Arab women face contradictory expectations from society, activist says

Zainab Salbi said women are told they can do anything but face criticism from more conservative forces if they put their heads above the parapet, writes Daniel Bardsley

Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, at the World Science Forum in Jordan. Sophie Tremblay for The National
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A few months ago, Iraqi-American women’s rights advocate Zainab Salbi travelled to Iraq and went by road to Mosul, the city that not long before had been freed from ISIL control.

Every building she passed on that three-hour drive had been wrecked. The scenes had a profound effect on her.

“Every single memory was destroyed,” Ms Salbi, 48, told the World Science Forum this month in Jordan.

“When I reached Mosul I was devastated. I met a woman who said, ‘I will clear up my house. I just need help rebuilding the human being.’

“Men and women are comparing themselves with Hiroshima. Our bomb is from within: this hatred, this fundamentalism.”

The life history of Ms Salbi is no less extraordinary than the sights that confronted her during the recent visit to the country of her birth.

She was born in Baghdad in 1969 into a family whose privilege was a double-edged sword. She was a child when her father became Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot and she knew the Iraqi leader as “Uncle Saddam”.

But Ms Salbi’s family also found their closeness to the capricious Saddam oppressive, living in fear of him and his family.

It was for this reason that she left Iraq for the United States and an arranged marriage at the age of 19.

She has spoken of how, just three months later, she fled that unhappy union after abuse that included rape.

Travelling to Bosnia a few years later with her second husband, she saw first-hand the suffering women there faced as a result of the turmoil of the war and, aged just 23, set up the organisation Women for Women International.

The organisation helps women who have suffered through war to gain skills that could help them to support themselves, and it has become a significant international player under Ms Salbi’s leadership.

Its successful sponsorship method encourages women to support “a sister” with a monthly donation for a year, while the recipient receives training.

Active in eight countries, Women for Women International has helped more than 450,000 women and has distributed more than US$120 million (Dh441m), said Ms Salbi, who stepped down as chief executive in 2011.

Concentrating on the needs of women can benefit everyone, she said.

Ms Salbi said that only 10 per cent of aid money is channelled specifically to women.

“It’s great to have speeches about how wonderful women are, but unless we put in the investment we’re just talking the talk,” she said.

“There are practical reasons here – non corruption. I do not believe if women rule the world it will be a better place. But more engagement of women is a productive thing for society.

“When one third of that money goes into women, then women have to address these practical issues for their family. They tend to be less corrupt because they have immediate needs.”

Since stepping down as chief executive, Ms Salbi has maintained a high public profile as a lecturer, television host and favourite guest of the likes of Oprah Winfrey.

Articulate and with an engaging manner, she has been showered with accolades. She has been named more than once as one of the world’s 100 most influential women.

Ms Salbi is based in New York but regularly visits the Middle East, and describes Dubai as like a second home.

She readily acknowledges the challenges that women in the region can face.

One of the hardest things, she says, is the contradictory expectations society places upon Arab women.

On the one hand, they are told they can do anything they want in life, while on the other they face criticism from more conservative forces if they put their heads above the parapet.

Ms Salbi describes these conflicting expectations as having “a huge stretch on the psyche of the woman”.

“I think Arab women have the reputation in the western world that we’re oppressed,” she said. “I don’t think we see ourselves as oppressed. I think of Arab women as feisty and strong.

“Outsiders see us as one thing but there are these juxtapositions. It’s hard to navigate. It’s almost like Arab women are told when they’re kids, ‘You can do anything.’

“But the older they get, the rights and mobility shrink even in the most open-minded families. The culture keeps all of its shame: ‘What will your family think?’”

Mirroring the situation in some other Arab countries, commentators have noted how dress among women in Iraq has become more conservative in recent years, with growing numbers electing to wear the hijab and other modest garments.

“When I go back to Iraqi universities, students ask me, ‘Is it true in your generation you drove to university? That you didn’t wear a headscarf?’” Ms Salbi said.

“The reality that was normal for me was that it was far more open, far more relaxed being a woman in Iraq.”

She described the Arab world as being “in a fragile stage culturally” and said that other countries in the region should learn from the traumas Iraq has faced, the physical results of which she saw during her recent trip.

She feels a message of hope can emerge from the destruction.

“These people who have lived with ISIL, we have a true chance if we really hear them, if the region hears them. They’re reporting back from the abyss,” Ms Salbi said.

“We tried fundamentalism, we tried extremism and we destroyed each other.”

Mosul and Raqqa, the Syrian city freed from ISIL control last month, offer a lesson “to spare ourselves going through what they went through.

“I left Mosul having optimism that we may have a new narrative of values if we truly listen to these experiences,” Ms Salbi said.