Taking Wing: Feminine Leadership from the Heartbeat of Earth with Zainab Salbi
Globally, women experience some of the harshest challenges in wartime and the climate crisis while simultaneously remaining caretakers to their families, communities, and the Earth. Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, author and media host who has dedicated her life to empowering women on the frontlines in conflict zones and climate crisis zones. Her vision is that the fate of humanity depends on elevating feminine leadership that offers a model for a new way of being – for both women and men.
Zainab Salbi is a celebrated humanitarian, author, and journalist, co-founder of DaughtersforEarth.org, “Chief Awareness Officer” at FindCenter.com, host of the Redefined podcast, and founder of Women for Women International. The author of several books, including the bestseller, Between Two Worlds and, most recently, Freedom Is an Inside Job, she is also the creator and host of several TV shows, including #MeToo, Now What? on PBS.
- Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
- Written by: Kenny Ausubel
- Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
- Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
- Producer: Teo Grossman
- Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast
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NEIL HARVEY, HOST: As Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden wrote:
“The true clash of civilizations in the future will [be] along the fault lines between civilizations that treat women as equal members of the human species, and civilizations that cannot or will not do so.”
In 1997, the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís offered a parallel metaphor.
“The world of humanity is possessed of two wings: the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength, the bird will not fly. Until womankind reaches the same degree as man, until she enjoys the same arena of activity, extraordinary attainment for humanity will not be realized; humanity cannot wing its way to heights of real attainment.”
Zainab Salbi has spent most of her life seeking to help humanity wing it to those heights of real attainment by strengthening the wing of women’s power.
Born in Iraq, Salbi lived through the horror of the Iran-Iraq war and the terror of Saddam Hussein’s savage regime. Her family arranged her escape at age 19 by sending her to the US for an arranged marriage. When it turned out to be abusive, she fled and tried to go home, but the Gulf War prevented her.
At the age of 23, those early experiences led her to found the groundbreaking organization Women for Women International in 1993. The organization went on to help some 478,000 women in eight conflict zones, from the Congo to Afghanistan. It distributed $120 million in aid and micro-credit loans.
Little did she know then that several transformative experiences would forever shape her trajectory – including a near-death experience.
Zainab Salbi spoke at a Bioneers conference…
ZAINAB SALBI: Few years ago, I had the privilege of being invited by the Anishinaabe Nation to be on a four days vision quest out in the land. Now, a lot of that experience could be experienced as hard. I had to fast for four days from food and water, but more than that I was touched by how everyone in the community had to be with me in the process, keeping the fire going for four days, the ceremonies going for four days, and it was a show of an absolute hospitality and kindness and graciousness.
And so when you’re out in the land for four days, you’re not supposed to have a pen and paper or a phone or iPad or anything. You’re only alone with yourself and a sleeping bag, and you are to observe everything about nature. And you start paying attention to the ants walking in here and to the birds flying and everything. And at one point, I laid down on the ground, and I put my ears on Earth, and it was my first time ever to hear Earth’s heartbeat.
Buh boom, buh boom, buh boom. And I had no idea up until that moment that Earth has a heartbeat. It’s alive.
HOST: In 2019, scientists at the University of Utah validated that experience. They placed seismometers on Castle Rock, a famous tall stone tower in the high red rock desert. They published their findings in Science News:
“At about the same rate that your heart beats, a Utah rock formation called Castleton Tower gently vibrates, keeping time and keeping watch over the sandstone desert. A red rock tower taps into the deep vibrations of the earth – wind, waves, and even far off earthquakes.”
ZS: I mean, I grew up in the city all my life, and despite the fact that I am from Iraq, a country which all my life, whenever I visit America, people will think, so, did you grow up in the tents in the desert and riding camels? [LAUGHTER] And, you know, after a while now, all one—and with all the invasions of Iraq and all of that, people say like, “So all your countries are terrorist people, right? And you’re an oppressed woman just because you’re in Iraq.” Now in both cases, it’s an injury to the soul when your own people and your identity is stereotyped to such an extent, but honestly in the first case I now say I wish I lived in tents and rode camels. I mean, I did live in houses and cars, but right now no one has a choice in my home country to do that, to live in tents, actually, because we have an average of 272 days of dust and sandstorms per year.
