Asma al-Assad: Modern Day Marie Antoinette?

OPINION

 @AmruthaGayathri
on March 20 2012 4:29 AM

French Queen Marie Antoinette -- who historically bears the brunt of having uttered the four words, summing up the obliviousness of the French monarchy to the poverty of the peasants, prior to the French revolution -- may have found her modern day avatar in the Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad.

Upon learning that her subjects had no bread to eat during the famine that occurred in France due to the mismanagement of treasury, Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI of France, famously remarked: Let them eat cake. Though the story may be fully or partly made up, Antoinette was known as the criminally extravagant queen, infamous for being out of touch with her subjects.

Asma al-Assad, the suave wife of the Syrian President Basher al-Assad became a hate figure for many when it was recently revealed that she was described as a rose in the desert in a glowing article in Vogue magazine in its 2011 March edition. It is worth noting that the Syrian revolution had already begun when the edition was out.

If you're looking to read the article on the Vogue Web site, you will be greeted with a 404- Page Not Found error. However, it is hard to really kill an article published on the Internet. According to The Atlantic, here is the only online copy of the Vogue article, complete with a candid picture of the Syrian President playing with a toy truck!

Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic--the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies, the article describes the British-born investment banker wife of the Syrian President. Paris Match calls her 'the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.' She is the first lady of Syria, the article states.

The Vogue article, when read in the light of a trove of emails leaked recently from the personal accounts of Bashar al-Assad and his wife, draws the picture of a wasteful first lady who appears blissfully unaware of the death toll in her homeland touching 9,000 in a revolution aiming to overthrow her husband's repressive regime.

Asma's emails showed her arranging the purchase of an Armani lamp from Harrods, London, necklaces from Paris and luxurious furniture to be sent to Damascus, after the Syrian revolution began in March last year.

Though she sounded tense in some emails about the pressure from the international community for her husband to step-down, she wrote in a late-December email: If we are strong together, we will overcome this together ... I love you...

The 36-year-old mother of three, who gave up a promising career at JP Morgan in London and an MBA from Harvard when she started dating the second son of Syria's then President Hafez al-Assad, says she brought the transferable skills like analytical thinking from investment banking to run her office as the desert nation's first lady.

Despite the internal crisis in Syria and the growing dissent, Asma chose to boost Syrian culture with a tie up with the Louvre in Paris. In her speech, discussing Syrian alliance with the Louvre in December 2010, Asma mentioned radical Syrian politics saying that we live in a politicized region, a politicized time, and we are affected by that.

Syrian rebels and anti-Assad activists in the Middle East say Asma clearly shows all the symptoms of the Marie Antoinette Syndrome.

If only, this brilliant, smart, affable woman took the honorable higher path of convincing her husband to use wisdom instead of cruelty, while she watches him slaughter his own countrymen, women and children, a blogger rants.

But come to think of it, Asma is someone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, much like the sweet and charming Austrian princess Marie Antoinette, who became the notorious wife of a French king. In the history of complex Syrian politics, where the wealthy minority of Alawites has been repressing popular dissent for years, Asma doesn't seem to have the kind of power to do something substantial about the current situation. However, according to the Western media, despite having a cherished place in the president's inner circle, Asma willingly chose to remain silent instead of urging her husband to step down in an out-of-control situation.

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