She calls herself a truth teller. And truth tellers are hard to come by. Because the truth is harsh, it’s bitter and it’s unexpected and it’s rare. Zainab Salbi is a name that comes with a wave of impact on its own. An author, a women rights activist and just a true inspiration to many out there to be selfless, be fierce and do what’s right, Salbi spoke to Smriti Raizada about how the next century will have to be feminine century for it to be.
Ex: You’ve had a distinctly tough childhood. Can you tell me a moment from your childhood that changed it all?
ZS: Well, the war started. One profound moment would be when I woke up in the middle of the night with the sound of a bomb. I saw the explosion far away from us but it was very clear. I saw it, went back to my bed and caught myself praying – thanking God that the bomb did not drop on my family’s home. The next day I realized that the missile landed on my brother’s friends’ home and in that moment it showed the complexities of all things – the war and its damages, my own complexities, the complexities of humans; that we’re not all good and we’re not all bad.
Ex: Did you notice any dissimilarities when it came to how men and women are treated differently during times of war?
ZS: Well, yes actually. The men had to fight and they valued that fighting, they valued that role. But from a child’s perspective, women who kept it going – from schools to libraries to factories – the ones who kept smiling and laughing and eating and kept the spirits high, were fighters too. But that was not appreciated and neither was it seen as equally important. The feminine values that women kept going were not only as fierce and strong as the masculine values but also equally significant.
Ex: How did the conception of Women For Women come to place?
ZS: It struck me when I saw the news of injustice that this other group of women, who I did not know, were facing. I didn’t know them, nor did I have any emotional or physical connection with them. I always thought I needed to do more, I felt the need to reach out to these women in practical ways to really help them. So, that was the trigger. I believe as a human being, I have the responsibility to act on injustice because if I don’t do that, I legitimize it. And in that legitimization, I allow the corruption of my own values. I was living in a country that enables me to take action, so I asked myself – do I take actions or do I stay silent? Is it enough or should I do more? And just like that, I started with helping 33 women and now that number has reached half a million across the globe. If I could do that with no resources, then anybody can. It’s just a matter of determination and resilience.
Ex: How important do you think it is to differentiate culture, traditions and customs from what’s morally wrong?
ZS: Culture is human made, not God made. These rules are ones that are made by us and these are rules that can be changed over time. Frankly, each generation breaks some customs; my grandmother was married when she was just a child but she made sure that her daughters go to college and my mother made sure that I become a strong, independent woman. So, don’t be abide by culture or traditions. The world we are living in is a product of our imagination, so we might as well reclaim our imagination and make a culture we want to live in.
Ex: There are so many young girls, in India and beyond, that battle within themselves with rapes that happen within families, domestic violence, sexual harassment. What would you like to tell them?
ZS: You do not need to tolerate it. You do not need to be scared. You do not need to accept it. I think women are told that we should be silent, especially in our cultures. We take it on personally and suffer in our silence and we die in our silence. In keeping our silence, we become a part of the reason why oppression persists. Breaking the silence is not easy but in my opinion it also brings solidarity with other women and men who stand up with you. Most importantly, it frees you from the chains of silence. The moment we break our silence is the moment we take our power back. It comes with a price and the price is real but it also comes with a gift – the gift of freedom.
Ex: We’re progressing at an exponential rate when it comes to technology. Do you think technology is something that can accelerate your goal?
ZS: Of course. Each century has had its own tool of expression and technology is ours. If it wasn’t for technology, I wouldn’t be talking with you in India [laughs] and you wouldn’t even have known about me. It obviously helps us bridge a divide and hopefully I am using it efficiently enough. When I share my thoughts, it enables you and people across oceans to hear them.
Ex: What would Zainab Salbi’s calling be in a parallel universe?
ZS: I think it’ll be the same. I am someone who fundamentally believes that I came to this world in service. That service is to show the path to connect with one’s own hearts, to connect to other’s hearts and to connect to the divine. All my work is about seeing each other and seeing our similarities and in any universe, I’d be doing that.
- A gadget that reminds you of childhood?
A dial phone
- A book you hold close to your heart?
The Essential Rumi – I read it everyday.
- If you could invent an app?
I am actually working on it! (laughs) It’s called NIDAA TV – a platform where women can connect over movies, shows, music and culture.
- If you could have a superpower for a day?
I’d fly. Because from up there, there is no distinction of colour, race or gender. We’re just humans and that’s what I truly believe in. I’d want to teach people how to fly too.
- Last thing you binge watched?
- If you had to describe yourself in one hashtag?#FeministSpiritualistTruthteller