The Woman Behind the Man: The Brit Beauty at the top of the Syrian Regime
A few weeks ago I was reading through an article outlining the latest events in Syria when one photo caught my eye. It was not a photograph of the suffering Syrian people, but one of the President, Bashar Al-Assad, and his wife, Asma. What struck me is how ‘normal’ she looked. She was not ageing nor dressed in baggy, unflattering clothes; quite the opposite in fact. She has a wardrobe to rival Michelle Obama’s and hasn’t even hit 40 yet. How did a woman from such an oppressive country manage to be so liberal and iconic?
Asma Assad’s story starts here in Britain. Born to two well-to-do Syrians, she grew up in the London suburb of Acton and was known by her friends as ‘Emma’. She studied at a private school for her A-levels and then went onto study Computer Science at King’s College London. In 1992, she met her future husband, on a family holiday to Syria. Mr. Assad was also studying in London but was called back to Syria after the death of his brother, Basil. The relationship between the pair continued in secret. After university she then went onto work in investment banking for J.P Morgan. It was often noted how beautiful and intelligent she was, even before she became such a prominent figure in Middle Eastern politics.
Bashar and Asma married in November 2000, after the death of Bashar’s father Hafez earlier that year. Some claimed Hafez would never have let the marriage go ahead as Asma was a Sunni muslim and the Assad family were part of the Alawites who followed the Shiia branch of the religion. Being born in Britain, the West warmly welcomed the partnership, hoping it could cool tensions between them and the regime. Asma was a perfect PR opportunity to restore the world’s trust in Syria, showing that it was moving on from a ruthless dictator and becoming more liberal. Asma set about doing charity work and despite the fact Western journalists were not allowed into the country, magazines ran profiles on her, naming her one of the world’s most influential women. Her sense of style attracted huge attention. She was hounded by US Vogue for two years before finally giving into giving an interview. The article, christening her ‘The Desert Rose’, was released in March last year, when the first uprisings began.
Some of Asma’s work is very impressive. She has spoken out for the equal rights of women and has hosted many forums and conferences on the subject, involving many First Ladies from across the Arab world as well as businesswoman and other key political players. She has highlighted the importance of education, launching book fairs and also cares greatly for disadvantaged children. It is this type of work that has earned her the nickname ‘Syria’s Princess Diana’.
So, taking recent events into account, many Syrians have been left asking, “where is Mrs Assad now we need her most?” and Westerners asking, “how can a woman so elegant and educated marry such a vile human being?” Here’s a thought – was the front she put on ever real? Or was she used as a shield to the outside world to divert the international community’s attention from the huge breaches of human rights already occurring? President Assad’s reign had been oppressive and brutal long before the revolution began, this being one the reasons which sparked the uprising. If this was the case, it does make you wonder what she was doing marrying the President in the first place. This being said, Asma was only young when she married the President at the age of 24. Perhaps she was naïve and thought she could slowly break down the iron fist?
In February, 11 months after the revolution began, Asma broke her silence on the happenings in an email to ‘The Times’. Mrs Assad explained that her husband “is the President of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the First Lady supports him in that role”. The email is said to have continued: “The First Lady’s very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with and rural development, as well as supporting the President as needed…These days she is equally involved in bridging gaps and encouraging dialogue. She listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence.” This email is clearly another PR dupe by the Syrian government but this time it hasn’t washed. The last sentence is the most difficult to believe as Mrs Assad has only been seen out in public once since the rebels began their campaign.
The woman once loved by the nation, who other women aspired to be is now loathed. And no-one despises her more than those who live in the city of Homs, where her parents originate from. “How can she allow the death of her own people to happen?” the city dwellers cry. However, for the President’s wife it might not be as simple as making stand towards her husband.
Asma is in a dangerous position. She is highly influential but not a blood-relative of the family. She has never seen eye to eye with her sister or mother-in-law who both prefer to remain in the background. A step wrong and she could be in serious trouble. Some call her selfish and ask how many more must become martyrs to the Syrian cause before she will act. However there is a darker side to this story as rumours are circulating that should she defect, her three children could also become victims of their father’s ruthless regime.
I do not envy this woman’s position. Trapped in a callous dictatorship, she must fear for her and her family’s lives. I see it as a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Should she rebel against the brutal crackdown, she will surely be punished. Her lack of action has left her hated by her own people and left her looking ‘as bad as the rest of them’ who, I think it’s safe to say, many of the opposition want dead. Her money may buy all the shoes a girl could wish for and thousands of diamond necklaces to die for, but there’s one Mrs Assad desperately needs right now that you can’t buy and that is luck. She needs a lot of it too.