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The best books on Women’s Empowerment

recommended by Zainab Salbi

Founder and CEO of Women for Women International Zainab Salbi says we need to make the 21st century the time for women’s rights, and describes how reading Rumi’s poems helps her to find inner peace

Zainab Salbi

Zainab Salbi is founder and CEO of Women for Women International, a grassroots humanitarian and development organisation helping women survivors of war to rebuild their lives. She is the author of two books, the bestseller Between Two Worlds, which documents her life under Saddam Hussein’s rule, and The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope. Her work has been featured on CNN and in The Washington Post and The New York Times. She has been a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show eight times and was recently honoured by former President Bill Clinton for her work in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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Zainab Salbi

Zainab Salbi is founder and CEO of Women for Women International, a grassroots humanitarian and development organisation helping women survivors of war to rebuild their lives. She is the author of two books, the bestseller Between Two Worlds, which documents her life under Saddam Hussein’s rule, and The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope. Her work has been featured on CNN and in The Washington Post and The New York Times. She has been a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show eight times and was recently honoured by former President Bill Clinton for her work in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

www.womenforwomen.org

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What made you want to get involved with helping women?

I have known that I wanted to help women since I was 15 years old. The idea originated with my mother, who told me about the different oppressions of women both through stories of my ancestors and of other women. I remember telling my mother, ‘That is what I am going to do. I am going to dedicate my life to helping women.’ And she said, ‘You can.’ Her acknowledgement and encouragement of it really helped me believe that I could do that.

Over the next several years I went to study different things. At the age of 23, at the same time that I was studying the Holocaust, I heard about the rape and concentration camps in Bosnia and I was seeing images equivalent to that of the Holocaust. That made me really want to do something to help. The images triggered and strengthened my commitment and memory to work for women, and that was the new beginning.

The women in Bosnia motivated you?

What was happening to them is no different to what is happening today in the Congo and what happened in World War II to German women. It is consistent across the different contexts. In the case of Bosnia, there were rape camps and girls as young as nine years old and women as old as 80 who were imprisoned in these camps. These women were given numbers and when their numbers were called they had to go into the second room and be gang-raped. They had to cook for the soldiers naked, clean naked and they were raped several times a day. They were gang-raped for a minimum of one month until they got a prisoner exchange. Sadly, 17 years later I look at what is happening to women in war and the story is exactly the same.

Your first choice, Lisa Shannon’s A Thousand Sisters, is all about the lives of the women in the Congo.

Lisa is an ordinary American who tells the inspiring story of her life-changing decision to help the women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even though she wasn’t a product of rape or war, she decided to do something about the women in the Congo. She led a good middle-class lifestyle with a good job and a good man but she woke up one day and realised that she needed to do something with her life and to contribute to the larger world. So she decided to run marathons in the US to help women in the Congo.

For me this story is no different from how the anti-slavery movement originated in England. Even though people there had never owned slaves or been in the countries where the slaves came from, they were people like Lisa whose consciences compelled them to do something. As a result of her actions, Lisa has inspired thousands and thousands of women from all over the world to join her.

And she actually ran a marathon in the Congo, didn’t she?

Yes, but she started off running in the US and raising money there. By the time she went to the Congo she had already helped 100 women there and that is what I like about her. Her actions are things that other people can do as well – simple actions that are meaningful yet that don’t require you to turn your life around to make a difference. You don’t have to go off to the Congo and run. You can do things locally that have a big impact as well.

Your next choice is Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, which looks at women’s lives particularly in Africa and Asia.

Half the Sky was one of the tipping points in the discussion of how we re-energise the women’s movement and expand it to a mainstream audience that is more inclusive of women and men; individuals who are deeply concerned about global issues but who have not necessarily been aware about women’s issues before. This book elevated the topic of women’s rights and made it acceptable for every woman and man to read and to have that ‘Oh my God’ moment, where they say, ‘This should not be acceptable. Women shouldn’t be treated like this.’

