When Zainab Salbi describes war, she doesn’t describe the soldiers fighting on the front lines – she describes the decision she and her family had to make about whether or not they should sleep in the same room so they could die together if a missile fell on their house.

Jessica Boullion
Iraq native Zainab Salbi speaks about women in war at the Mendelssohn Theater yesterday (ZACHARY MEISNER/Daily)

Growing up in Iraq during the eight-year war with neighboring Iran, Salbi witnessed war’s toll on civilians.

“We only talk about the front side of war,” Salbi said. “War for me is about anything but the front line.”

Salbi spoke about war’s effect on women at the University’s annual William K. McInally memorial lecture in almost filled Lydia Mendelssohn Theater yesterday.

In 1993, Salbi founded Women for Women International, an organization that helps female victims of war.

University President Mary Sue Coleman and University Regent Julia Darlow attended the lecture, which was presented by the Ross School of Business.

Len Middleton, a Business School professor who attended the lecture, said Salbi’s stories of women helping other women in war-torn nations were powerful and not something that women in Ann Arbor deal with every day.

“It touches them in a special way,” he said.

Salbi grew up in Iraq during the 1980s under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Her father was Hussein’s personal pilot, and she said her family was part of the Iraqi elite.

Salbi said because her family knew Hussein up close, he took over their lives.

“We were like jesters in a palace,” she said. “We were so afraid of talking.”

She said that being close to Saddam was like being close to the devil.

It was her mother who first pushed Salbi to leave Iraq when she was a teenager.

Salbi described her mother as a “strong woman” who wouldn’t even let her learn to cook or clean so that a man wouldn’t expect that of her.

But it was her mother who begged Salbi to accept an arranged marriage proposal from an Iraqi-American living in Chicago.

Salbi begrudgingly left Iraq at the age of 20 and married an American she had never met. Three months later, she fled her husband, but decided not to tell anyone back home about her failed marriage.

Salbi wanted to return to Iraq, but the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991 made it impossible, so she went to George Mason University.

Learning about what she called the “holocaust” in Iraq and Bosnia, she became appalled.

“I knew what it felt like to hear missiles falling on my neighborhood,” Salbi said.

She felt an obligation to reach out, and with her new husband she founded Women for Women International when she was only 23.

The organization supports women in war zones by finding monetary and emotional sponsors for the women, creating social networks, educating the women and helping them find jobs.

In her lecture, Salbi said women are often-overlooked casualties of war.

So much emphasis is placed on the front lines of a war, Salbi said, but violence often starts with women.

Salbi described how women are often the victims of escalating rape and domestic violence during war.

She told stories of rape, kidnappings and assassinations of women who are often merely struggling to feed their families.

She told of a woman waiting in line for food and water, watching snipers shoot others in the line around her. But the woman stayed put – she had no choice but to provide her family with the necessities.

“We don’t talk about the fear that comes with war,” Salbi said.

She went on to describe how women are forgotten during peace negations, which is why she said it is important for an increase in prominent female political leaders like Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice.

She said that although people often question why women support religious fundamentalism, it’s the religious fundamentalists who are reaching out to help them in exchange for support.

Women have no choice, she said.

“Peace is interpreted as ‘How is my life going to improve?’ ” Salbi said, adding that the United States needs to take a step back and address issues in Iraq like food and water.

After the speech, Business School Dean Robert J. Dolan presented Salbi with a plaque recognizing her humanitarian efforts amid standing ovation.

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