First Lady Dictators Are Not Sexy Headlines

Exactly a year ago on March 15th, the official day of Syrian uprising, I wrote about the Vogue feature on Syrian first-lady Asma al-Assad, which glamorized the haute couture-clad co-dictator while painting a painful picture of a woman genuinely fighting, on her own terms, for “democracy” in Syria.  The piece itself could not have been scheduled for a more opportune time: the so-called Arab world was, at the time, experiencing a wave of uprisings challenging old but adamant self-appointed kings who sat on bloodied thrones.

Asma al-Assad

Asma al-Assad with her husband. Image via the Toronto Star.

Both the timing and subject of the piece were, ironically, in extremely bad taste for the premier fashion magazine, coinciding with the “official” start of the democratic uprising in Syria.  It seemed as though those involved in the production of the piece were too enamored by the “enigma” that was Asma al-Assad to condemn (or even pay a semblance of acknowledgment to) her marriage to a dictator and her role in a renowned brutal dictatorship. The compelling confusion that Asma induced, as a white European woman clad in the skin and name of a Muslim, rendered all else irrelevant and insignificant.

And despite the bloody turn the so-called “Arab Spring” has taken in the past few months, particularly in Syria, little has seemed to change in the glorifying characterizations afforded to the wives of ruthless dictators. This especially applies to Asma al-Assad, who remains a proverbial crack-laden fixation.

On March 15th of this year, the Toronto Star celebrated the one year anniversary of the Syrian uprising by publishing a piece (uncomfortably) titled “Real Housewives of the Arab Spring: Dictators’ big-spending spouses draw citizens’ ire.”  The article, written by the Star’s foreign correspondent Olivia Ward, focuses on the un-ending trope of First Lady Dictator Expenditure and is filled to the brim with fascination and tabloid-worthy obsessive commentary. This is all perhaps unsurprising for a piece that actually dares to begin with:

“Asma’s jewels, Safia’s stash, Leila’s family fortune.

They’re the Baronesses of Bling, the Empresses of Excess.”

The article touches upon Egypt’s Suzanne Mubarak, Tunisia’s Leila Trabelsi and Libya’s Safia Farkash. The real protagonist of the piece, however, remains Syria’s Asma al-Assad. Ward notes that al-Assad stands apart from her counterparts, who are currently facing legal backlash for the roles they played in the perpetuation and sustenance of dictatorship and violation of human rights and international law in their respective countries:

“Suzanne Mubarak, wife of former Egyptian president Hosni, is under a European Union arrest warrant on money laundering charges. And Safia Farkash, second wife of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, was put on a sanctions blacklist by the U.S. Treasury Department, along with other survivors of his regime.

So far, none of that applies to Asma Assad…”

The piece goes on to discuss, with the help of Joshua Landis, the failure of the “great potentiality” that could have been, Asma al-Assad, who apparently was initially seen as “the best thing that happened to Syria,” being the “beautiful Sunni princess” that she was. The gaga-lovefest continues as Landis points out that if there’s anything we have learned about the first lady through the past year and the extremely questionable leaked emails obtained by the Guardian (through the opposition, which must have proven itself trustworthy), it’s that Asma and Bashar “love each other” and that Asma actually seems to believe, like her husband, “that the opposition are Islamic fundamentalists who are going to destroy the harmony of a secular country where all the sects can get along.”

In addition to what a “rose in the desert” (à la Vogue) Asma al-Assad was and could have been, there remains a fixation on her reported lavish spending during the civil conflict that rages across major cities in Syria, despite the shaky evidence this repeated assertion rests upon. Unsurprisingly, there’s a general focus on the lavish lives lived by first ladies of dictatorships, uneasily following the theme that women “love them riches.” This is a striking break from the relatively recent pieces that heralded these very first ladies as “leading the way” for the women of the “Arab world.” These women have gone from their aristocratic allure and penchant for public service and relations, dealing with “important issues” of women’s rights and empowering the youth, to materialistic, detached, authoritatively appointed queens by virtue of marriages. However their ability to be stylish and charming, as evidenced and influenced by their Western background or inclination, remains untouched by political upheaval.

As much as Asma al-Assad, Suzanne Mubarak, Leila Trabelsi and others are wives and mothers, they are also women in positions of power and privilege afforded to them by the brutal dictatorships of their spouses. While before they were lauded as women who were using their power for “social good” and civic empowerment, they are now being touted as women who used their positions primarily for material gain. But how does this separate them from their husbands, who also enjoyed lavish lifestyles? Is it just because of their womanhood and roles as wives that their materialism deserves specific attention and condemnation? Or is that just the only sexy news we want to hear about famous Louboutin-clad Arab Muslim women?

These women were and are not victims of circumstance. Rather, they are active participants in upholding dictatorship and oppression of the very people they claim to represent. They enthusiastically provided and continue to provide a “feminine” and “empowering,” as well as, in some cases, “Western” face to the international public, attempting to cover the ugliness of the dictatorship.

They are propagandists, not sexy headlines to sell gossip disguised as news.

