Khadija Magardie
Khadija Magardie

The Arab first lady’s burden

The woman, yet again, has become a political football in Middle-Eastern politics.

One wishes the area experts would make up their minds: just yesterday we were being told the Muslim wife was a voiceless, pitiable creature walking five steps behind her husband …

Now she’s an assistant secretary of state — directing and manipulating her country’s events, her eyes steely and cruel behind the Prada shades.

Whether she’s in Louboutins or Hush Puppies, what she says or does (and doesn’t do) and importantly, wears — is an indicator of her husband’s agenda.

Not for her the parlour drudgery of flower arranging and ribbon cutting — now the destinies of whole nations lie in her well-manicured hands!

Having run out of clichés to pen about her dictator husband, the media have turned on Asma al-Assad — who we (and Vogue magazine) know well, was not so long ago a media darling.

It’s been a spectacular yet predictable fall from grace.

Where she once dominated the pages for her fashion sense, her “thorough Britishness”, her figure (“rail-thin”, as the New York Times put it) and her philanthropy — now she’s the Syrian Marie Antoinette, a profligate spendthrift who stands, Janus-faced, at the soup kitchen, faking empathy in all her Gucci glory.

And all the while, her countrymen are being mowed down by her husband’s troops.

Some have even gone so far to suggest Asma should be “doing something” to end the situation. Indeed a noble suggestion, but one not floated with similar enthusiasm to Laura Bush, Cherie Blair and Carla Bruni as millions of innocents were mowed down during the so-called “War on Terror”.

That the Arab first lady is somehow exceptional to other flower-arranging first ladies got currency during the coverage of the now-defunct Mohamed Morsi presidency.

Last year reams of copy were devoted to Morsi’s wife; not just because of the man she married, but because, tut tut, she didn’t wear nail polish.

A startling revelation indeed — together with the discovery that Naglaa Mahmoud, or Umm Ahmed as she prefers to be known, also shunned rouge and mascara.

Together with the headscarf pinned tight, Umm Ahmed’s dress code wasn’t read as just another personal dress choice. But rather as a barometer of where the entire Umm ud Dunya (mother of The World) — was headed.

Namely, down that slippery slope towards an Islamic state, where the likes of Umm Ahmed are the pin-up matrons.

Some even suggested Umm Ahmed’s dress was Brotherhood psy-ops, subtly “encouraging” women to conform.

The assumed influence held by certain Middle-Eastern first ladies then took a turn for the sentimental, with the infamously weepy “open letter” to Asma by certain ambassadors’ wives.

She was called on to “speak out” and “take a stand” against her husband’s terrorising of his people.

The language was brimming with bravado the authors, the wives of the British and German ambassadors were unlikely to have tried on their own husbands.

Were they “taking a stand” against their governments’ involvement in dodgy activities like rendition, prisoner torture, and the illegal invasions of at least two countries over the last two decades?

The assumption was that Asma is not your typical, Vogue-posing, Amex loving, vase-buying first lady, but a political powerhouse, right there in the control room — able to direct events.

Asma and Naglaa have been singled out for attention because, clearly, not all Arab first ladies qualify for vilification.

The first ladies of the more popular autocracies don’t.

For instance, Queen Rania isn’t presumed to preside over Jordan as co-absolute monarch. And nobody would dare to assume that Sara Netanyahu has a direct influence over Israel’s affairs.

None of the wives of the rulers of the autocratic, anti-democratic Gulf sheikhdoms qualify either — that’s if one even knew how many there were …

As for the first ladies of the Arab Spring countries … Rachid Ghannouchi’s wife isn’t on Google, and as for Libya’s president, erm … what was his name again?

First ladies of all countries have always been painted as either vapid wallflowers or meddlers. In some cases, like Eleanor Roosevelt, for instance, history has been kind, and in the case of Cherie, less so.

Before Carla even set foot in the Elysee Palace there were predictions it would be turned into the set of a Eurovision song contest.

And who could forget the ammo-packing ‘fro-wearing Michelle Obama on the cover of the New Yorker?

But that first ladies are somehow “more” than glorified clothes horses, charity figureheads and ribbon cutters, is an untested assumption.

Remarks about Naglaa ranged from the patronising to the outright sexist. “She’s dull” and “bespectacled” and worse, she “hasn’t even been to college”.

These comments are a slap in the face for millions of women who come from similar circumstances.

The vilifying of Asma, should not be read simply as a criticism of a particular autocrat’s wife’s high-flying lifestyle. It is to further demonise her and what she supposedly stands for — and make a further case for her husband’s ousting.

It will also inevitably pander to not-so-subtle regime-change agendas — under the guise of “saving the people of Syria” from the likes of Asma and her stilettos.

In the same way that that the piece of cloth covering Naglaa’s head was read as a symbol of the secular decline of all of Egypt.

And we all know how that one turned out.

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