Devin: Sanam, what is your superpower?
Sanam: Sometimes, I think that my superpower is the power of the powerless speaking truth to power.
Devin: Malalai, what’s your superpower?
Malalai: So I would like to speak about it, not as an individual, but as part of a group, the group of women, peacebuilders whose superpower is building peace. I have always been inspired by those women building peace in the most dangerous conflict zones under harsh situations. I am personally pro-peace, and I worked for peace in Afghanistan and Iran, and I am also coming from an educational background in peace studies. I did my international study, master’s degree at the University of Notre Dame, yet my superpower is actually derived from women peacebuilders around the world.
After 1300 episodes, this one was the most painful I have ever recorded. My guests, Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, founder of International Civil Society Action Network, and Malalai Habibi, a program manager there, are in constant dialog with people in Malalai’s native Afghanistan.
Following the Taliban takeover of the country, thousands of people who worked with and under American and allied soldiers in the military, local police forces, courts and elsewhere are effectively under house arrest and are in fear for their lives. As I spoke with Sanam and Malalai, I could hear and feel their pain. I can only imagine the pain of those left behind.
For Malalai, no imagination is required. She knows firsthand the pain and fear of those left behind. As a young girl, she was forced to flee to Iran as a refugee with her family. Later, she was able to immigrate to the United States. She was awarded the Kroc fellowship and earned her MA in Global Affairs, International Peace Studies from Keough School at Notre Dame.
Sanam feels a personal connection, too. She is just old enough to remember her native Iran under the Shah. She was 11 years old when the Iranian Revolution changed her life dramatically, as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took control. “Overnight, our lives completely disappeared,” she says. “You go to sleep in one life, and then you’re waking up in a completely different life.”
For the past two decades, more recently joined by Malalai, Sanam has been working internationally at peacebuilding. She has worked at both the most on-the-ground, grassroots level and the global level at the United Nations and has even been invited to speak at the General Assembly.
Over the years, ICAN (as Sanam abbreviates International Civil Society Action Network) has worked closely with women worldwide to implement peacebuilding practices. Afghanistan has been one of many countries where the nonprofit has done its work, allowing Sanam and Malalai to develop personal relationships.
The work encompasses countries around the globe, including Nigeria, Yemen and Colombia. Weekly calls keep the global teams connected, literally applying a mantra Sanam invoked during our conversation, suggesting that peacebuilding must be “locally rooted, globally connected.”
As I spoke to Sanam and Malalai about their superpowers, Sanam wanted to focus her thoughts on peacebuilding, just like Malalai, despite having said her superpower was helping the “powerless speak truth to power.” In her exquisite pain at this moment, using her voice to speak out on behalf of Afghanis threatened by the Taliban and those evacuated who face uncertain futures is a power she’s using as much as she can.
Still, her life’s work remains peacebuilding, so we’ll focus on that superpower.
How You Can Develop Peacebuilding as Your Superpower
Sanam and Malalai both have deep personal as well as professional connections to peacebuilding. Malalai described her relationship this way.
My parents and then all my life, myself and my brothers have been going through—from place to place—we have been experiencing the the war and its byproducts, which is discrimination, which is marginalization, which is deprivation. I do not want to see that happen to my kids, to other kids, especially now that we are in the 21st century and whatever is happening, you shouldn't see that someone is deprived from the very basic rights.
Here are some insights I’ve summarized from
Everyone can be a peacebuilder. Malalai was clear in her remarks, not only that everyone can be but that everyone must be a peacebuilder. She feels so strongly about this being a collective action that she refused to describe the superpower as hers alone; instead, Malalai spoke about the power of collective action and the energy she draws from a global movement of women working for peace.
Listen. Sanam painted a vivid picture of American families fractured by politics gathering and refusing to talk about politics out of fear over conflict. She argues that peacebuilding begins with someone saying, “let me listen to you.”
Humanize. Sanam also points out that it is easy to demonize others. That is simply one way of dehumanizing other people who disagree with us. Once they are subhuman, it becomes frightfully easy to begin taking away human rights and then start shooting.
Sanam shared a compelling example of her peacebuilding efforts in Jamaica. There, she was interacting with gang leaders. She began, “What are you worried about? What do you want?”
“The answer that I got from a bunch of these guys was, ‘We have children, and we want them to be educated and well-spoken and have good table manners,’” she says.
“I have children. They were four years old, five years old at the time that I went to Jamaica to do this research, and all of a sudden, this guy and I had something to talk about,” Sanam says.
In that simple exchange, she humanized a group of people who led lives vastly different from hers, enabling her to have a peaceful conversation. She notes that he may keep guns under his bed while she advocates for stricter gun laws at home, but they still found common ground.
You can be a peacemaker. If we take Malalai to heart, we must all be peacemakers. Together, we can work to make peacemaking a superpower for good.