Friday Links | December 19, 2014
Death, Grief and Womanhood
Review – Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s Refusing the Veil
Will Jordanian Hind Al Fayez Sit Down? A Look at the Trending Hashtag #Sit_Down_Hind
  • Nicole

    I completely agree with you about the tired trop of First Lady Dictator Expenditures. It takes away from what is really going on, which is large scale murder by the Assad regime. But at the same time, while these women are in many ways accomplices to their husbands’ regimes, I also wonder what choice did they really have? Like you said, it’s not like he was living in a hut with no shoes. This is their lifestyle, I don’t know why people act like this is a new development or something completely unknown. Whereas a year ago, she was on par in the glamour stakes withCarla Sarkozy or Rania of Jordan, whose husband has thus far managed to escape scrutiny or rebellion, and now Asma al Assad is in a very lonely place indeed.

    I found it very base journalism when the Assad emails were revealed by the Guardian (besides puking a little at his female lackeys going for their best Lebanese movie star looks sending him pictures of them in various states of undress- he’s cute? Really? A dictator with no chin?) because honestly, what do we expect from people’s private lives? Of course she is going to buy Louboutins and antiques. Of course they are going to go on Itunes and send each other stupid emails. I don’t know what their private email adds to the discussion or adds to what we already know, and I can’t understand why their privacy was invaded with the release of these emails. For example, she had Louboutins on practically every time she was photographed, I don’t need the email to know that she had expensive taste in footwear while people in her country had no jobs or money and were being shelled the eff out of by her husband’s forces. I’m not saying the Assad family’s right to a private life is more than the right to life in general the Assad regime denied Syrian citizens, but I feel this media focus on their private lives and her glamour is a tawdry take away from very real abuses of Assad which go beyond a couple pieces of designer furniture.

    Tangentially, a lot of people say that she should have come out and denounced her husband and his regime? Like it is on the women to go against a lifestyle they are largely benefitting from? This too for me is part of the media circus where these women and their lifestyles are the target of everyone’s perverted curiosity and vitriol. But no one talks about the possibility that Asma al Assad may not be in a situation to walk away even if she wanted to. Would she have been allowed to, and if she were, how many people could choose between breaking up their family and standing up for what is right? Of course her husband didn’t ask the people he murdered if they wanted to break up their families or not, and I’m not saying she is a victim or is right to defend what is indefensible (as she did in her letter to the press)- what I am saying is that I honestly don’t know what I would do in her spiky stiletto heeled designer shoes. Asma al Assad is a pitiful character who was unable to live up to her place in history, but could it have played out any differently for her? I’m not so sure. Which is what makes the focus on her personal life all the more grotesque for me.


      I like some of the points you make, namely that elements of Western MSM just happened to do an about-face right about now on Asma al-Assad, in contrast to just a year ago she was still being featured alongside other stylish first ladies as someone to look up and be admired by the masses.

      I also get your point that hers is a precarious position to be in right now, much like what anyone associated with a corrupt government would be facing in the midst of a revolution/insurgency. On the other hand, taking on the reigns of political power means that you have to be ready for these sorts of situations, especially if your rule is illegitimate. Very often the only way for someone in such a precarious position to redeem him/herself is through some sort of sacrifice, whether it be of their power, wealth, influence, or even life. If someone is not ready to do that they do not deserve to take on the reigns of power and there’ll be no sympathy for them going down in history as being “pitiful characters”.

      • Nicole

        exactly. she won’t be able to live up to her place in history because of her inability to take a stand.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    I agree with Nicole. I think there is a challenge here and it is how much can we attribute to the spouses of a leader (whether a dictator or not). I, by no means, want to defend the actions or inaction of first ladies around the world. However, it is interesting because I don’t know to what degree we would say “Harper (Canada) is a great (or awful) Prime Minister because of his wife.” I think it depends on the particular case… for instance Hillary Clinton… probably one of the things that people remember about Bill Clinton’s presidency was his wife.Now, if these ladies supported their husbands in some emotional way or as means of propaganda, does that mean their hands are as dirty as the dictators? Yet, we have also seen those examples of those first ladies that have disassociated themselves from “dangerous” leaders; for instance, Susana Higuchi who separated and divorced Alberto Fujimori in Peru and challenged politically. Nonetheless, I wonder, how often is this a choice? and if the rest of the world, and often times your own people, applaud you until things go wrong and a revolution finds its way, how much should you be blamed for it?


    “These women were and are not victims of circumstance. Rather, they are active participants in upholding dictatorship and oppression of the very people they claim to represent. They enthusiastically provided and continue to provide a “feminine” and “empowering,” as well as, in some cases, “Western” face to the international public, attempting to cover the ugliness of the dictatorship”.

    This paragraph up there is spot on! It’s like who cares how stylish they are or lavishly they live? Much of their fame and wealth is ill-gotten; they’re like modern-day Marie Antoinettes. The vogue article was especially atrocious in the way they treated Asma like she was a run-of-the-mill Hollywood celebrity.

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    I think the most sickening aspect of the coverage of Asma Al Assad is the constant reference to her as Westernised or Western-educated, as if that makes her so much more civilised then your average Syrian, or as if being “Westernised” precludes someone from being venal or bloodthirsty.

    I think a lot of this coverage echoes similar stories about Imelda Marcos. I’m sure Bashar isn’t wearing Primark either, but there seems to be something more alluring about mocking spendthrift women.