually made her more powerful.

Zainab’s journey from the girl who had something to hide to shining her light was a long one. Looking back, she wouldn’t change any of the horrific events that she lived through. They may not have been set in motion by a benevolent being, but they were used for a higher purpose. Nothing in God’s world is wasted.

In 2011, Zainab stepped down as CEO at Women For Women. She had founded it at 23 and knew it was time to move on. She had built the organization from helping 30 women to reaching nearly half a million women and raising 146 million dollars in aids and micro-loans to help them and their families rebuild their lives. “I did not realize how exhausted I was. I took a year off, and then slowly I made myself get up and go out again.” Since then she’s gone on with her mission to help women by co-founding Daughters for Earth, continuing to write best selling books, being a television host and an inspirational speaker. The flame will not be extinguished.

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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

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