British newspaper the Guardian recently revealed thousands of personal emails it uncovered between Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, and his wife, Asma.
Amidst the beginnings of civil war brewing in Syria, and the slaughtering of civilians in Homs, one would be forgiven to think that the Assads were busy packing their bags, and boarding the nearest private jet out of Syria into exile.
But Syria's ruling family is showing us that when your dictatorship is drawing to an inevitable end, there is no better therapy than retail. Emails obtained by the Guardian show an avid online shopper in Asma al-Assad, busy contemplating between diamond jewelry, chandelier lighting and Louboutin shoes while her husband downloads Harry Potter films.
People are shocked not only at how isolated the Assads are from the violence tearing Syria apart, but at the discovery that Asma might be as ruthless as her husband. There have been no shortages of editorials since the emails went public on the woman behind the man who just might be the "real dictator."
My question is, why are we surprised? Yes, the fact that this woman is buying $6,000 crystal-encrusted Christian Louboutin shoes as Syrians bleed to their death, slaughtered by their own government, is utterly disgusting, but why should we be surprised? Do we really expect Asma to be kinder, more gentle of a figure just because she is a woman? Apparently so.
Reuters describes the first lady as the supposed "gentler face" of a brutal regime trying to "reform," prior to the Arab Spring knocking down the dictator's door:
The world was smitten by her immaculate facade. In the Western media, Asma, a 36-year-old mother of three, was described as sophisticated, elegant, confident, with a "killer IQ" and an interest in opening up Syria though art and charity...
Open up Syria though art and charity? More like navigate international sanctions to get her Venetian glass vase from Harrods delivered to Damascus.
My point is that clearly the Syrian regime was using Asma to cultivate a softer, more modern image of the country, as many rulers in the Middle East do by using their wives. But this image was just that -- an image. It was not real, so why are we caught off guard? Did we really buy what the regime was selling?
Asma is a highly educated woman with professional experience in the banking world. She was raised in Britain where her English friends called her Emma. Clearly she was smart enough to know what kind of family she was marrying into. And if she can online shop, she can definitely use Google to find out about the massacres her husband has been unleashing upon Syria's unarmed civilian populations, including women and children. The United Nations puts the official estimated death toll at 7,500.
Throughout history, from Eva Braun to Marie Antoinette, women have loved, married and stood by ruthless leaders. Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto's government in the 1990's was amongst the first in the world to officially recognize the Taliban. We should not be surprised that Asma jokes about being the "real dictator," and is standing by her man as his rule collapses around him. She married him in the first place!
The stereotype of women being warmer, more nurturing creatures is just that: a stereotype, as Asma and her $6,000 high heel shoes remind us.