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A bridge that cannot be destroyed
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I'm reading
A bridge that cannot be destroyed
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
A bridge that cannot be destroyed
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
16 October 2019

A bridge that cannot be destroyed

“When we lead with anger, we risk becoming the very thing we are fighting against.”

Written by Zainab Salbi

This story originally ran in issue #60 of Dumbo Feather

There is a lot of talk about the division in our world these days. Finger pointing between political parties and religious groups; accusations running back and forth between people of different immigration histories. Anger seems to be leading and thriving. Adopt it and your voice will be heard in rallies and Twitter followers. Transform it into love, dialogue and bridging, and the traction is far less.

I was sharing how lonely this makes me feel to a friend over dinner recently, which seemed to surprise him. “But Zainab, I thought you are a strong believer in liberal values?” “I am,” I said without any hesitation. “But I no longer believe that anger is the most useful force for creating the equality and justice we need in the world.” I went on to explain that anger ultimately divides us, that it scares people away. And that when we lead with anger, we risk becoming the very thing we are fighting against. Instead, I said, we have to reach out with dialogue and even love when it comes to those we disagree with.

My friend was surprised because this was quite a shift in my thinking. I had worked with anger for the longest part of my life and built a major women’s organisation around it. But something changed in me when I was working at a refugee camp in Afghanistan. My colleagues and I had been providing financial and educational support to Afghan women, and at the end of a particularly long day, I became deeply unsettled when two Afghan men started walking towards me. They looked like the Taliban, and I panicked that they were coming to hurt me for working on women’s rights. I wanted to rush out of the camp to save my life but my Afghan colleague said I’d be wiser to stay and see what they wanted. As the men came closer they reached out to shake my hands and said, “We want to thank you for making our wives happy.”

There’s a saying that goes, “We see things as we are. We do not see things as they are.” That’s what I had been doing. This experience forced me to confront the fact. Who else, I wondered, had I disconnected from in this way, and where were the pitfalls of my understandings and assumptions? I decided that for me to grow from my own prejudices, I needed to get out of the comfort zone of interacting only with people I agree with, and meet the “other,” whoever that may be.

The process taught me that fear is created on both sides of a point. We build a wall, isolate ourselves, and stay comfortable in our judgment that “they” are bad and “we” are good. But if the goal is to create change, then we need to take a leap of faith and lower the walls of our fears and protections. In this way, we start to show one another the essence of our values and engage in a constructive dialogue.

After the experience in Afghanistan, I embarked on a journey of conversations and engagements with men in the conflict zones I operated. I came to understand that there are men who never killed and could never rape, men in pain at their lack of ability to protect and provide for their families, and then yes, men who are aggressors. I started to look to men as potential allies who could help the cause of ensuring women’s safety. And amazingly, we ended up with male leaders in a number of communities talking about women’s rights and how every man needs to be part of promoting them.

These days, my advocacy is about engaging more than shaming. It is about bridge-building not wall- building. It is ultimately about seeing the humanity in each person and trusting that it is possible to make productive change without alienating others. I am a liberal who goes out of my way to be in dialogue with conservatives. As a Muslim and an immigrant, I go out of my way to engage with people who fear Muslims and immigrants. And as a feminist, I go out of my way to engage with those who oppose my values. The process has helped me grow intellectually and emotionally, come to new understandings, and even create new alliances. I have learned that building a bridge may not always work on first try, but we must persist with many different hands until the bridge is so strong, no one can ever destroy it.

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