An Interview with Zainab Salbi and a Review on Her Books: “Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam” and Freedom Is an Inside Job”

An Interview with Zainab Salbi and a Review on Her Books: “Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam” and Freedom Is an Inside Job”

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Zainab Salbi is an author, a women’s rights activist who founded Women for Women International which is a non-profit organization that aims to help women who live in war-torn places, and who are in need of help to stand on their own feet. The organization engages in different projects such as providing women with job trainings and monthly incomes in different parts of the world that had gone through armed conflicts such as Rwanda, Nigeria and Afghanistan to be able to help women. Salbi tells her story in “Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam” before she became an independent woman who was able to help millions of women suffering across the globe through Women for Women International. She was born in Iraq before Saddam Hussein became the President. Under his rule, Iraq undergone through several wars against neighbouring countries which resulted with failure and Iraqi people’s constant suffering. 

Salbi was the child of a family who were friends with Saddam Hussein. It was rather a forced friendship as no one can reject Saddam Hussein’s requests. Throughout the book, she expresses how her life went from living with a happy, upper-middle-class family in an oil-rich Iraq to being forced to go to the United States for an arranged marriage without being able to see her family for nine years because of the sanctions on Iraq due to US-Iraq War in 2003.

It was not easy for Salbi to speak out about her past. Her past that includes her family’s friendship with Saddam Hussein and even Salbi, herself being in the same room as him for many times during a pleasant time, being raped by her husband from her first marriage which was an arranged marriage despite her own mother raising her to be against such traditions and advising on choosing her own husband. When asked about how she found the courage to speak out, Salbi responds: 

“I worked with women in wars for the longest time. I always thought I don’t have a story, it is these poor women who have a story. They are the ones who were raped, who were poor, who have been through this and that. And I as an upper-middle-class woman who is educated and has access to a lot of resources I don’t have a story, I am okay. Then one day, I was interviewing a Congolese woman. She was very poor, she was raped, her daughters were raped and she was telling me her story. Then at one point, she said that she didn’t tell this story to anybody but me. I looked at her and asked her if she wanted me to keep it a secret because I would usually share it. Then she said to me ‘If I could tell my story to the whole world, I would so other women would not go through what I have gone through. I can’t do that but you can. Go ahead and tell my story.’ When I heard that I was embarrassed of myself because I always separated myself; because she is poor and I am not, she is uneducated and I am educated and I am helping her. So I separated myself from this pain. But in essence, what she was saying to me was that every woman needed to break their silence and she is using her story to raise awareness so that awareness would help other women. I was embarrassed of myself for not having the courage she had. I kept my story a secret because I was embarrassed for the world to know that I was in an arranged marriage in which I was raped, that my family knew Saddam Hussein and that I was abused in my first marriage. I was embarrassed of that identity. I was showing the identity that I am strong, independent, and feminist. I was embarrassed to show my victimhood in a way. By her articulating her story this way, she truly made me realize that I cannot continue to be in service of other women and ask them to break their silence and ask them to be independent when I am not willing to do the same. I was becoming a hypocrite by asking people to do something that I am not willing to do. It was a very pivotal line of me saying either I do what I am asking them to do and that was very scary for me or I leave what I am doing because I don’t have the moral legitimacy to ask someone else to do what I am not willing to do. It was a real consideration for me to break my silence, embarrass my family, put our dirty laundry out, confront my shame which was frightening or I hide and remain silent. I chose to be morally consistent with myself. I chose to believe that if we, women or any oppressed people break their silence and speak up about what happened to them, we then break the vicious cycle of violence. We stay in violence because we keep it silent especially the women. We are told by cultures, not one, to keep our stories of oppression silent. When we keep silent, we become compliant with the violence. When we break the silence we then create a new story. That’s why I decided to do it. When I did it, I realized it’s really hard to break the silence. You confront every issue you have. I had to confront my own fears, inner thoughts and say them in public. It’s really hard to do it. I did it. Then I cried for a year and a half doing it and I cried for a year and a half promoting it. Finally, when it came out, I became more compassionate and respectful of the women whom I have been advocating for. The class issue is interesting. I come from an upper-middle-class family. I was comfortable all my life in terms of material things. So I made it about poor women having poor stories. The truth is all women have stories. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are, what colour you are, what class you come from. When we separate ourselves from others, we become cowards. The women who are breaking their silence, the woman in Congo, she was courageous, I was a coward. The only way for me to create a moral equivalence was to do what she was doing, telling the truth. But if we really want to make a change, we all have to break the silence. We all have to have the courage to speak the truth. Otherwise, we become compliant. We express our rage when it is happening to poor people but we pretend it is not happening to us. So for me, that act was for my own integrity; being consistent with the values I am advocating for by walking the talk.”

