One Woman's Formula for Change

Zainab Salbi, who’s presenting a program at The Daily Beast’s Women in the World summit, has helped thousands of war survivors through Women for Women International. She shares her key to female empowerment with Lynn Sherr—and explains why the movement is gaining so much momentum now.

Mychele Daniau, AFP / Getty Images

If you want to understand what motivates Zainab Salbi to spend her own life seeking a better one for others, listen to her description of her childhood home in Baghdad—then and now.

“In front there was a library, with trees surrounding it,” Salbi, who’s presenting a program at The Daily Beast’s Women in the World summit on Saturday, tells me wistfully. “A huge garden, gardenias growing; inside, two bars. My parents liked to entertain. Last December I visited: It had been turned into an execution center, then a brothel, then the army took it over as a base. The library is now a mosque. The trees have been replaced with concrete walls. The beautiful garden is completely bare except for one persimmon tree that has no leaves. Instead of bars, there are religious flags. Another family lives there now. The girl that lives in my room—her name is Zainab also—wears a head scarf.”

“The formula for change is not simply giving women more money. And education is very important, but without economic power, it’s very frustrating. So we need them both.”

Salbi grew up there during the eight-year long Iran-Iraq War, a terrifying time when bombs fell in the streets and houses exploded. Her father was Saddam Hussein’s pilot, but she saw firsthand the public executions and the injustice toward her schoolmates’ families. Her mother was “a free spirit trapped in a relationship with one of the most oppressive dictators. She was our foundation,” she says. “In the middle of an air raid, so we wouldn’t be traumatized, she created puppet shows by candlelight, sent us to school every day so we’d have a sense of normal life.”

Her mother was like so many women, says Salbi, “who keep life going despite their circumstances.” She is one of the reasons Salbi co-founded and runs Women for Women International, which has helped more than 150,000 female survivors of wars around the world.

“Our focus is on the combination of economic access and education for women,” she says. “The formula for change is not simply giving women more money. And education is very important, but without economic power, it’s very frustrating. So we need them both.”

Salbi tells the story of a woman she recently met in Iraq: “Her husband is raping her daughter. So she stays awake all night—they are living in one room—to make sure she is safe. I ask why she doesn’t leave. She says, ‘I don’t know where to go. I don’t have money or family.’ This is what makes me believe, Oh my God, we need to give that woman sustainable economic power so she can leave.”

Women for Women International has been honored by President Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, among many others. Salbi herself has become one of the new faces of feminism. I ask why the movement seems to be coalescing now—why, after decades in which many of us agitated and educated and broadcast the issues, does the focus on women seem to be gaining new strength today?

“I think the first reason is violence,” she says. “For the first time in history, we have rape survivors in war zones speaking out. In World War II, 900,000 German women were raped, but no one talked. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi women were raped, and no one talked. But the women of Bosnia talked, and that was a turning point. They broke their silence.”

The second reason, she says, is “women mobilizing each other to give money,” like the Women Moving Millions organization, which raised nearly $200 million for programs to improve the lives of girls and women. “The wealthy women are also breaking their silence and doing more,” Salbi says.

She adds one more layer: “The corporate world, for the first time, is saying, ‘This is important.’ Before, the mainstream learned to talk the talk but not walk the walk. Now there’s been a transformation.” She points to Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women program, which provides business school training for women in the developing world, as an example of something that’s “changed the debate, from talking the talk to saying, ‘I want to get in as well.’ We never had that before.”

Not, Salbi points out, that the game is over. “It’s not time to celebrate yet,” she says. “If this is a mountain, we’re probably halfway up. But we have a huge amount to accomplish.”

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She takes it one step at a time. When I ask how she gets people to open their wallets—or the gates—she tells me about bringing her team into a rural, religious part of Iraq, where she had to get permission from the tribal association leader. Salbi was veiled “head to toe, and everything he asked me—which tribe was I from, which region, what city—every answer was wrong. He was getting edgy.” She was getting nowhere. “Finally I told him, ‘Let me tell you what I do.’ I focused on the economics, on the number of women in our program who get jobs when they graduate. And he said, ‘You’re in!’ This guy has half a million widows and not enough money to give them pensions. And my tribe didn’t matter. Nor that my father flew for Saddam Hussein. Our group could help them gain economic power, and he said, ‘I need your help, go.’ That’s how men open the door.”

And it’s how she’s connecting with the world’s women. “It helps that I grew up overseas,” she explains. “I know the nuances. In Africa they call me ‘white person.’ I am not a white person. I’m a woman of color, a Third World woman, and that’s what matters. I know how to survive in Iraq, in Bosnia, in Congo. I know how to survive in a war zone. That’s what helps me maneuver through the world.”

All the while, making it a better place.

Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is out in paperback.