When I grew up, there were no sandstorms. None. We have now—water resources in the country are 50% lower this year than last year with the Tigris and the Euphrates. This is so personal for me, but it’s also the cradle of civilization where that right, is expected to dry within the next 20 years. Okay? And the camels, where everyone—When I was a kid, when I visited America, people thought, oh, you’re riding camels. One-third of them are dying at rates never seen before because they’re eating plastic bottles of water. And food production in a country that used to be self-sustainable up until the ‘90s, got reduced by two-thirds within 10 years of US occupation in the country – by two-thirds for different policies that enforce most farmers to drop their farming.
Now a lot of times when we talk about climate change, now the BBC reported on the dust storms in Iraq, and how many, 5,000 people went to the hospitals last week because they couldn’t breathe, we think of climate change as this alien thing – climate change, some something that we had nothing to do with it. We are the source of it. It’s human-created climate change. It’s greed-created climate change. It’s not just climate change by itself. Right? We did it.
HOST: Seeing the very cradle of civilization drying up and blowing away, Zainab Salbi knew that, as a citizen of Earth, she had to become more conscious in her own personal actions. She followed some of the basic practices: Never use plastic water bottles. Drive an electric car. Do composting. Recycle. Buy local. Buy organic.
“I’m just a decent citizen trying to do what they’re telling me to do,” she told herself.
Then a twist of fate brought her to another transformative event.
ZS: And then I touched my death a few years ago, and in that moment, that intimate moment between what I thought was going to be my last breath—because they found a quarter of a gallon of liquid pressing on my heart – the question for me was not did I have enough in life, did I have enough house or material possessions, it actually also was not did I accomplish enough – and I am a cause-oriented person. That question was kindness and did I live my life in kindness to myself, to others, and to Earth? And did I live my life in love to myself, to others, and to Earth.
And in the year-and-a-half that followed, where I lost my ability, my cognitive ability and my ability to walk or breathe, all what I could do, all what I could do is be in the presence of nature. And I felt each tree became my cheerleader. I mean, nature, all we know it heals us. Right? We have to eat healthy food and drink healthy water in order to heal our bodies. And that did impact me. But I actually felt, as I was trying to teach myself how to walk and to breathe again, I felt each tree was saying, You go, girl! You go, girl! You can do it! You can do it! And I came out of this experience saying, Oh my God! It’s not about doing this checklist – compost, electric car, whatever – I owe it to nature, we owe it to nature to do everything possible to protect it and restore it. And if actually nature was a lover–[APPLAUSE] she would have broken down with us humans a long time ago for being the most selfish narcissist, controlling, self-centered lover ever. [LAUGHTER] Seriously. I mean, she would say, “Walk out the door! And I will survive.” She would have kicked us out of her home. And she’s not. And we’re taking her for granted, okay?
In our human behavior, we go, we are conscious, we’re trying to be more conscious, but in our human behavior we still – me, okay, I’ll take the responsibility. I still go and I’m still traveling and I’m still thinking of a vacation, and I’m still thinking like all these human—and I still want to make money, and I still all of these things has consequences, because it’s ultimately not only—it’s about how we measure growth and how we look at our economy and how we are part of our economy.
We are the consumers. And so it’s not something separated from us, we are part of the crisis, not separated out of it. So, what do we do? So I came out of my new life saying I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m going to do everything possible to pay back to nature because I’m grateful for it for saving me. Right? And it became a personal experience with it. It became my heart journey.
HOST: It was as though nature took Zainab by the hand and said, “You’re working with me now.”
Friends who knew her work with Women to Women International urged Zainab to mobilize women around the climate emergency. Although she was reluctant to take on such a big issue that wasn’t within her expertise, she wanted to know how climate change was affecting women’s lives and what they were doing about it. A leading nonprofit group called
helped open the scientific window for her.
Suddenly her worlds came together. The worlds of women in conflict zones and climate crisis zones became one.
Zainab Salbi spoke with us at a Bioneers conference.
ZS: What I learned is women are impacted the most by climate change, according to the UN and many other studies. And I was like, okay, that sounds familiar to me. I’m someone who understands conflicts. Women are impacted the most by conflicts – 80% of the refugees around the world are women and children. Well, the same thing is going to be in climate change. The first crisis we’re going to have from climate is a refugee crisis, in terms of human rights, and women and children are the majority of that.