When I read the book Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam I essentially became aware of two points. How much the way we live our life is fragile and no matter what we envision for our future and whoever we trust for that vision, the world is cruel. A friend of your family can change your life and you may not even realize that your parents are the saddest because of this forced friendship. Politics and culture with the already existing gender inequality are adequate to alter our lives completely. The problem with this gender inequality is that every one of us has a part in its existence whether we realize it or not. In Freedom Is an Inside Job, another book by Zainab Salbi, she mentions a memory of hers when she had an interview with an owner of a brothel in India. During the interview, the man who is the owner explained to her how we are a part of the problem as well. “You laugh at jokes about prostitutes, you judge prostitutes because of their immorality without seeing the system they are trapped in, and you don’t see the market it creates for all the men around you.” was what he said. He shifted the blame towards women. Yes, we may have nothing to do with a crime being committed due to gender inequality. However, remaining silent to a problem, pretending it does not happen to/around us, or ignoring it completely does not change the fact that it exists and it affects lives. Salbi as someone who has both been a victim of patriarchy and witnessed the victimhood of others when I asked her what we can do in our everyday life in order to lessen the discrimination women have to endure and avoid becoming part of this discrimination she addresses: 

“We do it in few ways. One, when we see someone else being violated –it could be physical or verbal violence– most people don’t speak up and when they do, it’s very hurtful for the person who speaks up. For me, we need to change. We, women, have played by the rules of patriarchy in order to survive. If we want to truly change it, then we need to change the rules. To change the rules we cannot just complain that it is bad. We must demonstrate how we will change it and we must set the new rules. We don’t do it by only telling men ‘You need to change.’ Yes, we do need to tell them that but we must not wait for them to show and tell us the new rules. We need to change our own behaviour. Often people just complain about what others are doing wrong. And yet when you ask them to show you the right thing, there comes the part where everyone says ‘I don’t know.’ We need to demonstrate the new way. Firstly as women, we must speak up and not about ourselves only If something is being violated or doesn’t feel right, speak up immediately and don’t endure the abuse. Secondly, if you see the abuse of others -it could be physical violence or it could be just the wrong tone- speak up for others immediately. Thirdly, when you are in a position of power and that’s where a lot of women start to play the same power game that men set up. For example, we wear suits. The suits are interesting symbolically. The power wears suits. But the suit is a man’s symbol. We put on the power by wearing the suits basically. I am a woman and I do not want to exhibit my power in a way that men have exhibited their power. I don’t even care about their way. I need to exhibit my power in an authentic way to me. If that means I need to express my love, show my softness and kindness, then I will do it without saying I am in a position of power therefore I must wear a suit, I must sit at the head of the table, I must express power in this and that way. When we do that we perpetuate the power dynamics and patriarchy. We need to change and show a new way of being. The only way to show a new way of being is to show it in ourselves. Be the change, not talk about the change! Be the leader, don’t just talk about how a leader should be!”

If you read Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam, you will see how Salbi had to bow to patriarchy only until she found the courage to stand up against it and how she managed to survive on her own after moving to the US from Iraq by being independent and simply by living her own truth. If you read Freedom Is an Inside Job, you will find yourself thinking of every little detail of your life, evaluating your decisions and your mistakes, you will circulate through your own inner thoughts and finally, you will realize which way you want to choose to make your own change. For me, it was to convey what I have realized and learned through these books to as many people as I can.

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