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CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16:  Zainab Salbi attends Kering Talks Women In Motion At The 69th Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2016 in Cannes.  (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Kering)
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Zainab Salbi attends Kering Talks Women In Motion At The 69th Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2016 in Cannes. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Kering)

Self aware

A lifelong activist turns a critical eye on herself in new book

By Zainab Salbi on October 2, 2018

When I was 23, I started my activism with the drive to change the world. Twenty-five years later, I came to learn that I need to change myself first. If my activism in my twenties came from the broadness of my chest with my self righteous values and self righteous anger, activism in my forties is coming from the core of my spine and a humble place of understanding that it is not an easy process to live and implement our values fully in our lives.

As a dedicated activist to women’s rights, I often was the boring friend at parties as I couldn’t speak about anything but my cause. More than that, I was aggressive as I argued passionately with anybody who had a different viewpoint than I did. You lose lots of friends and loved ones like this, but, frankly, with my self righteous attitude, I didn’t care.

At the time, I was the young founder of Women for Women International, who was spending time between going on humanitarian aid operations through the organization and giving speeches in the U.S. to raise awareness about the plight of women in wars. I led with my passionate anger at the injustice women were and are still facing and, to be frank, at what men were doing to cause these injustices.

The tricky part is when we lead with anger, we risk becoming what we are fighting against. I caught myself in such moments many times as I traveled to some of the hardest places in this world. There was the time I was working in a refugee camp in Afghanistan. After spending hours of talking with women refugees in their tents and distributing immediate aid to them, I noticed a couple of men approaching my colleagues and me. They looked like the Taliban. Actually, I was convinced they were because they were wearing similar hats, similar pants and similar vests and shirts seen in news images of the Taliban. I was convinced they were there to kill me.

With a racing heart, I whispered to my colleague that we should walk slowly to the car and chase out of the camp the minute we get into the car so these men may not kill us. “We can’t do that,” my colleague, Sweeta, replied. She explained that if we were to do that, they will forever suspect us and never allow us into the camp again. We had to wait and see what they want so as not to jeopardize our future humanitarian efforts in that camp.

It was not an easy thing to stand by and check out these two men walking toward Sweeta and me. I was afraid. But as they reached close, one of them spread his arm toward me to shake my hand. “We want to thank you for making our wives happy,” the man explained as the other man joined him in expressing gratitude. I managed to smile and be polite in my exchange with them but inside I was embarrassed. I had caught myself in a moment of prejudice — stereotyping all men in Afghanistan as I was fighting against any prejudice and stereotype of Afghan women. If I was against cornering women as only victims and asking the world to see the complicity of women’s agency, views and contributions, I was actually cornering all men as aggressors and had no tolerance for other views.

Zainab Salbi, Author, Media Commentator and Founder of Women for Women International on ‘Paris On The Brink’ at The 2017 Women In The World Summit in New York City; 4/6/2017

Encounters that forced me to reflect on the discrepancy between my values and my actions kept on confronting me through out my travels. A brothel owner in India I interviewed as part of a piece for CNN’s Freedom Project pointed to me how people like “me” laugh at jokes about prostitutes and don’t understand that it is our fathers, sons, brothers, and friends who are causing the demand she is supplying — and it is the women who cause injustice toward other poor women that allow someone like the brothel owner to take advantage of their vulnerability by literally buying them and making them work for free as prostituted women in exchange for room and shelter.

Until that moment, I had never thought much about when, over dinner with friends, someone cracked a joke that had to do with a prostituted woman. I despised what the brothel owner did in his abuse of the women, forcing them to sleep with as many as 15 men a day. But I never connected the dots that the men in my life may have used prostituted women who have been victims of their own poverty and vulnerabilities. When I later asked the men I knew in my personal, social and work life, I realized that many of them have indeed been engaged in buying sex without ever bothering to ask about the women’s vulnerability and if they are prostitutes out of choice or force.

Over time, I came to realize that I can’t just speak about my values; I need to look inward at my actions and inactions, where have I wronged people and where have I been part of injustice with or without conscious awareness on my part, and mostly where have I wronged myself by not living my values. Each time I looked inward, I came to understand that it is not easy to live what we preach. But with consciousness, awareness, lots of effort, and discipline it is possible.

More than that, I came to realize that my own activism changed from righteous anger to compassion. My values have not changed, but the way I go about advocating for them is now coming from an understanding of my consistencies and inconsistencies — an understanding that impacted my activism toward creating an authentic dialogue with people I don’t agree with rather than just judging them as “bad” and not bothering to see how I may be part of that “bad,” directly or indirectly. Today, as I launch my new book Freedom is an Inside Job, I have come to understand that as an activist, I need to model the behavior I am advocating for. Just talking about it isn’t enough.

If I want equality, justice and respect to all, than I really need to be disciplined to show equality, justice and respect to all even those whom I don’t agree with. If I want women to be happy, then I need to be happy in my own life. If I aspired for women to be free to speak their truth and live their truth, then I need to live in truth in all aspects of my life from my political activism to my personal life.

This is not an easy process, but I am convinced it’s a necessary one if we are to play an active role in bridging the divide in our world rather than being part of the forces that widen the divide in our world. And it’s especially necessary in truly modeling what good leadership and living in values means rather than just criticizing what is not working. I embarked upon this journey thinking I could change the world only to realize I need to change myself first.

Zainab Salbi is an author, most recently of Freedom is an Inside Job: Owning Our Darkness and Our Light to Heal Ourselves and the World, media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures, and is the host of PBS’s #MeToo, Now What. For more information on Salbi’s work visit

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