Why do you feel queasy when you see this?
The first time I saw this video I found it patronizing in so many different ways that I wondered how out of touch you have to be to make something like this. I would have forgotten all about it, but fortunately many women have made it a cause celebre in an ongoing campaign.
Amrit Dhillon, writing in HT preaches to the choir, so she can write polemically about one aspect of the problem:
Let me make it clear that I hold no brief for Asma or her husband, Bashar al-Assad. I have no idea of their virtues or vices. But I do find the attack on her puzzling. Her first crime was to be shopping online when the rebels and government forces were engaged in battle in the Syrian city of Homs.
Unless I’m mistaken, the relatives of the western leaders who invaded Iraq and Afghanistan continued to shop while Iraqis and Afghans were being blown up. None of them missed a meal. Or a holiday. Why is Asma being held to a different standard?
The character assassination has become even more ridiculous with the wives of the German and British ambassadors to the UN launching a video and online petition urging her to tell her husband to stop the bloodshed. These two women want Asma (raised and educated in Britain) to stop being a bystander and say ‘darling, you must stop being a nasty dictator’.
The demand is hilarious. Whenever a British politician (Germans tend to be less prone to sex scandals) is found to have been guilty of adultery, had sex with a rent boy or visited prostitutes, the denouement of the scandal is always identical. A press conference is held at which the wife appears beside her husband pledging her intention to ‘stand by her man’.
People have traditionally said ‘cherchez la femme’ whenever a man behaves out of character or inexplicably, meaning he is trying to cover up an affair.
In future, we might be saying ‘engagez la femme’ – hire her to influence the husband. So the next time American soldiers in Afghanistan take trophy photographs of the body parts of suicide bombers, Arab ambassadors’ wives can engage President Barack Obama’s missus to tell him to teach marines about respect for the dead.
Sana Saeed writing for the Guardian has a nuanced view of the politics of both Asma al-Assad and the makers of the film:
When Vogue infamously featured Asma al-Assad during the early period of the Syrian uprising in 2011, most level-headed folks were quick to point out the sheer bad taste and absurdity of the feature. … [The] piece was packed with declarations of Asma’s “enigmatic” existence: she was, as the piece’s title proclaimed, a “rose in a desert”. The title implied more than simply a painful cliche. Roses are unable to grow in the desert for obvious botanical reasons that hopefully need no further explanation. Thus, Asma was not a “product” of the Muslim or Arab world. Heavens no. She was, with all her class, elegance, education and wardrobe successes, a product of the ever-constant “western culture”. She was, as both the title and feature announced, a sight of beauty in a barren, deadly land. She was not a rarity in the desert, but an edaphological miracle. Yeah. Gag.
The campaign’s tedious open-letter video is accompanied by a petition that has received quite a bit of traction in recent days, with over 22,000 signatures out of the goal of 25,000.
Oh yes, if the images of dead children and decapitated countrymen outside her own window do not touch the western sensibilities of Asma al-Assad, then no doubt a petition will. The fixation with Asma al-Assad as a rational, liberal-democratically educated woman with fashion and career receptivity seem to lead to the conclusion that she has the ability to stand against the very tyranny that safeguards her power-clad interests. Indeed, as the campaign and video insinuate: Asma has the ability (and perhaps even an interest!) to speak out against her husband’s (note: possession of tyranny is not hers, but his alone) oppression. What this video and campaign ignore is, as I wrote elsewhere, that Asma and her fellow first lady dictators are in fact active participants in upholding dictatorship and oppression of the very people they claim to represent.
Let us not forget that Asma’s privilege – which cannot be reduced to the sexist materialist trope – comes at the prerogative of the people whom she, without hesitation, chose to step upon the moment she became a part of the al-Assad family. Syria’s history of bloodshed and tyranny goes far beyond the confines of the past 13 months. And this is what Asma, with all her “western” sensibilities, knew.
Anyone who has lived and thought in the vastly unequal societies of the US, Russia, UK, India, or China will immediately understand her argument here, and the implication: that the makers of the film are equally the children of privilege.
This political point is not touched upon by Ming Holden in her otherwise beautifully analyzed piece on the same issue which appeared in Huffington Post:
If we analyzed the photo, I’d urge my students to remember what we don’t know: we don’t know how Asma’s feeling in this picture. We don’t know what she’s thinking. We can only look at the details in the photograph for what they might suggest and inspect the photo carefully for authorial intent. Someone chose to show Asma’s graceful head in focus with soldier-types blurred behind her, chose to show her focusing off-camera in an “offer” and not frontal-stare “demand,” thereby, Berger’s essay might suggest, “making herself into an object of vision, a sight.” A sight for scrutiny, a site for blame.
It’s easier to ask why Assad’s wife doesn’t just say something to him, when we know only what various representations — emails, photos, speeches — suggest about their marriage. It’s easier not to wonder if Asma al-Assad is trapped somehow, completely terrified as I write this, for her life and those of her three children. I don’t know all there is to know about just what Asma can do to stop what’s happening (or as much about her marriage) as the women who created the petition, but I walked away from signing it feeling as though I’d emptied out heartbreak I feel for the Syrian people in a hypocritical move. How many times have I looked the other way? Many. I simply wasn’t being photographed at the time. How many times have I chosen to survey photos of Kim Kardashian, whose public image of shopping and looks-obsession seem to mirror Asma’s? Many. I simply was in the presence of only one person — my partner, who knows not to look over my shoulder when I use the computer because of how sure I am that I’ll be judged. I am not dating someone who also has a weakness for Vogue magazine but rather someone who asks, “Did anyone say, ‘Eva Braun, stop your husband?'”
Could she have?
The Assad regime’s murder of the Syrian people is one of the greatest atrocities to occur yet in my lifetime, and it occurs daily, a sum total of several thousand innocents murdered (and 200,000 detainees) that will haunt my generation worldwide. I want to see Assad, his wife, and anyone else who helped him brought to justice. But I want to remain vigilant of the ways in which I perpetuate tyranny by neglecting to participate responsibly in my democracy in America, the ways I abandon the spirit in which I profess to think progressively about women, power, and politics to do what we’ve been conditioned since long before we heard the words “Monica Lewinksy” to do: find some sense of resolution to assuage our own discomfort or even self-disgust by forcing the latest Hester Prynne figure to wear the scarlet letter (which happens in the fictional original to be “A”).
Women must continue to fashion themselves in order to be treated a certain way, sometimes to the tune of preemptive prohibition of multiple perspectives in the rooms where our foreign policy is shaped — and you only have to read Teju Cole’s Atlantic piece “The White Savior Industrial Complex” to be reminded of the fact that what happens in those rooms determines, to no small degree, the amount of peace and justice in the world. If our own American Secretary of State must “out-tough the guys” instead of saying all that she wishes she could, what hope have we for Asma?
All these analyses are correct, and they are all part of what made me queasy: racism, neo-colonialism and patriarchy. But there could be other attitudinal problems with this video which remain to be analyzed.