A recent Women News Network – WNN interview with Zainab Salbi, Founder and President of Women for Women International, which held its annual fundraiser luncheon in New York City on May 18, reveals how a very simple act, a smile of recognition and respect, can help women survive in war-torn regions. Long-term trauma for women who have survived armed conflict is a haunting reminder that health issues and depression can follow decades after the end of war, but women who hope for healing can and do move forward. Many of those who work today with global advocacy still want to know the answer to a basic, yet important, question: How far can women recover after conflict survival? These and other topics are part of this interview. The recent Women for Women International event in New York featured a informative panel discussion, moderated by Isobel Coleman from the Council on Foreign Relations, covering views on the “Future of Afghanistan” with Salbi and Afghan Member of Parliament Sayed Gailani in discussion with war news correspondent Sebastian Junger. Salbi was interviewed by WNN on Thursday, May 19, 2011, one day following the New York, Women for Women International luncheon event.
WNN: Where does your interest in women and equality come from?
ZS: My mother! Since a very young age, my mother made sure to tell me about the plight of women. She made me read books by Arab feminists such as Nawal Saadawi and other books about injustice at large such as Roots. She also told me stories of what women go through from the story of her own mother, my grandmother, to the stories of women I know and I don't know. As she raised my awareness about women's issues, she also made sure to ingrain in me the importance of being strong and independent and not to let anybody define me by their images of what women should be.
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WNN: Your work has been recognized and published by many media outlets; do you think that media/people's interest towards women issues is growing? Why?
ZS: Now more than ever the global women's movement is reaching out to new audiences and constituencies. We're seeing everyone from private sector to governments to media, men and women alike, experiencing a growing recognition that from economic issues to matters of national security, women's issues are neither “soft” nor exclusively “women's.” The fact just plainly is that if half the society isn't engaged on any number of sectors, success and potential will be limited. In that sense, I do definitely believe there is a growing movement and moment for women's issues, the question is what are we going to do with it now that it is here and how can we ensure that women issues stays up front and center in our daily consciousness from consumers to politicians.
WNN: You are survivor of war yourself and wrote about your life growing up in Iraq, how do you remember that period? What did you learn from that experience? How’s the situation right now?
ZS: Living in war is a co- existence with death. One sees life and death every single day so life taste differently there… a smile goes a long way and it becomes an act of survivor to stay happy and with joy. I remember that period with the sounds of bombs, the darkness of no electricity in the middle of a raid, my mother's laughter and tears, my joy and fear. I remember the buildings and the destructions. The love and the anger. I remember it with all the emotions once can feel… fully… boldly. War is nothing but a microcosm of peace… it shows you life in a more intense way and that's how I continue to live it… for good or bad reasons.
WNN: You have written stories of women who overcome the horrors of war and rebuild their families and countries, what did you want to tell the world about these stories? What do you admire the most about these women?
ZS: The most important message for me just like the title of a book I wrote on the subject, “The Other Side of War: Women's stories of Survival and Hope.” So often our discussions of war are limited to what I call the frontline discussions—how many men, how many weapons, how many casualties. My message to the world is that until we recognize that peace is not just the absence of war but the revival of life on the “backlines,” where women are keeping kids in school, caring for the sick and injured, and daily negotiating space for the continuation of critical life processes of this nature, we're going to continue to miss the point. Women are not just victims; they are survivors and leaders on the community-level backlines of peace and stability. That's the story we need to tell the world.
WNN: What have women achieved in the last 50 years?
ZS: We have made real progress in the last 50 years. But if this is a mountain, we are half way through the peak and not there fully.
Women have increased their political participation to 18% worldwide. More women are running for president in recent years than ever before. Women are active participants in the economy. Women are part of peace keeping troops in countries like Liberia. Women own and run their own businesses and have more protective laws towards their freedom and mobility in much parts of the world. We are only here because of the generations before us who helped us be here. But that does not mean it’s time to relax. We still have a long way to go for full equality.
WNN: What still needs to be done? Who are the real protagonists of the future changes?
ZS: Women and their children are still 70 percent of all civilians killed in war and 80 percent of all refugees. Only 8 percent of all peace talks have included women at any level. and only 3% of peace agreements are signed by women. Women are still underpaid for doing the same work as men—they do 2/3 the world's work, grow 50% of the world's food and are yet earning 10% of the income and own less than 2% of the property. One out of 4 women worldwide still face violence. And frankly women still need higher political representation and to be included at decision making tables in all issues in order for solutions that relates from peace to food, to health, to basic stability in the world. We cannot continue to marginalize half of the population in the world in finding sustainable solutions that are good for all.
WNN: What's the state of women in Afghanistan right now? What are the present and actual differences among generations of women living there?
ZS: As the international community talks about the future of its relationship with Afghanistan, I worry that protecting women's rights as stated in the Afghan constitution may be compromised as the Afghan government and members of the international community negotiate with the Taliban. Historically speaking, religious and conservative groups always wanted the control over the private sphere that impacts women most, as reflected by family law and women's access to resources and mobility. And often secular groups traded this for economic incentives and trade. We risk witnessing this happening in today's Afghanistan as many talk about reconciliation with the Taliban and the possibilities of women restricting their movement and access. Much has been promised to Afghan women some delivered and some not. What we know is they have rose up and succeeded despite of their circumstances and it is up to us to help fulfill the promise for our sisters there to fulfill their full potential.
WNN: How do you think women will be impacted by the recent internal conflict in the Arab world (Bahrain, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, etc)? Does this kind of conflict create a kind of “war trauma” for womem?
ZS: Women in the Arab world have a rich history in their active participation in political change from the Algeria revolution against the French occupation to the most recent revolution in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya among other countries. The question is not their participation. Their question is the incorporation of women's voices fully in the new definitions of the countries where change has happened. Are women fully included in the reform, political and economic process. Are women's voices heard? Will they be able access to resources for women's full participation in the rebuilding process or will the women be asked to go home, as they were asked in the past. This is the moment of change and I hope the change will not stop until it includes women.