It’s not easy to track down Zainab Salbi. Between flights to Dubai, global conferences such as Davos and the Clinton Global Initiative, and holidays on an Indian reservation in Canada, her globe-hopping is literal. “There is never a typical week,” says the 43-year-old Iraqi-American activist as she sips coffee in the kitchen of her New York apartment. “I don’t think I can live with a typical week.”
Although she stepped down last year from daily responsibilities as chief executive of Women for Women International, the non-profit she founded with her former husband in 1993, Salbi’s travel schedule has not been any less hectic. Last month her profile was raised further when she received Barclays’ Women of the Year award in London.
Only a few days ago she was in Tunisia and Dubai working on an upcoming film she’s co-producing about the role of women in the Arab spring. Tomorrow she flies to London, then heads back to the Middle East.
In between travelling she is based at her new apartment near Union Square in Manhattan, practising yoga, shopping at the farmers’ market, catching up on email and meditating. She has lived here a little more than a month, but the space already has the warmth of home. Portraits, Iraqi artwork and mementos of the countries she’s visited hang on the walls. A well-loved orange couch provides a splash of colour against the wood floors and an exposed brick wall.
There was a time when the constant travel took its toll but she has learnt to “anchor” herself, both in her country house in upstate New York and in this high-ceilinged, loft-like home she shares with her partner, photographer Rennio Maifredi. “This place is where I cook and where I have my bed,” she says. “My friends [live] all over the world, but here I have my partner and my personal life.”
Salbi has dedicated her public life to telling the stories of other women – specifically women caught in war and poverty. Women for Women International, which was founded to help women during the Balkans war, has grown to involve more than 315,000 women in 185 countries – and has distributed $108m in aid, micro loans and services.
Salbi’s own story is itself remarkable. Born in Iraq in 1969, she grew up in Baghdad during Saddam Hussein’s rise to power, which she experienced at close hand. When Salbi was 11, her father became Saddam’s personal pilot, and she says her family was with him “all the time” after that.
The dictator’s favour had perks but, she says, he also bugged their house. She once wrote that his presence was “a poisonous gas that leaked into our home. We inhaled it gradually.”
In 1990, Salbi was sent to the US for an arranged marriage, leaving Baghdad shortly before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the first gulf war. The marriage soon ended, but she stayed in the US, finally outside of Saddam’s bubble – yet thoughts of him still haunted her. “I could not even say his [Saddam’s] name five years ago without crying,” she says. “I would shake.”
Salbi attended college at George Mason University in Virginia. When she read about the rape camps in Bosnia and Croatia in 1993, she knew that she wanted to be involved in advocacy work.
“Since I was 15 years old I have dedicated my life to serving women,” she says, crediting her mother, a biology teacher, for inspiring her. “She made me read all these books that are about social justice and transformation and freedom. She would tell me stories about what happened to women, from her own mother.”
Salbi’s mother has died, but her presence can be felt on the living-room bookshelf – Gloria Steinem’s Revolution from Within, Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky – and in the artwork on the walls, some rescued from her childhood home in Baghdad.
In the non-profit’s early years, Salbi says she “dissolved herself” into the stories of the women she was helping. A pivotal moment came when she visited a therapist and found she couldn’t stop crying. The therapist asked about when she had last taken time off; Salbi couldn’t remember.
Today she attempts to strike a better balance. “When I’m tired now I stop, no matter what I have to do,” she says, and she tries to guide herself with the advice once given to her by Alice Walker, the American writer and civil rights activist: “You have enough on your credit that you can afford to say, you know what, I’m tired.”
Hence meditation and yoga, which is even easier in this apartment building, with its yoga studio downstairs. Salbi challenges the idea that you must run yourself ragged in the service of your ideals and cuts an elegant figure, with manicured nails and a typically New York ensemble of black top, black jeans and black boots with bright red heels.
“There’s a lot of projection that if you’re in service then you shouldn’t look good,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I’m no different from anybody else. I like clothes, I like shoes, I like to go have nice dinners, I like to dance. Just because I’ve dedicated myself to serving women, why do you think I need to sacrifice myself?”
After 18 years on the frontline of Women for Women, working in places such as Rwanda and Congo, Salbi is comfortable stepping into a new role. “I don’t want to be someone in my sixties holding on to a group that I created when I was in my twenties,” she says, comparing the experience to sending a child off to college.
Salbi has set her sights on bringing women’s voices to a wider audience – work she sees as critical amid the political and economic upheavals that are reshaping the world. When revolution broke out across the Arab world in 2011, it was a moment she knew she couldn’t miss. The documentary she is making with Gini Reticker, the Oscar-nominated producer, and Abigail Disney “[tries] to tell the story of what women did to trigger a major breakthrough in that part of the world”.
Arab women have always played an important role in the region’s history, Salbi says, citing the anti-colonial movement and Algeria’s fight for independence. “Then they are told, thank you very much, you did the transformation, now you go home.” She says the film will show why it’s necessary for women’s voices to be part of the process of change. “Our stories are not fully told yet, and we’re still the minority in the decision making.”
Even amid the unrest the region has faced following the fall of dictators in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and the escalating war in Syria, Salbi describes herself as “so optimistic” about the Middle East. “Where has change ever been clean and nice? It has always been messy and painful.”
As for the struggle of women around the world? “We’re halfway up the mountain,” she says, pointing out the tiny fraction of women signing peace agreements, holding top media jobs and sitting in boardrooms.
“This issue is not about poor women and rich women, it’s an issue about women having control over their own lives,” she says. “I don’t care how many millions you have through your husband or your father or whatever, or the house you’re living in, if you don’t have your own source of income … you really are always going to be vulnerable.”
Salbi acknowledges that the prominence and influence of women such as Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, are reasons to celebrate, but she scoffs at the notion that the fight is over. “If you’re saying, we have arrived, everything is okay, it’s like, no sister, we haven’t! Hold on to your seats because there’s still more work to do.”
A painting hanging by the entrance to Salbi’s bedroom is a tangible piece of her mother’s legacy. It was painted by the Iraqi artist Layla Al-Attar, a close friend of Salbi’s mother who was killed in a 1993 US missile attack on Baghdad.
“My mum got very depressed afterwards,” Salbi says. “She said when the artist dies all else dies. And I think it’s a beautiful sentiment.”
The canvas hung in Salbi’s parents house until the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Fearing the house would be damaged or destroyed – or looted – Salbi rolled it up and took it to the US.