What do you do when your husband just can’t stop repressing people? The wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed this week that she “comforts the victims of violence”. Other autocrats’ wives have taken different approaches. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Public fascination with British-born Asma al-Assad, 36, has been growing for some time. It doesn’t hurt that she is beautiful and impeccably stylish. These were glowingly chronicled in a now-notorious feature by Vogue last February – scant weeks before her husband would start his brutal crackdown on dissent in Syria. The article, titled A Rose in the Desert, described Asma as “breezy, conspiratorial, and fun”, and dutifully noted the active role played by the Syrian First Lady in fostering “active citizenship”. Following an outcry over the puff-piece, Vogue pulled the article from its website, though it’s still available for your viewing pleasure here.
Vogue was in good company. Paris Match described Asma as “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones”, and the Huffington Post published a slide-show of elements celebrating her “all-natural beauty”.
But opinion has turned against Asma as she has maintained a deafening silence over the brutality of her husband’s regime. On Wednesday the BBC quoted a British think-tank researcher as saying, “Why are we shaming her and saying she should do something? There was never any question that she would do anything else.” In reality, though, there was a very real hope that she would do something else. Asma was seen as possessing the ability to bring a touch of Western-style reform to her husband’s regime. A former investment banker for JP Morgan, she was entirely England-educated and reportedly passionate about charity work and the rights of women and children.
By 2005, however, it was beginning to be clear which way Asma would turn when pressed: when a New York Times journalist asked her about political dissidents detained in Syria, she shot back: “How many prisoners do you have in the US, political or otherwise? It doesn’t mean you’re a repressive society either.” Since the uprising began last March she has been nowhere to be seen, to the extent that it was rumoured at one stage that she had fled to her parents in England with her children. Last week, The Times’s Martin Fletcher asked the question on everybody’s lips: would Asma al-Assad remain silent forever? “Has Syria’s Princess Diana become its Marie Antoinette?”
It was apparently in response to this that The Times received an email from the office of the First Lady on Tuesday. The message made one thing very clear: this lady is standing by her man. “The President is the President of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the First Lady supports him in that role,” it read. Asma continues to do her charity work, it said, but “these days she is equally involved in bridging gaps and encouraging dialogue. She listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence.”
The mind, frankly, boggles. It is hard to know what to make of that last assertion. Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly claimed that the violence in his country is due to terrorist groups making trouble, so it’s difficult to see how welcome Asma would be in the home of someone whose loved one has just been blown to smithereens by her husband’s security forces. Unless by “families of the victims of the violence”, she means families of loyal army and police members killed in the conflict between government forces and protesters?
But as the BBC pointed out on Wednesday, giving unequivocal support to your autocratic husband is not always the only option for First Ladies. Take the case of Susana Higuchi, for instance. Higuchi, a Peruvian engineer of Japanese extraction, married Alberto Fujimori in 1974. In 1990, her husband became president of Peru. But very early into his presidency, Higuchi began to vocally condemn what she saw as criminal misdoings by her husband. In 1992 she publically criticised members of his family for corruption. In 1994, she denounced her husband as a tyrant, and his government as corrupt. How did Fujimori take this? He responded by stripping her of the title of 'First Lady' and bestowing that honour on his eldest daughter instead. Intriguingly, however, the two were only formally divorced in 1998, which either means that the paperwork took a while to go through or that they suffered through four years of excruciatingly awkward dinner-time chit-chat.
On the other side of the fence, there have been First Ladies who actively colluded with their husband’s tyranny, not merely through silence like Asma. A particularly chilling example is the wife of China’s Chairman Mao Zedong, Jiang Qing. At her trial after Mao’s death, where she was accused of the deaths of 34,274 people, she claimed: “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite”. In reality, though, it seems clear that Jiang was more than happy to get on with the business of persecution on her own steam. In addition to the punishment of her enemies, she had Mao’s previous wife confined to a mental hospital and arranged for several of his children to be arrested.
Of course, whether the wives of autocrats condone or condemn their husbands’ regimes, they may stick by their men out of good old-fashioned love. When Jiang Qing committed suicide in 1977, her suicide note reportedly read: “Chairman! I love you! Your student and comrade is coming to see you!” DM
- Asma al-Assad and the tricky role of the autocrat's wife, in the BBC.
Photo: The world is watching Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad. Will she take more direct action? REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader.