What does one of the world’s premier fashion and culture magazines have in common with one of the world’s most relentlessly brutal dictators?
A love for Asma al-Assad.
In the recent issue of Vogue, writer Joan Juliet Buck profiles Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s charming, educated, eloquent and fashionable wife for her February 2011 piece “Rose in a Desert.” While renowned for exceptional aesthetic preferences, it is apparent that the magazine decided to let good taste take a backseat amidst a period of great tumult and bloodshed in the Middle East.
During the course of the past two months, a wave of anti-authoritarian uprisings have swept the Arab world, bearing witness to the masses of young Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis, and Libyans risking life and limb for freedom from decades-long tyranny. While significant blows have been delivered to autocratic regimes and police states, revolutionary action has thus far failed to even nudge the Arab Republic of Syria, one of the region’s most repressive police states.
Rather than focusing on Syrian women rightly accorded the attribute of courage, Vogue chooses to gloss over Syrian authoritarianism and human rights abuses while simultaneously normalizing Asma al-Assad as nothing more than an everyday power-woman.
Asma al-Assad becomes a taunting enigma as we try to place her. Her marriage to a dictator, part of a brutally repressive regime with an equally unnerving history, is seemingly pushed to the side as a laughable circumstance of life, creating convenience for a discussion on how in-charge Asma is, how she gives back to her society, deals with whatever politics emerge in her life – all while looking flawlessly en vogue.
Yet despite the enigmatic portrayal, she is “normal” and “down to earth.” Early on in the piece, Asma notes that while growing up – as a daughter of a cardiologist and diplomat – she had to convince her friends that Syria was “normal” and that when she would show them photos from her summer trips back, they would be stunned at the images before them, unable to reconcile what lay before them and what they had heard about the country. Vogue fails to mention the privileges of Syrian life afforded to Mrs. Al-Assad by virtue of coming from an elite family, in stark contrast to millions of Syrians living a completely other reality.
How completely disassociated the First Lady remains from the reality of Syria is further highlighted when she discusses her goals for the country:
The 35-year-old first lady’s central mission is to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen, encourage them to engage in what she calls “active citizenship.” “It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society. We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.”
Says the wife of a dictator part and parcel of a ruthless regime that has done nothing but voraciously repress all aspects of civil society for its entire existence. Instead, the fashion and culture magazine fail to mention the irony – which remains prevalent throughout the piece- and move on to give readers examples of the work she’s doing to promote “civil society” through NGOs.
Vogue also doesn’t shy away from, again without any sense of irony, showing the regime’s PR tactics abroad with the use of the lovely, cream-complexioned and blonde-haired First Lady, whose diplomatic efforts abroad to promote Syria as a beacon of culture and tolerance elicit undeserved reactions that see her as having “managed to get people to consider the possibilities of a country that’s modernizing itself, that stands for a tolerant secularism in a powder-keg region, with extremists and radicals pushing in from all sides…”
Rather than focusing on the extremism of the regime – against its own citizenry, against people of faith – again the focus is brought on how the country is apparently modernizing from an economic and image standpoint, while the archaic core of authoritarianism and lack of freedoms and rights remains virtually untouched.
Asma al-Assad is fascinating because she seems to be a Muslim Arab woman who doesn’t belong in the Muslim Arab world. She embodies the strong, self-assured, passionate White woman who is internally embattled; living in a society so seemingly ghastly antithetical to what she needs, or rather, even what she deserves. Yet despite this, her compassion as a woman and her Western-accorded sense of independence and abrasiveness have allowed her to help save her society at the most micro level, even if she chose to marry into a family infamous for indiscriminately killing almost 30,000 citizens of the state in an attempt to quell political dissidence.
Yet the glossing of history and reality remains within Vogue’s constructed narrative of the rose-like nature of not only Asma, a mark of beauty and life in a barren and brutal landscape, but also by extension, presumably, of Syria. If it is her face Vogue wishes to bring focus on, then it is her face that becomes Syria.
And let’s not pretend that Vogue’s concealment of Syria’s political and social realities is innocent or innocuous. After all, Vogue is America’s self-professed “cultural barometer,” an organization dedicated to women’s cultural empowerment. Per its mission statement:
Vogue’s story is the story of women, of culture, of what is worth knowing and seeing, of individuality and grace, and of the steady power of earned influence. For millions of women each month, Vogue is the eye of the culture, inspiring and challenging them to see things differently, in both themselves and the world.
If Vogue were to be interested in profiling ‘individuality and grace’ – particularly in Syria, a society whose 58.3% gender gap in employment trumps even that of Saudi Arabia – it had plenty of more deserving Syrian women to choose from. We have decided to suggest the Vogue editorial staff a few more suitable candidates for their next issue, free of charge.
Vogue’s readership would certainly be challenged to “see things differently, in both themselves and the world” if they heard the story of Tal al-Malouhi. At 20, this fashionable young Syrian student and blogger from the city of Homs has the distinction of being the world’s youngest prisoner of conscience, having recently been sentenced to five years in prison for “disclosing information to a foreign country that must remain a secret for national safety.” Prompting international condemnation and support from around the world, Tal is the epitome of the power of earned influence.
Or how about the “earned influence” of Syrian activist and political reformer Suhair Attasi? A longtime activist for progressive change in Syria, imprisoned and tortured for her purportedly subversive activity, this 37-year-old single mother unhesitatingly presses on, amidst the threats on her life: “If each one of us only thinks of his or her life,” she valiantly proclaimed, “then who would care about the future? My work is to bring about a better future for you, for me and for all of society.”
Tal al-Malouhi and Suhair Attasi are are just two of several women whose stories are “worth knowing and seeing,” particularly for the role they have played in continued dissent in the face of an undemocratic regime that has worked tirelessly to remove any evident opposition, especially in the form of a civil society. Women, regardless of their geographic location of ethnic and religious affiliation, have played and continue to play an integral and prominent role in the fight for freedom, for reform and for a better life for all members of society. Vogue’s blatant disregard of these contributions for something more glamorous hurts, even at the piece’s most ironic moment when Asma al-Assad boasts of the “wildly democratic principles” that run and are promoted in her household, unaware of the juxtaposed hypocrisy that grips her words with the realities of day-to-day life for millions of Syrians.
And to think: a fashion magazine has never been so passé.
Special thanks to Aroulf Arafat for contributing parts of this piece and to Maytha al-Hassan, Margari Hill and Jillian C. York for input and assistance.