Friday, 22 April 2011

The Glamorous Face of Tyranny: Young Arab Women

In February, Vogue magazine published a flattering piece on the lovely, elegant Syrian first lady, Asmaa al-Assad- “A Rose in the Desert”- gushing about the hyperkinetic first lady’s supercharged day, the accessibility with which she and her husband President Bashar supposedly live, and their hobnobbing with Brad Pitt, who apparently was astounded by the absence of bodyguards- in Syria, the country with perhaps the most omnipresent surveillance services in the world! The timing of the article was unfortunate, to say the least: it appeared in the midst of the revolutionary storm that was upending dictatorships from Tunisia to Egypt.
Only a few weeks later, Syria would be the latest Arab country to burst into revolt against decades-old bloody dictatorships. True, in Syria it was the father, Hafez al-Assad, during his thirty year reign of terror, who was responsible for most of the bloodshed, including the infamous Homa massacre of thousands of his own countrymen.
The son, Bashar Al-Assad, took over on the death of his father ten years ago. A strikingly tall, London-trained ophthalmologist with a gorgeous, skinny London-raised stockbroker wife, the young couple were soon embraced by the Western media as the new face of a kinder, gentler Assad regime in Syria.
Asmaa al-Assad’s fashion-plate status in the women’s magazines rivaled that of model-thin, designer’s dream Queen Rania of Jordan, the Palestinian wife of forty-something King Abdullah. At least the young Jordanian monarchs, at last count, still seem to enjoy considerable support and popularity among their people in spite of sporadic protests.   
But the mirror image of the Assads in Syria were the Gamal Mubaraks in Egypt: Gamal, the forty-some, tall, urbane son of Hosni, was a London-based businessman until he returned to Egypt to assume- with an air of aloof entitlement that alienated a broad base of the Egyptian people- the role of heir apparent to his aging father. He added the requisite family-man image to his portfolio by marrying a tycoon’s daughter, Khadija, a considerably younger woman with a taste for flashy outfits.
Gamal Mubarak is behind bars today, toppled out of power by the winds of an unstoppable revolution that no-one could foresee. Bashar Al-Assad, though, must have seen the writing on the wall, but when revolution fever spread to Syria, true to form, he cracked down on the protesters with an iron fist, while promising reform and even announcing the lifting of the emergency laws that had allowed him and his father before him to rule unchecked for forty years. Those same emergency laws had kept Hosni Mubarak in power for thirty years- until they hadn’t.
It’s ironic that the most appealing young Arab first ladies, the most modern and fashion-conscious, the ones who do the most to advance women’s rights or the most to seduce the glamour-conscious Western media, are also the wives of the most ruthless rulers.
It’s especially ironic that if you were to take women’s rights in isolation- and it’s my argument that you can’t- then the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes were good for women- for that matter so was Saddam’s. They were equal-opportunity oppressors. Susan Mubarak, the ousted president’s wife and Gamal’s ambitious mother, used her influence to impose reforms to the laws regulating marriage and divorce, reforms in favor of women that would not have passed if put to a democratic referendum.
But favoring women’s rights does not make for a benevolent dictatorship, if women, as human beings and as citizens, are denied their human rights, their political rights, and their economic security. That is why there were so many women, young and old, rich and poor, veiled and bare-headed, of all walks of life and of all religious and political persuasions, united in protesting against the Mubarak regime in Tahrir Square and everywhere in Egypt.
And that is why the glamorous face of tyranny will not save the Assads today.


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