Zainab Salbi, the founder of the nonprofit humanitarian organization Women for Women International and author of “The Other Side of War: Women's Stories of Survival and Hope,” criticized the United States for contributing to Iraqi women's diminishing social position in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq in a lecture in Filene Auditorium on Thursday.
The conflict in Iraq changed the culture of the nation by empowering the country's more religious and radical elements, Salbi said. Consequently, conservative traditions — including wearing hijabs, polygamy and early marriage for women — are now social norms, according to Salbi.
A major cause of the social and cultural changes was Iraq's security issues, which led to the kidnapping and victimization of economically successful women and forced women to “retreat into the home,” Salbi said.
Although women's legal position in Iraq has improved, and women are now more widely represented in the Iraqi parliament and the diplomatic corps, Salbi that American policy toward Iraqi women was merely symbolic and represented a lack of awareness on the part of the Bush administration.
“Iraqis were really bad,” Salbi, quoting her aunt on the modern condition of her native Iraq, said. “Americans were really bad, too, and between the two of us, we destroyed the country.”
Salbi spoke about women's marginalization and victimization around the world and exhorted her audience not to hesitate to take action in service to others.
She said her interactions with women taught her to have the humility to effect change by integrating solutions proposed by the people she was serving. A sustainable and lasting solution to worldwide problems results from cooperation between humanitarians who have necessary resources and victims who have an understanding about the issues with which they are confronted, she said.
“Peace requires that you not only come with sympathy and respect but you meet the very person you are going to serve, a person to a person,” Salbi said. “Meet them with your story — not as a savior, not as the humanitarian and definitely not as the person who is all intact.”
Salbi also said that humanitarians have a responsibility to respect the underlying social and political structures of the places in which they work. Despite her advocacy for women's rights, Salbi said she still had to show some respect for the South Sudanese practice of trading cows as dowry. The practice was an integral part of the Sudanese economic structure and could only be replaced by first showing understanding and respect for the culture, she said.
“My vision of it is that if you don't go with an utter curiosity, even to darkness, to understand it out of a place of respect, then you cannot change it,” she said.
Salbi had a similar experience while interviewing an Indian brothel owner for a CNN story. She said she was horrified listening as the brothel owner recounted how he bought young women from their abductors, negotiated the years they would work for him and forced them into sexual servitude. Salbi said, however, she gained a new perspective on the issue when the brothel owner accused society of creating the demand for sex trafficking.
Salbi said she learned that changing discussions about social issues and reforming the economic incentives that create demand for victimization depend on understanding the logic and perspective of perpetrators.
Before stepping down as CEO of Women for Women International, Salbi visited all the women she worked with around the world. She asked these women what impacted them most about the aid they received. Salbi said she received an answer from a colleague in Bosnia who said, “All women want is inspiration.” Her colleague's statement inspired her book, “If You Knew Me, You Would Care,” which features a compilation of interviews with women from conflict zones.
“If we each take ownership of our story, break our silence, share it and in the process that may be the lantern, the candle, the flashlight on another woman's life that inspired her to do the same,” she said.
Catherine Moran, who attended the lecture, was moved to tears by Salbi's presentation about the women's condition worldwide.
“It's the gentleness of peace that she speaks about and that, I think, comes from the wealth of women coming together and telling these horrendous stories and then finding peace,” she said.
Moran said she is currently researching and writing about women's victimization.
Faith Sylvia '16 said she would like to pursue global service through research. She said she was interested in hearing Salbi address the role that men can play in women's emancipation.
Salbi's speech was part of a lecture series devoted to social justice hosted by the Dickey Center for International Understanding, according to Acting Director of the Dickey Center Chris Wohlforth.
“Hopefully, the audience will gain an appreciation for both the role of women in conflict and the value of incorporating women into our governance and security structures,” Wohlforth said. “[Women] are often left out of peace negotiations and security considerations even though they tend to be the primary victims of war, and they are the ones who keep their communities going even during a conflict.”
Women for Women International, founded in 1993, works with women in war zones through $30 sponsorship programs, educational programs and vocational skills training. Salbi is currently working on a documentary film about women's role in the Arab Spring.