Journey to Freedom Requires Facing Up to Inner Truths
Zainab Salbi took a physical journey from her childhood Iraq--where her dad was the personal pilot to dictator Saddam Hussein--to the United States, where she escaped an arranged marriage to become a women’s activist, human rights champion, journalist and author.
But it was her inward journey--a search for truth that forced her to confront her own anger, fears and biases--that allowed her to love herself, forgive others and fully take on the challenges in her life.
Salbi, author of the book, “Freedom is an Inside Job,” earlier this month sat down with LRN’s founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Dov Seidman as part of the #HOWMatters series of talks about moral leadership, and how leaders start down that path by first taking a hard look at themselves.
Salbi was a young girl in Iraq at the time of the Iran-Iraq war, who saw while the fighting took place on the front lines, the war also was fought on the back lines--mostly by women who kept life going as best as they could. Her family also was social friends with Saddam, and, as she put it: “...being so close to this man meant a lot of complexities.”
Salbi dreamed of America as a child, and even practiced speaking English in the mirror. Her mother constantly exhorted to her to be strong and independent, so she was confused and angry when her mother begged her to accept an arranged marriage to an older man who lived in the U.S. She was 19.
She said yes “more to help my mother stop crying than wanting the marriage itself,” said Salbi. She went to America, her parents went back to Iraq, and Saddam invaded Kuwait just after, precipitating the first U.S. invasion and occupation of the country.
Cut off from her family, Salbi left her husband after three months because he was abusive, with just $400 and some clothes. It is through these misfortunes that Salbi said she was able to get to her fortune, because the moments in all of our lives that test us the most are the ones that teach us our most valuable lessons.
“The moments still happen, by the way, you just hold it in a different way because you're trying to understand what are they teaching you. They're always teaching you something so you transform your relationship with the moments as opposed to the moments with you,” she said.
Free don’t come easy
Seidman said what binds people at their core is a quest for real, genuine and enduring freedom. He described two types of freedom: freedom from and freedom to. Freedom from can involve anything from breaking away from formal authority, power or dictatorships to using Amazon to gain freedom from shopping at the local store.
While freedom from is created by pushing away, casting off, escaping, Seidman said the freedom most people cherish is the freedom to--freedom to be oneself, express oneself, speak one’s mind, pursue one’s dreams.
“While freedom from is created structurally, freedom to is really a function of a purpose, values and an environment that is so nurturing, respectful and dignified that you can really contribute your character and creativity to endeavor,” said Seidman. Before one can get to freedom to, they first must create freedom “from whatever's inside you that's holding you back--fears, false assumptions, inhibitions, stereotypes, pains, darkness.”
Salbi said she cherishes the freedom she has in the U.S. because she spent the first part of her life in a place where no one had freedom. "So that freedom for me is not to be taken for granted," she said.
Alone and in America, Salbi is 23 in 1993 when she hears of rapes and other atrocities at concentration camps in Bosnia as part of a war with Croats and Serbs in what is still at that time the country of Yugoslavia. At the time she is taking a college course on the Holocaust, sees what is happening in Bosnia and decides to take action.
“I felt like I have a responsibility as a human to do something when I saw injustice, because I knew I didn't before in Iraq, and now I'm living in the land of freedom so I have to act,” said Salbi.
She started Women to Women International to help women caught in the middle of this war, asking American women to sponsor one woman by sending $30 a month and exchanging pictures and letters with them. What started as helping 33 women in September 1993 now is an organization that grown to assist more than 420,000 women worldwide, distributing more than $120 million that still mostly is raised through $30 monthly donations.
It’s around this time Salbi begins her internal moral inventory, finding she was so full of moral righteousness that she risked “becoming what I was fighting against.” She tells the story of working in a refugee camp between the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan and seeing two men in turbans--whom she assumes to be Taliban--walking toward her and another female colleague.
She tells her friend, “These are Taliban and they are gonna come here to kill us. Let's walk slowly to the car and then charge out." The other woman said, "We can't do that because if we do that, we will never be able to come back to that camp. They will suspect that we were doing something wrong and we can't leave the women. So we have to stay and see and take a risk."
The men approach the two women, the women are scared, and “they spread their arms and give me a handshake and say, ‘We want to thank you for making our wives happy. You're helping them in ways we can never see...we weren't able to see that smile on their face before.’
Salbi smiles and thanks the men, but said inside she felt shame “that in my charge as a feminist to stop stereotyping women, to liberate women, to free women, I had become the one who stereotyped all men and cornered all men. And I got scared of myself, of my own prejudice, of my own stereotype that I had grouped all men as oppressors as I was fighting against the oppression of all women.”
Finding inner truth
Salbi said the moment was so transformative, she had to dig deeper. What she learned was when people lead with anger they risk becoming the very thing they are fighting against. “Even though I had moral righteousness because I was fighting against injustices against women, I still was risking becoming that.”
Seidman said there is a purity and authenticity to looking in the mirror and conducting a moral audit, adding: “As long as we are conflicted within, we will continue to live in conflict without.” To do such an audit, though, requires one be rooted in a set of values to use as a compass.
“What were the values? What is the relationship between values and sorting out the inner journey so that you can have an outward one?” he asked Salbi.
Her response? “For me, the value...it's one value that I have to be in truth between what I'm advocating for outside and what I'm really doing inside. That's a value, the truth is a value for me.”
(Check the LRN blog soon for more on this conversation.)