Incredible Women

Podcast guest Zainab Salbi on embracing the power of beauty and the freedom of fashion

In the third of PORTER’s compelling new podcast series, Pieces of Me: My Life in Seven Garments, Iraqi-born women’s-rights activist ZAINAB SALBI talks to SARAH BAILEY about the poignant sartorial occasions that will stay with her forever – from the traditional wedding dress she had to wear for her arranged marriage to the surprising outfits she chose to wear while working with women in war zones. Here, we give you an insight into Salbi’s life and work through fashion with an exclusive extract from our Pieces of Me podcast, which you can also listen to in its entirety from today…

Zainab Salbi is one of the most captivating storytellers you are ever likely to meet. The Iraqi-born activist was in her early 20s in the US when, having escaped from an abusive arranged marriage, she heard about the horrors of Bosnian rape camps and promptly set off for the region with the man who was her new husband. This unconventional honeymoon led to her forming the humanitarian organization Women for Women International in 1993 – which she helmed for 18 years. Ironically, she says it was working with so many women in war zones that taught her to embrace the power of beauty and female adornment, after her eyes were opened by a woman in Bosnia, who told her, “In my beauty is my resistance. Soldiers are trying to make me so afraid that I drop every element of my life. When I walk in the street, I want the sniper to see that he is killing a beautiful woman.”

The story Salbi tells of her own journey to personal freedom takes on a very particular poignancy when seen through the lens of the clothes she wore at defining moments of her life.

An orange T-shirt from my childhood, 1979

“The very first piece of clothing that was important for me as a child. It had a little plastic pocket, which I loved. One day, we were invited by Saddam Hussein’s wife to a women’s gathering. My cousin was visiting from London and my mother gave her my orange T-shirt to wear – and my heart sank.”

The pink taffeta dress I wore when I gave up on teenage resistance in 1988

“My mother made this pink taffeta dress for me. I visibly fitted in with everybody but, emotionally, I felt like a clown. It was the outfit of my surrender, when I gave up on my inner voice.”

The traditional Arab wedding dress I wore for my arranged marriage in 1990

“My mother ordered the silk from Thailand, which had all these embroideries of Arabic poems and Arabic designs. I have to say, I actually did like the dress – even though I had no say in it. The man I ended up marrying was a horrible, horrible man.”

The pants I wore as a feminist ‘warrior’ in 1993

“In America, I studied feminism and women’s studies in college. This is when I started wearing suits – suits, black jackets, pants and white shirts. When President Clinton chose me as one of six Americans to give an award to for their work in Bosnia, I wanted to be seen as an individual, not a man or a woman.”

In Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2010, wearing a Kate Spade yellow cardigan

“In the beginning, I used to go to war zones wearing baggy pants and baggy shirts. I was embracing the warrior look. But I would go to these countries and the women there were beautiful… and I became sort of embarrassed of myself – this shabby-looking person. And I felt that, out of respect for them, I should have nice clothes. This is one of my favorite outfits.”

The abaya I wore for the first episode of my TV show, The Nida’a Show, in 2015

“Choosing the outfit for the first show – with the first interview Oprah ever gave to the entire Middle East – was a huge deal. I chose to wear an abaya – white, embroidered in Islamic designs – but under it I was wearing tight pants and high heels, with my shaven bare head.”

The clothes I wear now – for me!

“I’m at a point in my life when I’m not buying clothes to make me feel beautiful. I already feel beautiful and I get the clothes that will allow that beauty to shine. And for whatever reason, I like only to wear white. It makes me feel so good.”

To listen to Pieces of Me: My Life in Seven Garments, subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, and many more