Well, it is the end of another Strasbourg week here in Brussels, and one of the main items on the agenda was Tunisia. A simple act of defiance by a disgruntled university student managed to set off a chain reaction which resulted in the ousting of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who usurped power from Tunisia’s post-independence ruler Habib Bourguiba in 1987. Tunisians have had enough, and since their street protests have paid off, it has given other Arabs, who are also suffocating under autocratic rule, a reason to hope that change can occur. However, for all those cosseted and pampered first ladies of the Arab world, this is a time to panic, since who knows if their husbands will be next in line to be unceremoniously tossed from power.
Mrs Ben Ali, née, Trabelsi, is one lady who is definitely nervous, since she, perhaps more than her husband took every step to feather her nest in the most extravagant way possible. All the stories are now coming out about her avarice, her humble beginnings as a hair stylist and her delightful family known as “the mafia”. It is reported that she looted one and a half tonnes of gold from the Central Bank of Tunis. Given that there is a warrant issued for her arrest, it is unlikely that she will ever enjoy her fortune. She amassed fifty cars, luxury villas decorated with mosaics and artefacts from Tunisia’s museums, and her family members acquired stakes in many of Tunisia’s top businesses.
Reportedly, Ben Ali was not happy with his in-laws profligate spending: the UK’s Sunday Times cited diplomatic cables in which the former American ambassador to Tunisia, Robert Godec, attended a dinner at the home of Leila’s daughter and son-in-law in Hammamet,where ice cream and frozen yoghurt were flown in from St Tropez. They also kept a pet tiger which was fed four chickens a day. The family can kiss goodbye to their prize pussy cat, as all of them are on the run. At least thirty-three have been arrested, and no countries are willing to accept them. The EU and Canada have slammed the door shut.
Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the octogenarian Egyptian president, could well be packing up her Hermès scarves, as protests in the capital show no signs of abating. She has like most first ladies carved out a role for herself. Unlike Leila Trabelsi, Mubarak is an educated woman. She was awarded a master’s degree from the University of Cairo in sociology, and to her credit has worked to bring attention to social problems affecting women and children in Egypt. She is an advocate for combatting polygamy and female genital mutilation. At the moment, there are reports that she has gone to London to flee the upheaval in the capital. Who knows if her husband will be joining her soon, since Suzanne is half-Welsh, it might be an opportune moment for her to apply for a British passport.
Another first lady, who is the darling of CNN and regularly tweets and YouTubes is Jordan’s Queen Rania. She is undoubtedly one of the world’s most glamorous first ladies, and has made a name for herself in the fashion world; however, whenever I think about her, I remember the story of a girl I knew from the University of Western Ontario, who spent a summer working at Hermès in Paris. She had to arrange a selection of scarfs for Rania to choose from, but at the time, my friend didn’t know who the royal customer was. According to her, Rania spent most of her time on the phone arguing with her assistants about transport arrangements, and just pointed at the scarves she wanted without so much as uttering a syllable. In other words, a true diva! But, cue, her moments on CNN, when Rania, rambles on about all the good work being done in her kingdom regarding women and children’s rights. She has the pedigree that earns her instant respect as she is well-educated, with a degree in business administration, and for a time pursued a career in banking before getting engaged. Her husband Abdullah is a hereditary monarch in a kingdom where he has complete control on who runs the country. Yet Jordanians have no chance to take part in a true democratic process. In the wake of protests in Tunisia, Abdullah out of the blue announced that Jordan was ripe for political and economic reforms. Oh I wonder why?
In a flash, Abdullah sacked his entire cabinet on February 1, as street protests broke out in the capital Amman. Jordan desperately needs reform but it is unlikely that radical changes will be unveiled. This is a country in which criticism of the king carries a penalty under the penal code. In August 2010, according to Human Rights Watch, Jordan passed a new Law of Information Systems Crimes which subjects all online expression to the provisions of the penal code and other applicable laws. NGOs are subject to be scrutinized and the intelligence services keep a close eye on the population.
What is hard to understand is how a modern, web-savvy and coutured woman, such as Rania could be unaware of what is happening in her country. One cannot say she is insincere in her efforts to bring education to deprived girls and promote cross-cultural understanding, but honestly, why does she not take a look from her own back door and ask herself what Jordan really needs.
Asma al-Assad is a woman who truly fascinates me. Just like Rania, she is elegant, well-dressed and intelligent. She grew up in Acton in west London, and obtained a first in computer science at King’s College London. She worked at Deutsche Bank and then JP Morgan, where she specialised in mergers and acquisitions. Her parents moved in diplomatic circles, and she met her future husband, Bashar in London whilst he was training to be an eye specialist. The couple married in a low-key civil ceremony on new year’s day 2001, since Syria was plunged into a one-year mourning period following the death of Basil al-Assad who was expected to take over after the death of his father Hafez.
Once Bashar stepped into his father’s shoes, Asma was at his side, as a thoroughly modern woman. She has thrown her energies into rural development projects and micro-finance schemes. She shimmies around in elegant designer suits and speaks BBC English, which makes her, like Rania, popular on western news channels.
However, it would be interesting to know how often she spares a thought for the millions of Syrians who live in fear of the secret police, which act as the eyes and ears of the regime. In the summer of 2010, Human Rights Watch declared that her husband had done “virtually nothing” to improve the situation of human rights in Syria. How could a woman like Asma, who grew up in a democratic country, deny that what happens in Syria is unacceptable to the outside world? Syria is considered by many observers to be a virtual police state where little to no free speech is tolerated. In an interview for BMI’s inflight magazine, Asma dismissed claims that her country censors the internet and said the absence of social networking sites such as Facebook stem from a lack of network infrastructure, in part due to US sanctions more than any political decision. Either she is in denial, or is oblivious to what is going on, but for a woman like her to truly believe this, boggles the mind.
However once again, with the political sands shifting in the Middle East, Bashar al-Assad announced that he too believed that the time was right for political reform in Syria.He believes that, unlike some of his neighbours, he has the will of the people on his side. News has spread that a “day of rage” is in the midst of being organized by Syrians in order to air their grievances in public. We can only watch and wait to see what happens.
When I think about all these women, these first ladies, I think about images from the 1970s of Farah Pahlavi in Iran, who was a darling in the west, as she wore beautiful clothes, embraced charity work and family life. Whilst she appeared so poised and graceful, anyone who opposed her husband was liable to be imprisoned and tortured. Yet her mystique remained untouched by the events which swirled around her and her family in 1979.
To look at woman like Asma al-Assad or Queen Rania discuss their respective countries, one forgets instantly all those reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which say freedom of speech and democracy don’t exist in their countries. We suffer temporary amnesia and lull ourselves into believing that anyone who wears Christian Dior, receives a western education, watches Friends and does charity work must live in a good society. However the picture is usually skewed. Yet, it is remarkable how many of us are willing to embrace an idealised image without a moment’s thought.