Both my individual and feminist spirits blossomed during my first year at St. Mary’s College in Indiana. In one of the most powerful courses I took that year, we read Zainab Salbi’s memoir, Between Two Worlds. Salbi is the co-founder of Women for Women International, an organization that empowers and aids women victims of war by helping them rebuild their lives.
As this year’s keynote speaker for the Diverse Students’ Leadership Conference at St. Mary’s College, Salbi has continued to be a source of encouragement and inspiration for me.
During the conference, Salbi told us that the most powerful part of our own journeys starts with the heart. While she was able to encourage women in war-torn countries like Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Congo to share their stories, she was not able to share her own for a long time. She was ashamed and scared to tell about her experiences as the daughter of Saddam Hussein’s pilot. For her, the hardest journey was saving herself, not others.
Another powerful message Salbi shared was that “if you cannot respect those [you’re] serving, better not serve them.” Salbi shared personal stories of her own prejudices and preconceptions about how poverty should look and how she had to overcome them to better serve people.
When she saw a woman with beautiful red lipstick within the Women for Women International program in Bosnia, she initially questioned the woman’s economic position and placement in the program. She soon learned that people resist war, marginalization, and discrimination in many different ways. For this woman, the red lipstick was her own form of resistance. She believed that if she was going to be shot, she was going to be shot as a beautiful woman.
Salbi shared similar scenarios about other women who embraced their beauty and creativity amid the horrors they experienced. It is crucial to value the numerous modes of resistance and not pass judgment, Salbi said.
Although marginalization in other parts of the world may seem extreme compared to the United States, the core of it is the same here. It is our individual responsibility to find our own forms of resistance and to transform ourselves with an open heart. If these vigilant survivors of war can do that, why can’t we?
Salbi has been an inspiration to me since the start of my feminist journey. As the designer of her own fate, she has further energized me to extend my passions and, as she put it, “learn to dance in order to transform with joy.”