The Butterfly Effect: Female Independence

Zainab Salbi reflects on the past 20 years, the women she's met and the life lessons she's learned.

Zainab Salbi
(Image credit: Marie Claire)

The butterfly effect is a metaphor for the concept that small, seemingly insignificant events — like the fluttering of a butterfly's wings — can produce tremendous and unanticipated consequences. In this blog, Zainab Salbi, the founder of the humanitarian group Women for Women International, explores the often untapped and underappreciated capacity of women around the world to cause major and lasting change for good.

Read Zainab's previous blog post here.

June 15, 1990 was the day I arrived in the US as a bride. I was 20 years old and that was exactly 20 years ago. I remember that day so vividly. I changed into a new white outfit in the plane just before we landed. I put on my light pink lipstick. I puffed my curly hair and I walked into the terminal with my mother and 2 brothers to meet my husband-to-be and his family.

I didn't know him very well. I had met him in person about a year ago in a family outing in Chicago. He did not attract my attention, and when later I learned that he had asked for my hand, the first thing that came to mind was, "of course not." I was living in Iraq at the time. My mother cried and begged for me to accept the marriage proposal. I couldn't bear to see her crying so much so I said yes and accepted. I waited till I finished my third year in college, and once the school year finished, I went ahead and bought my books for the fourth year in college, as I was convinced that I would be back for the exams. I then packed up my most favorite clothes, leaving the rest for my friends to ransack in a pj party. I did some shopping in Germany before I left for the US, and prayed, with some anxiety, that my leap of faith in my mother's decision would end in a good path.

If the first twenty years of my life was characterized by war, dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, privilege and fear, the second 20 years of my life was marked by resilience, struggle, limited means, social activism, love, truth, and finally freedom.

The arranged marriage did not go nearly as well as any bride would hope. The man I married was an abusive, rapist jerk. I left him after three months. Since my family was stuck back home in Iraq, a country on the verge of the 1st Gulf War, going back home was not an option. So I left him, with only $400 in my pocket and a determination that I would never put myself in this vulnerable position ever again. So many things happened to me after that. I met a nice man that I was married to for 15 years, until only recently. I founded Women for Women International, a group that has helped over 250,000 women rebuild their lives after conflict. I traveled the world and met amazing people, was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show several times, and received many awards. I met poor and rich women, famous and unknown women and after all that, I never forget that lesson in life: EVERY WOMAN MUST HAVE HER OWN MEANS TO SUPPORT HERSELF, no matter how rich or poor she is. That freedom of owning one's resources is priceless, and goes far beyond the monetary value it presents. What matters far more is the independence you gain when you earn your own income, the freedom to stay or leave a relationship as you see fit, about choosing your life and your desires as they suit you.

As I sit in my NYC apartment writing this piece, I think of myself as a more beautiful, fitter, happier and definitely stronger woman than I had been when I first arrived in the US on June 15, 1990. I learned the importance of following my guts. I wish I had done that before accepting the arranged marriage. I learned to forgive. I couldn't have the peace in my heart today if I had not forgiven my mother for getting me into that horrible marriage and understanding that all she was trying to do was to save me from Saddam Hussein's oppression. I learned that misfortunes can lead to fortunes. I wouldn't have loved, laughed, shared a good marriage, and have the ability to live my truth and be who I am today if I had not gone through war, fear, an abusive relationship, loss, and death… or at least I wouldn't have appreciated the good things in life as much as I do now.

I learned that every woman must break her silence, speak her truth and not listen to those who say that we need to be silent with our stories of discrimination, marginalization, harassment, and abuse. We need to write a new women's manifesto, with new rules. If you have any suggestions, please write to me about it.

I learned to dance, and enjoy life, and not take myself so seriously. It is often hard to follow through with the latter part of that intention, but hey, trying is good. I learned that it is good enough for a woman just to BE and manifest herself in whatever ways she wants. I learned to be so incredibly grateful. And oh, I learned that the older a woman gets, the wiser she is.

And last but not least, I learned I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my mother and my grandmother before her. Each woman in my family pushed the generation after her forward. My grandmother, who got married at the age of 13 to an older man and never got to finish school, made sure that every, single daughter of hers went to college. My mother did finish college and worked, yet, still struggled with the balance between her roles as a mother, a wife and a working independent woman. And me who finished college and got my master's, who got married and divorced, and married and divorced again, yet none of that impacted my ability to be seen for who I am and not for my past marriages or the people in my life. For my mother and my grandmother, for all the women in my life and in every woman's life… for all the mothers and the women who helped us be who we are today, I am so very grateful. Twenty years after I arrived in the US, now 40 years of age, I finally found my peace. For that, I am incredibly grateful.