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Want to know what a Muslim looks like, Donald Trump? Meet Zainab Salbi

Lamat R Hasan | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 12:45 IST

After two decades of being a humanitarian aid worker in war and conflict zones across the world, Zainab Salbi decided to take a little detour.

She went on TV with a talk show called The Nida'a Show to talk about women and what matters to them.

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That may not sound unusual, except for the geography in which she operates: her show airs across 22 countries in the Arab world through Discovery Channel's TLC Arabia, Salbi's show became a serious hit.

Salbi is no ordinary woman. With her father being a pilot to Saddam Hussein, she grew up - almost literally - in the Iraqi dictator's backyard, an experience that shaped most of her adult life.

She's hard to ignore. A pixie haircut, dangling earrings, dramatic long semi-precious stone necklace, boots; these nods to personal style sit alongside an innate grace, poise, and a deeply comforting smile.

Little wonder then that she has Arab women talking. About refusing to practice genital mutilation. About the pain of being an illegitimate child. About transgender issues.

She has also been fearless in speaking out against the terror unleashed by ISIS and the unprecedented refugee crisis.

"We have to remember that ISIS does not represent more than .001 percent of the entire Muslim population. The rest of the Muslims neither share their values nor their beliefs," says Salbi, who was in Delhi for Tina Brown's Women in the World event late last month.

Edited excerpts from an email interview:

You've been a humanitarian aid worker for years. How does your show take forward the cause of women in conflict zones?

The show takes forward the cause of women in the Arab world and that includes but is not limited to conflict.

It focusses on acknowledging (the contribution of) Arab women, featuring the possibilities of change from within the culture and building bridges of dialogue from within the region.

It also includes social and cultural issues, health issues, relationship issues and all things that women deal with in their daily lives.

In a recent interview you reportedly said that through the show you aim to inspire women to not only change their lives, but to also change the culture of religion. Could you explain?

Religion is something private that I don't plan to deal with, because I am not a religious figure. I am not sure where that quote came from.

But I can tell you that I believe positive change can only happen from within when women and men start speaking honestly about issues that address their lives.

The show aims at creating a safe place to talk about all topics - from a woman who refused to practice female genital mutilation on her daughter, to a man who talked about the pain of being an illegitimate child, to a father who decided to forgive the killer of his daughter, to transgender issues.

I am a Muslim. And the Islam I know is not the religion ISIS is preaching: Zainab Salbi

There are wonderful people in the region who have wonderful voices and the show aims at featuring them to create a debate from within the culture.

Your own story of growing up in Saddam Hussein's backyard is chilling. How did that experience shape your adulthood?

I documented my childhood story in my memoir Between Two Worlds and talked about the factors that impacted my life.

That includes the Iran-Iraq war which taught me how the world sees war only from a man's perspective and not from a woman's; my mother, who taught me to be strong and independent and, of course, my family's relationship with Saddam that taught me much about power and the use of fear to control people.

You say that people in the Middle East are as scared of the ISIS as those in Europe. Is that true?

Of course. ISIS or Daesh have killed more people from the region and that includes Yazidis and Muslims than non- Muslims.

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The fear increases as kids are joining ISIS and the mass threats that ISIS is issuing against anybody who dares to criticise them. All this makes fear real as the possibility of threat is very close and can be in your face.

There is a video-clip showing an ISIS recruit invoking Prophet Mohammed and urging people to join jihad. How are ordinary Muslims expected to counter such appeals?

These are indeed very disturbing scenes to watch. We have to remember that ISIS does not represent more than .001 percent of the entire Muslim population. The rest of the Muslims neither share their values nor their beliefs.

Most Muslims have been openly rejecting ISIS as this is not real Islam. Which is true. And now I think Muslims should speak out more about how they see the religion.

She grew up, quite literally, in Saddam Hussein's backyard. Zainab Salbi knows what Islam is

I am a Muslim for example and the Islam I know is a religion of love, not the religion that ISIS is defining these days.

Can Muslim women really speak out against marital rape, custody of children out of wedlock, extra-marital relationships, or even a love marriage - given the Islamic view on these?

Every person has the power of choice. No-one can expect the change to come from outside. Each individual must create the change themselves.

Muslim or not Muslim, each woman must speak about her values and beliefs of right and wrong if she is to live the life she aspires to.

I know speaking the truth is not easy - it may come at a price. But that is still a choice each person can make for herself. To me, fear is not a good enough reason to stop a person from talking.

But I don't want to dismiss the price one may have to pay ether. All I know is that a lot of people are speaking up and are courageous in telling their truth. If they can do it, so can all of us.

How difficult is it for Muslims to convince non-Muslims that Islam is about peace, not war?

You just live this peace yourself. Start being outspoken about it and start implementing it in all aspects of your surroundings and make sure the world hears about it, sees it.

Love is bigger than all and I truly believe love will triumph. God is beauty and love and that truth will always come clear. We all have to just walk it and speak it until it is heard loud and clear.

First published: 11 December 2015, 1:30 IST
Lamat R Hasan @LamatAyub

Bats for the four-legged, can't stand most on two. Forced to venture into the world of homo sapiens to manage uninterrupted companionship of 16 cats, 2 dogs and counting... Can read books and paint pots and pay bills by being journalist.