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In March 2011, Vogue ran a now infamous article on Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad titled “A Rose in the Desert.” The author, Joan Juliet Buck, extolled the glamour of the al-Assad family despite the well-known authoritarian nature of Bashar’s regime. As the Syrian state responded violently to the Arab Spring protests, the article was pulled from the web and loudly rebuked for being the “worst timed and most tin eared magazine article in decades.”[i] Portraying Asma as cosmopolitan and “chic” downplayed her role in upholding the status quo in a repressive security state.[ii] Despite the backlash Vogue received, the practice of glamorizing women who condone violence and repression has not abated. The media’s continued failure to recognize the political capital women on the inside of regimes hold normalizes their contributions to violence by reducing their role to one of primarily aesthetic value.
When Asma Ahkras first became involved with a young Bashar al-Assad, the media was instantly enchanted with the successful banker from London. Asma, then known as Emma, had attended the most prestigious secondary school in Britain, Queen’s College, and earned a degree in computer science from King’s College London.[iii] She worked at JP Morgan for two years post-college before a match with Bashar was successfully engineered by Asma’s mother, Sahar. In 2000, Bashar proposed and Asma resigned from her job and relinquished her position at Harvard Business School. Once married, Asma assumed a very public role as First Lady of Syria. Despite the cronyism which had enabled Bashar’s rise to power following the death of his father Hafez, the international community was tentatively hopeful, seemingly because of her looks, that the young couple might begin a new era of democratization.[iv]
The equation of aesthetics with values is seen clearly in a 2005 New York Times article where the author notes: “As curtain time approached, Syria’s power couple walked in. President Assad wore a black suit and a charcoal shirt without a tie; Mrs. Assad, a sea-foam green sweater over a sheer top and a white skirt. Her long, honey-colored hair was uncovered. Together they made a kind of visual rhyme with the building: tall, slender and young, they seemed the essence of secular Western-Arab fusion, the elegant doctor-turned-president out on the town with his dazzling British-born Syrian wife, the former J. P. Morgan banker whom Syrians call their Princess Diana.”[v] This portrayal glamorizes the Assads, turning them into moviestar-like figures or idols which removes them from Syria’s domestic policy and history of violent repression. This media obsession with Asma’s appearance, equating good looks with liberal values, only continued to grow, reaching its peak with the 2011 Vogue article. In the piece, Asma is described as “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies,” “glamorous,” “chic,” and as a “long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement.”[vi] At the same time, the article ignores the internal intelligence services in Syria, the threat citizens face from government thugs, and the lack of fair and free elections. While such features may garner sales, they actively choose to ignore politics at the risk of normalizing violence.
In February 2011, in the midst of the rising Arab Spring movement across the region, the Syrian regime tortured children for spray painting graffiti suggesting the imminent demise of Bashar al-Assad. Following protests, the government brutally clamped down on the opposition. While Syria fell into chaos, the First Lady, who had been so equated with democracy and modernity, was quiet. She has remained committed to her husband and the regime throughout the past decade of civil war. In media recent reflections on Asma, there seems to be shock that such a cosmopolitan, Western woman would stay in Syria and support such a brutal regime.[vii] This view is not only orientalist, but also reductionist. If there had been less media attention on her aesthetic value, journalists likely would have understood that Asma joined the Syrian regime of her own accord in 2000 when there was already a long history of government repression, security service threats, and human rights abuses. While there has always been critical press surrounding Bashar, reducing pressure on the regime because of Asma’s looks in part normalized the government sanctioned violence in Syria from 2000-2011.
The media coverage gaffes on Asma al-Assad should have offered a warning on the perils of valuing aesthetics over politics. Instead, women are still routinely diminished to the sum of their looks. There is an entire Washington Post article dedicated to First Lady of Cameroon Chantal Biya’s hair, with no mention of Cameroonian security force abuses or her support for her husband’s thirty-nine year presidency.[viii] There is no value gained from media coverage on Chantal Biya’s hair or Asma al-Assad’s outfits. Failing to attribute violence to glamorous women is sexist, and creates a media standard lacking accountability. By giving coverage to the women of authoritarian regimes for being beautiful, the media risks providing a platform for propaganda. Politically savvy women can normalize the violence of their regimes through the media, as Asma did in her Vogue article. When reporting, journalists must ask if the issue at hand really is aesthetic, or if they are missing the complete picture of a woman, her political value intertwined with her stilettos and designer dresses. A woman’s looks cannot be divorced from her politics in reporting.
[i] Paul Farhi, “Vogue’s flattering profile on Assad’s wife disappears from web,” Washington Post, April 25, 2012.
[ii] Joan Juliet Buck, “A Rose in the Desert,” Vogue, March 2011. Reprinted online at https://gawker.com/asma-al-assad-a-rose-in-the-desert-1265002284
[iii] Nicolas Pelham, “Banker, princess, warlord: the many lives of Asma Assad,” Economist March 10, 2021.
[iv] James Bennet, “The Enigmas of Damascus,” New York Times, July 10, 2005.
[v] James Bennet, “The Enigmas of Damascus,” New York Times, July 10, 2005.
[vi] Joan Juliet Buck, “A Rose in the Desert,” Vogue, March 2011. Reprinted online at https://gawker.com/asma-al-assad-a-rose-in-the-desert-1265002284
[vii] See Nicolas Pelham, “Banker, princess, warlord: the many lives of Asma Assad,” Economist March 10, 2021.
[viii] Helena Andrews-Dryer, “The first lady of Cameroon and her hair have touched down in D.C.,” Washington Post, August 4, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/reliable-source/wp/2014/08/04/the-first-lady-of-cameroon-and-her-hair-have-touched-down-in-d-c/