Women and children are going to be impacted the most by food insecurity. We’re already seeing that in most of East Africa, the Middle East. And that impacts women and children.
And then I discovered that women are actually innately doing activities that are scientifically backed because it makes sense, which is: science says according to research commissioned by One Earth that we need to do three interventions: We need to protect and restore 50% of Earth, land and water; we need to shift to 100% regenerative agriculture; and we need to shift to 100% renewable energy. Now, women are actually very engaged at the community level in protecting and restoring Earth and regenerative agriculture. They’re doing that intuitively because it’s their lives that are being impacted. Right? Men usually tend to be migrant laborers, and so women are the ones who are staying in these communities, so they are actually fighting for the restoration and protection of land, because they are small-scale farmers. Women are majority of small-scale farmers.
So I was like, okay, they’re being impacted the most; their work is actually significant and important, even though it’s small, small, small grassroots efforts all over the world; they are not being acknowledged whatsoever. Like you don’t hear about women’s role in solving climate crisis. You don’t hear that. You don’t hear half of the population, for God’s sake, being engaged in this discussion. We are patronized once again, seen only as victims, not seen as actually solvers of the crisis that we have not created.
The last point that really tipped me over, which is when I learned that women are getting two cents out of every dollar that is going to environmental justice. And that’s when I was like, enough. Because in my world and in my previous world working in war zones, it’s the same story. Women are impacted the most in wars in terms of victimization, refugees, attacks, rape, all of that. They actually keep life going in the midst of wars. I wrote two books about that, about, you know, we only hear about the weapons and the armies and more weapons and more weapons. What we don’t know is that life continues in war. You know, you get married in war, you get divorced in war, you have happy birthdays, you keep the kids to school, you have to eat every day, you have to work every—you know, life keeps going in war, and women are running that show, the backline decisions.
In conflict areas in the humanitarian world, women get 10 cents out of every dollar that goes to the humanitarian world. And they are not included in most negotiating tables about ending war and building peace. So it’s the same pattern, and that’s honestly when I moved from being just trying to be a good citizen – buy sustainable clothes, you know –moving to have an emotional connection – no, no, no, no, no. I need to—I owe it; this is an impor—like—it’s personal now – to being honestly charged and frustrated and a bit angry that I see the exact same story repeating itself, which is the marginalization and the lack of respect for women’s work and women’s voices, and and the need to resource women’s ventures and work to protect Earth, and to protect humanity, frankly speaking.
HOST: Suddenly it had all gotten up close and personal. Like her work in war zones, the climate emergency presented the imperative to resource women’s ventures and women’s work to protect Mother Earth and humanity itself. Clearly, flying with one wing was sending humanity in shrinking circles toward the abyss.
That’s when she decided to wing it. She co-founded the nonprofit Daughters for Earth.
When we return, Zainab Salbi works to fund frontline women climate healers, and describes how feminine leadership is about modeling a new way of being – for both women and men.
I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to The Bioneers. This is “Taking Wing: Feminine Leadership from the Heartbeat of Earth”.
HOST: To resource women’s work and ventures on the climate emergency, Zainab Salbi co-founded Daughters for Earth with Jody Allen, the philanthropist and CEO of the Wild Lives Foundation. They partnered with Justin Winters, founder and CEO of the nonprofit One Earth, which brought its ground-breaking actionable scientific model and innovative philanthropic strategies.
Together, they designed Daughters for Earth as a global climate crisis solutions fund and campaign to mobilize women from all over the world. It meant empowering not only women’s voices in decision making; it meant seriously resourcing their efforts.
ZS: It’s to mobilize $100 million of funds and campaign to do four things. 1) Put more money in the hands of women on the frontlines who are preserving and protecting millions of acres all over the world, and doing regenerative agriculture so they can introduce another way of existing, co-existing with this beautiful Earth; raise awareness that these women, climate warriors, exist and they’re working, and they’re not being heard, and we have to tell everyone in the world we cannot go about climate solutions without the full inclusion of women; mobilize and include and invite every single woman and daughter and all of her children and her spouses to be part of the solution – everyone has something to do. Some people can give $10, some people can give $10 million, some people all that they can do is change their own behavior, buy local flowers, preserve that small plot of land we have in our gardens or whatever; rewilding, anything. Daughters for Earth is to mobilize this behavior change as well as financial mobility.
