On the Public Shaming of Asma al-Assad

I teach an extract of John Berger's 1972 "Ways of Seeing" to undergraduate composition students. Berger's claim that "men act and women appear," a seemingly antiquated notion, is always fodder for lively debate, along with his suggestion that women fashion their social presence such that others treat them the way they treat themselves. In preparation for their photo analysis essays, I have students apply Berger to silly photos of animals. ("The penguin has a striking social presence!")

On breaks from lesson planning, I nerdily catch up on the activity of prominent women in policy and politics, and recently I started sensing the applicability of Berger's ideas to related contemporary issues in discomfiting ways. For example, former State Department Policy Planning Director Anne-Marie Slaughter tweeted a link to something on Foreign Policy's website called "The Public Shaming of Asma Al-Assad": a 'call to action' text under a photo of the elegant Syrian-British wife of Bashar al-Assad created by the wives of U.N. diplomats featuring a link to a video with the same text. The video juxtaposes Vogue photos of Asma with searing footage of mortally wounded Syrian children, while a female narrator with a rather posh accent reads the text, entreating Asma: "Stop your husband."

"Read it & sign petition," Slaughter typed next to the link. "Text gave me chills."

I did and I did. I watched the video, too. Then I felt a stone in my stomach.

Happily, I speak metaphorically. I've never been required to swallow actual stones. I've never been flogged, flayed, crucified, or any of the other acts that might fall under what our Constitution's Eighth Amendment designates as "cruel and unusual punishment" (modeled after the English Bill of Rights, which first used the exact term in 1689). The thing that gave me pause, I realized, was that "public shaming" is sometimes construed by our judicial system as one of those acts. The Eighth Amendment defines cruel and unusual punishment as arbitrary or unnecessary; this call to action, I think any of us apprised of Assad's treatment of his people would agree, is neither. Assad is an unmistakably murderous, dictatorial ruler whose army kills the better part of one hundred (or more) Syrian civilians and children every day. (I nurse a fantasy of a claw like those that pick up stuffed animals in arcades: a Carnival Game Claw Of Justice that would pick Assad up by the scruff of his neck and drop him into the Hague to be tried by the International Criminal Court.) The "Shaming" text comes under a photo of Asma and reads:

"Some women pretend that they have no choice and some women just act... Stop your husband and his supporters... No one cares about your image."

"But isn't her image all that's being interacted with here?" my partner asked upon seeing it.

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"). In the cover story of the current issue of Foreign Policy (which is called "The Sex Issue" -- an unfortunate sensationalizing of women, Molly Kinder was quick to point out) Egyptian-American columnist Mona Eltahawy writes:

Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought -- social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms.

Culpability for the commitment and allowance of atrocities is a question of degree much greater than a TV star's shopping spree, I know. But it's so easy, once I've clicked my accusation of Asma's failure to take responsibility, to forget that I need to take responsibility too: that the public shaming of women is an old and ugly legacy in our cultural history, a facet of the war on women. That war is, like all wars, produced by human attitudes, which shape the way women who can influence things 'fashion' themselves, even in places where freedom supposedly reigns. In February's Carnegie Council event "Ethics Matter: A Conversation With Anne-Marie Slaughter," Slaughter said:

I am still very often one of one or two women in any national security conference. Again, much as I try, Secretary Clinton tries, other women have tried, to broaden the agenda, there is still a sense that the "real stuff" is the core national security guns-and-bombs. Again, that's very important -- I wouldn't say it isn't for a minute -- but I think other things are equally important... Where there are women, they are likely to out-tough the guys, because if there's one or two women in a situation like that, you are not going to hear them talk about development and humanitarian intervention; you're going to hear them be as tough as they can possibly be.

There are many ways to argue for the antiquity of Berger's claims, but hearing Slaughter's frank description of those conferences also felt like a stone in my gut. 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? What right have we to blame her?