Zainab Salbi speaks on women and Islam


Zainab Salbi, the 2016 Carol Hoffman Collins Global Scholar-in-Residence, spoke at Gamble Auditorium to dozens of Mount Holyoke students and members of the Pioneer Valley community. Her talk on Oct. 13 was called “Women, Islam and the Middle East,” and addressed issues of identity and culture that many Muslim women face.

Salbi is an Iraqi-American author, humanitarian and media personality. She is the founder of Women for Women International, an organization that has helped over 447,000 marginalized women in countries impacted by war and conflict. The organization offers support and skills to help women transition from poverty to economic self-sufficiency. Currently, Salbi is the host of “Nida’a Show,” a talk show she also created that focuses on women and broadcasts in 22 countries in the Arab world. She is also the author of numerous books, including a memoir, “Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam,” which chronicles her experiences growing up as the daughter of Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot.

Salbi opened her talk stating, “Religion, politics, nation-states, all of these other identities impact us in different ways, but ultimately we are all breathing human beings. I wanted to particularly start my discussion about Islam today with that because like all religions, Islam is not a core point of identity but one of many forms of identities. And right now we are in a contentious time. Is Islam a religion of peace or is Islam a religion of war?”

Salbi noted that, “I must start by saying I am not a religious scholar, nor am I an academic. What I do is I intertwine my personal narrative and my experience in the Middle East since I switched from my humanitarian work at Women for Women to my media work in the Middle East.”

She added that many people in Middle Eastern countries believe that “the American promise of freedom and democracy is not applying equally to [Muslim women].” Salbi cited American support of those viewed as dictators as an example. Salbi continued, “You are supporting the oppression of our people by supporting our government but you are claiming that you want freedom.”

Salbi concluded that to declare Islam as either a religion of war or a religion of peace is overly simplistic, and said that the religion has dealt with both as reflections of the politics of the time. She added, “In all the discussion about Islam, women have become the representative of that tension, whether Muslim women are oppressed or not oppressed, they are holding that tension.”

Of the recent burkini bans in France, Salbi commented, “I find the French argument most interesting about hijab or burkini or all of these things because in their attempt to protect or liberate women from the burkini or the hijab, the statements the president of France makes are as patriarchal and as chauvinistic as the men who really do enforce the hijab.... Neither one of them says she has the right to do whatever she does.”

Aicha Belabbes ’19 said she appreciated Salbi’s speech because “it’s really hard to find Muslim women representation in the media and academia.” Salbi’s comments on Muslim women particularly resonated with Belabbes because Salbi “really got at the heart of the issues. It felt really validating.”