And then the last, but not least, demonstrate with feminine leadership, because the truth is, unless we make this century, the 21st century, the feminine century, our humanity is at stake, and we shall not survive. Now, there’s so much—As a women’s rights activist, there’s so much going in women’s rights. And I feel like if this is a mountain, a few years ago we were celebrating for making it halfway through the mountains. I feel we just face mudslides and earthquakes and now we’re back to the beginning of the mountain. Right?
But we cannot fight women’s rights by emulating, and we cannot fight for Earth’s rights by emulating masculine leadership. We must demonstrate what feminine leadership is, because those who change the world, from Mandela to Gandhi, they didn’t change the world by just being angry, they changed the world by modeling a new way of leadership, and that’s what we need to do.
HOST: Numerous surveys show that women are making greater changes in their personal habits than men are to tackle climate change. Overall, women are more concerned and believe the climate crisis will threaten their way of life. In reality, it already is – big-time.
The data are also overwhelming in terms of the direct connection between the leadership of women and global security. As the landmark book Sex and World Peace documents, states that have improved the status of women are as a rule healthier, wealthier, less corrupt, more democratic, and more powerful on the world stage.
But for Zainab Salbi, the question is not, per se, economic growth. The question is, “What do we want to grow?”
ZS: A lot of the talks about climate solutions is very technology-oriented talk. Right? Let’s go to Mars and extract whatever, you know, from it. So a lot of money is going through that.
And the elephant in the room is our human behavior, and frankly speaking, our economy and how it is shaped. Because as long as we have an economy that measures success as growth – I make more money out of every dollar I invest in company X, Y and Z, and I wanted to get as much money as possible in a quarterly basis, as long as that is our measurement, you always have to be in a race to extract, extract, extract more, so you can grow more, so you can make more money.
We are fundamentally hurting this Earth. Right? And our solutions is very, I would say, masculine values-led solutions: technology, the war on climate, the, you know, more inventions—It’s very masculine values. So what I mean by masculine values, this is not about men. It is values that we can all cultivate in ourselves regardless if you’re a man or a woman. Our relationship with each other and with Earth has to include feminine values, and that we have to extract in ourselves, and that is being more kind to ourselves, to each other, and to Earth. That is being more loving to ourselves, to each other and to Earth. That is seeing the interconnections between ourselves, each other, and to Earth. And that has different measurements of what is success, what is growth, and what is happiness, and what is health.
Because we cannot have the solutions of climate change again be driven by only this big industrialization kind of thing. Right? It has to look into the biggest and the most important technology we need, and that is nature itself – just literally trees, you know, animals, wild animals, healthy season oceans. That is the technology we need, and for that to operate, we’ve got to change our behavior, our social and economic behavior, in my opinion.
HOST: Science affirms Zainab Salbi’s perspective on the true biotechnologies that nature uses. Restoring and conserving nature’s basic ecological services is the greatest tool at hand to begin to restore the balance that makes the planet habitable. And women worldwide are doing exactly that.
Zainab has also long worked as a writer and media-maker. As the author of several books, a PBS TV show, and a highly influential podcast heard in 22 Arab countries, she’s spent years interviewing women around the world, probing the question: What brings about change?
Her conclusion is that the secret sauce is the inspiration that comes from storytelling.
ZS: Now, I have lived and grew up in conflicts, all my life, and I have come to learn a few things. 1) All that we need to do in times of conflicts is to show up. We may succeed, we may fail, it doesn’t matter. We must show up and we show up from our integrity and our strength. And this is the time to show up for our bodies, for our rights, but for our Earth. It’s interconnected. They are not separated.
And then the second, conflict made me believe in hope. You know, people think, how can you like, you’ve been through all of this, and be optimistic? I’m optimistic because I am a believer that love is bigger than all, and that hope always triumphs, always triumphs, and injustice always gets toppled at the end. I am a believer we can do that. [APPLAUSE]
HOST: Love is bigger than all…Zainab Salbi… “Taking Wing: Feminine Leadership from the Heartbeat of Earth”.