Salbi, founder of the humanitarian organization Women for Women International, has long worked to improve the lives of women in war-torn countries. In Freedom Is an Inside Job (Sounds True, Oct.), she shares how her activist mindset evolved into one that also embraces self-care. PW spoke with Salbi about dipping her toe into self-help, and what readers in search of a new outlook might learn from someone who isn’t a traditional expert.
After years doing humanitarian work, what inspired you to write a self-help book?
I’m not a guru or a psychiatrist; I’m just sharing my own journey authentically and transparently. In my encounters in war, the women I was working to serve were telling me something different than what I embodied myself. I’d ask them, “Don’t you want pens and paper and slogans?” And they’d say, “We want lipstick; it’s the smallest thing where we can still feel beauty.” Over time I came to reflect on the fact that any cause—women’s rights, a mother concerned with her child, a career woman concerned with success—does not require us to sacrifice things like beauty.
How have you made your experiences relevant to potential readers?
I went about my mission to change the world, and that wound up changing me. I moved from surrounding myself with like-minded people to those with opposing views, so I may be challenged in growing as a person. All these things that helped me are what I’m sharing. My editor kept telling me, “You have to describe how you do this, this, and this. It has to be ‘four ways to...’ or ‘seven ways to...’ ” But I cannot tell you, “Here are the five steps to happiness”; I can only tell you, “This is my background and how I did it.”
Can you give an example of what you mean?
All the workshops and retreats about meditation I used to go to—I’d feel great, then go back to my normal life and not feel great. I needed to figure out how to incorporate all that in my daily life. Anybody who expects the journey to living their truth to be easy—they are mistaken. The journey towards freedom and joy takes work: having uncomfortable conversations inside yourself, clearing the clutter in your life, looking at aspects of yourself you don’t necessarily like.
Who do you see as the readership for your book?
I would say my main audience is women, always. But I also hope that, because of who I am—a woman, a woman of color, a Muslim woman, an activist feminist woman, an American woman, and an Iraqi woman—it is every reader who is the “other.” This book is giving limelight to those not seen otherwise.
Has the role of self-help for women changed in the #MeToo era?
For the first time in long time, women are being heard and taken seriously. It’s upon us to demonstrate what good leadership is, and to lead not with fear but with dialogue and compassion. We also need to bring men along with us. In self-help books now, it’s women versus men. To a certain extent, it’s okay to tailor discussions to women and to men, because our experiences are different. It’s okay to have separate discussions, but in a time of division, we also need to have a common conversation about what it means to live our truth.