For more than 20 years, Iraqi-born Zainab Salbi founded and ran Women for Women International, a DC-based, global women’s rights organization. In 2008, she published a best-selling memoir, Between Two Worlds, about growing up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This year, the 46-year-old launched the Nida’a Show, an Arabic language talk show that has included Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Arab rappers, female comedians, and frank talk about sex, women’s rights, and ISIS. The Nida’a Show currently airs in 22 countries across the Middle East.
For years, you’ve advocated for women’s rights. Talk to us about how you see a talk show achieving these goals?
Women are facing a huge backlash in the region now. ISIS is 100,000 people out of one billion Muslims, but my worry is the long-term effect. Look at Mosul, and across Iraq: all women are covering themselves for safety. If you leave it like that for long enough, it will just become the norm.
Why the talk show? It’s not to be rich and famous. We are living in a time of crisis. It’s a global crisis, but as Muslims, we have an identity crisis as well. When we look in the mirror, we see a broken mirror and the West can’t resolve this identity issue.
They’re telling us religion is this, but we grew up with religion being something else. So what are we? It’s a horrible time, but it’s the time to show up. So I’m showing up. The extreme voices are the loudest, but there are other voices, and they are beautiful voices, but they are like sparks and they speak up and get hit on the head. No one is gathering those voices.
Can you advocate for women’s rights in an Islamic context? And how do you deal with the diversity of opinions and beliefs within the Arab world?
I believe you can resolve women’s rights with Islam. The issues I deal with are not political or religious. I talk about values.
Tell us about the shows that have already aired?
One of my guests was a Palestinian father whose 9-year-old daughter was killed by an Israeli soldier. He said, “I was so scared my 13-year-old son would take revenge and I would lose my entire family.” He eventually went to the soldier and told him he would forgive him. Another story was on a transgender woman. I do a lot on young women as well, and often their issue comes down to their relationships with their father. A woman’s honor is her family’s and when she speaks out about something, it’s about her whole family. That’s the number one reason why women stay silent—because the father says to.
When I go around and speak with women in the Arab world and ask them what they want to hear about, most of them talk about sexual harassment and the pressure they feel. There’s an incredible pressure on women. Every breath we take is a reflection of society, family, and culture. And, it’s always a reflection of the father. Personally, I can relate to that. It has taken me a lifetime to free myself of this. My father doesn’t care about the US press. But, if the Arabic world translates it, he has friends who read it. If I didn’t experience the pressure myself, then I wouldn’t know what these women feel. So it’s a new challenge for me, too. I can’t ask others to do things unless I’m also willing to do it. We have to confront our men. Even though I’m an adult woman, I still am afraid to confront my father. I have to tell the truth.
Is this message for young or old women, or the elite?
More and more, young women are saying: ‘We have crossed the line and we can not be silent anymore.’
I thought it was the elite who felt this way, but no, even the Yezidi women spoke openly about the details of their rape. They say, ‘My conciousness doesn’t allow me to be silent.’ We have a new phenomenon of young women who say, ‘We have to continue.’
You talk about your show giving voice to the voiceless, and your show includes female comediennes wearing full veils, women rock climbers, designers, and yoga teachers from Saudi Arabia. What’s your aim?
In Saudi Arabia, you can easily find women entrepreneurs, especially in business. We’ve had Saudi women rock climbers, designers, and artists. We had a yoga teacher and she came in ready to go live with tattoos and a sleeveless top, and I asked her, “Are you sure?” and she said, “Yep. This is my choice.” But, all Saudi women, no matter their profession, talk about how they have to challenge their parents. In some cases, it’s the culture and not the laws that hold back women. This is the struggle of the woman. In Morocco, an illegitimate boy can still get registered by the government, but the culture ostracizes him. The culture is in play now. The people are harsh on each other. So it’s the culture we need to change. I feature people who are transforming that culture and turning it around and that’s the inspiration. I show how normal they are. I interviewed a niqab-wearing comedienne and after talking to her for a few minutes, I realized I liked her a lot, and suddenly, my own discomfort was lifted.
Do you ever feature men on your show? Do you feel you ought to?
My strategy is to only show good news and good-hearted men. They cry and they talk about their depression and it humanizes men. When the biggest singer in the Arab world talks about depression, or the man from Abu Dhabi says, “The eagle is the best teacher,” and shows he cares about the environment, it humanizes him.
A lot of women are saying now, ‘I want a better relationship with my husband,’ and they need to know it can happen, and it can happen in their culture, and inside a Muslim culture, because they have influence.
How do you get around getting stuck in the politics of the region?
My goal is to humanize the story, and to look at it from the heart and not the head. Who am I to say, do this or do that? My goal is to show why someone does what they do. I’m not advocating an agenda: just let us hear all the stories from our heart. The illegitimate boy from Morocco is an example. He had two messages: ‘See me for who I am, and my mother is not a whore.’ No topic is off limits, but we need to gradually broach topics. There is a pressure to address every topic at once, but let’s go step by step. If we talk about premarital sex too quickly it will backfire. I won’t gain anything by talking about that now. We have to respect the culture.
How has the rise of ISIS changed the debate on women, and do you ever fear for your own safety?
Arabs believe ISIS is all foreigners, but they’re all Iraqis. And I’m saying, actually, they are us. We must take responsibility that this is coming from us and our culture. ISIS is part of our culture, just like the KKK is part of the US culture. They are rejected and dark, but they are a part.
I have ISIS supporters in my audience. I can tell from their questions. ISIS threatens actors, comedians, and some people say, “Aren’t you afraid that they’ll come after you and kill you?” But I’m a single woman without children, and this is my calling, so I can live with the consequences.
There are three reasons why ISIS is popular. The first is that ISIS provides an ideology that says the West has screwed us up so now we will have our caliphate and we will be glorious again. The second is that they provide jobs that pay USD$500 to $1000 a month to people suffering from high unemployment. The other night, I was talking to the man who served me shisha at a restaurant and he told me he has a college degree. He said, “No one is upset that I have a college degree and I’m serving shisha.”
The third is that they give sex. We never talk about the deviation, the rape, the incest caused by a culture that forbids premarital sex. There’s no healthy discussion at all. Sex isn’t talked about. I’m not advocating a sexual revolution, but we don’t talk about it. If you say, ‘Hey, there’s no shame in this. Let’s talk.’ ISIS is providing a loophole to the ban on premarital sex, and it’s our responsibility because we’re not providing an alternative.