If I look at the recent modern history of the women’s movement I would say that Half the Sky is one of the few pivotal books that really changed the movement from just being confined to activists to something more universal. What I love about it the most is this idea that if the 19th century was about stopping slavery and the 20th century was about civil rights, the 21st century is about women’s rights. The awakening and realisation of that call is very exciting and they do this so movingly through the personal stories of all the women they meet.

I am intrigued to find out what Jelaluddin Rumi’s The Essential Rumi, which is translated by Coleman Barks, has to do with the empowerment of women.

In the evolution of my journey I learned that the way that we can transform women’s lives and our lives generally is not necessarily only through the warrior’s ways. I do not deny the warrior’s ways. I have ridden the horse and carried the armour! But as I evolve in my own growth I have learnt that the way we can truly achieve transformation and change is through our own inner peace. It is through seeing our inner joy and inner happiness and through love.

This is love for the ones we love, which is the easiest and the sweetest love. This love can even evolve to compassion for those we have despised or that we have fought against, and bring ourselves to pray for their own healing. Rumi helps me do that. I wake up every day and read a Rumi poem and I go to sleep every day with a Rumi poem. His words help me remember not only my inner peace and inner journey but also to help every woman and man out there to strive for their inner peace and inner journey.

His beautiful poetry helps me to do that. My evolution is that we need to find our inner voice and our inner healing and see our own beauty. Only when we see that we have inner peace and love can we progress. I don’t mean that in a goofy way. We have a lot of things to be angry about but if we do things with anger we perpetuate the cycle. Rumi is my anchor.

Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East 

by Isobel Coleman looks at women’s relationship with Islam and how that is empowering them.

This is a brilliant book. There are not many books out there that deal with Muslim women in a respectful way. This book looks at them with objectivity, respect, dignity and integrity. I am very impressed and touched by Isobel Coleman’s writing. It is a page-turner. I am coming at this from a Muslim woman’s perspective and from a woman from the Middle East. It is so touching and deeply endearing that for once we have someone talking about Muslim women with such integrity.

She is very good at showing what women are doing in the Middle East and breaking their silence. She moves beyond the common stereotypes of women in the Middle East. There is this idea that they are all the same and they all wear the burqa. Instead she looks at all the different complexities and nuances of these women from Iran, Afghanistan, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia. It is eye opening for those who don’t know much about this subject and a refreshing take for those that do.

Let’s finish with your last choice, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny by Amartya Sen.

I grew up in Iraq as a Muslim woman amidst war. Right now, we are living in a world in which that part of the world is in turmoil and almost seems to be operating in the dark ages. Obviously, Sen is known for his economic work. I think this is a brilliant piece of work where he moves away from that.

You can take it politically, or you can take it very personally in terms of how you treat others. His theory is that when you corner someone by treating them badly all the time that is what they will respond to and in the end that is what they will become, because you have been reacting to them based on your restrictive perception of them as being bad. Similarly, if you only look at their identity as violent that is what they will become, and you will really have a bad time helping them transform into someone better.

I find myself using this book and remembering his words as I travel around the world. Not because I am from the Middle East or because I am a Muslim but because I am the one who is working in America! I understand that people are aggressive in war zones because there is a scarcity of resources but I don’t understand why people are aggressive and hurtful towards each other in peaceful environments.

When we corner people we do not like – and we all have people we do not like – we avoid our own responsibilities in the issue. We blame it on the other and sort of force them to go into that part of their identity. Everyone has different components to their identity and often we end up cornering people into embracing the very identity we hate. I find myself quoting this book in my daily encounters with people all over the world.

One last question: if you say that the 21st century is the time for women’s rights what one thing can we do to help?

It is very hard to come up with just one thing. But one of the things we can do as consumers is to start to take more responsibility in thinking about where the things we buy come from. In the same way organic produce and fair trade have taken off, we need to be more aware about how the women who produce the things we buy are being treated because they are the majority of the producers. Are they being paid fairly and treated well? It is hard to hold people accountable but we need to start pushing for that. Another thing we can do is to help sponsor women living in conflict and post-conflict zones rebuild their lives. By just helping one woman at a time, we can help save their lives and get them to stand on their own two feet.

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