Hearing the stories of others gave humanitarian the courage to confront her own

Over nearly two decades, Zainab Salbi helped hundreds of thousands of women who were traumatized by war to rebuild their lives.

What she hadn’t done during that time, she came to realize, was to give voice to her own trauma during the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Salbi said during her visit to Yale on Oct. 21.

Salbi spoke to a capacity crowd at Yale Law School, where she delivered the second annual Gruber Distinguished Lecture in Women’s Rights.

She told her audience how, in 1993 — with little education and few skills — she moved beyond the memory of her life in Iraq to found Women for Women International, which has helped over 315,000 women survivors of war access social and economic opportunities through a program of rights awareness training, vocational skills training, and income-generating opportunities. Women for Women International has distributed $108 million in direct aid and microcredit loans to women in conflict-ravaged countries, including Bosnia, Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda.

Anyone who knew her then and since, Salbi said, would see a woman who had achieved success by building an organization from scratch and racking up dozens of honors, including the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, being named a Female Faith Heroine by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and being cited by numerous major media outlets as one of the world’s most influential women.

But “the most significant turning point” in her life, recalled Salbi, was her encounter with a woman from the Congo.

The Congolese woman had shared with Salbi the story of how three of her daughters — including her 9-year-old — had been raped, and how her own son was forced by soldiers to rape her, after which other soldiers followed suit.

The woman told Salbi she had never told anyone about her experience before. Salbi replied, “I am a storyteller. I will take your story and share it with the world, so I can help to empower other women.”

It was in that moment, Salbi said, that she was humbled. She realized that she had never personally done what she asked of the traumatized women she encountered: to “break the silence” by testifying about their own painful stories for the cause of helping other women.

“I had to drive to Rwanda that day,” remembered Salbi. “I had to drive five hours, and I cried the whole way. I thought, ‘That woman has more courage and knows more … than me, an educated, "successful" woman.'”

At the time, Salbi noted in her talk, she was writing a book about the experiences of Iraqi women who are war survivors, and her publisher kept insisting that Salbi make her own experience in the country a part of her book.

She said her excuses — that she grew up in Iraq surrounded by helicopters and Mercedes Benz cars, and that she was educated and successful — were simply a way of “hiding.”

“The hiding behind ‘the other’ had been the most intellectual exercise for me,” said Salbi. “I come from a culture where there is no ‘I’ — it is about community. …

“I realized that I couldn’t write about other women’s stories unless I claim the ‘I’ first,” she added.

Salbi then told how growing up in the clutches of Hussein’s power and whims caused her to live in “utter fear.” Her mother, who was abused by the dictator, frequently tried to commit suicide, she said. Her father, who was Hussein’s personal pilot, was “emasculated” by his boss.

“We resisted slowly and died slowly,” said Salbi, comparing the effects of Hussein’s abuse of her family to being in a home with slowly leaking poison gas.

After coming to the United States during the Gulf War, Salbi recounted, she found herself in yet another abusive relationship, this time with a husband in an arranged marriage. Even in America, she added, she was too terrified to mention Hussein’s name in her own backyard.

Her encounter with the Congolese woman, Salbi told her audience, resulted in the discovery that even more important than educational training or microfinance for women survivors of violence was their storytelling.

“Storytelling is the inspiration,” said Salbi. “The more we own our own stories, [the more] that story becomes a candle for someone else’s cave, in someone else’s life. The secret source of creating change starts with a story.”

Salbi described several women who were courageous enough to share their own stories, sometimes with the very men who had assaulted them, and said that “each of these women moved from the ‘them’ to claiming her own story and understanding that — in her ownership of her own story — is a transformation for another woman.”

Salbi said her moment of self-discovery eventually led her to leave the organization she built. She is now sharing her own journey and working on a documentary about the role of women in revolutions. She told her audience that Arab women have been the sparks behind “every aspect” of the Arab revolution as they chant or hold vigils in the streets or begin to share their own stories.

Her most recent book, the 2013 “If You Knew Me You Would Care,” is a collection of stories detailing the trials of women in conflict-ridden countries across the globe. Salbi is also author of the bestselling “Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam” and “The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope.”

The activist and humanitarian ended her talk with a quote from the Persian poet Rumi: “Out beyond the ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I'll meet you there.”

“We are all part of building that bridge by building our own ‘I,’” Salbi concluded.

The Gruber Distinguished Lecture in Global Justice and the Gruber Distinguished Lecture in Women’s Rights are signature lectures open to the entire Yale community and other interested groups. In conjunction with Salbi’s talk, the Law School also hosted two panel discussions, one titled “Voice and Revolution: Gender, Rights, and the Roles of Women in the Middle East” and the other on “Reconsidering Voice: Agency, Gender, and the Role of Law in Development.”