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First among equals?

First among equals?

Lauded in the West for their glamour and social activism, the region’s First Ladies are making a name for themselves. But the reality of their situation is far more complex, says Trends magazine.

March 2, 2010 12:20 by

Over the past year, commentators around the world have scrutinized American First Lady Michelle Obama’s every move as she defines her role in her husband’s first year of presidency.

Her journey is fraught with danger and hypocrisy. As’ad AbuKhalil, a prominent political blogger, author, and California State University professor said: “The American public, living under a sexist standard, do not like first ladies to deviate from a very traditional role. When Hillary Clinton tried to overstep those boundaries, she was harshly criticized and she had to revert back into the obedient wife.”

In the Arab world First Ladies have made an unprecedented coming out in the past decade, belying Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman while navigating domestic attitudes toward women that range from the liberal outlook of the urban elites to increasingly extreme religious conservatism.

“In the Arab world, there seems to be an introduction of the less traditional role of the first lady,” said AbuKhalil. “The republican regimes have always allowed a measure of presentation of the first ladies. Now, because the Arab republics are trying to create dynasties, they feel they have to present not only the leader, but also the entire family; that is, the assertive, strong wife and the gifted son who will take over from his father.”

Arab first ladies are now also mimicking the style of French and American first ladies, in terms of elegance, appearance, attention to standards of Western beauty and so on.”

Perhaps predictably, the majority of the press devoted to these women focuses on their appearance. Several Arab-American blogs debate who is ‘hotter,’ Queen Rania of Jordan or Asma al-Assad, wife of the President of Syria. And when the latter appeared at her husband’s side in a state visit to France in 2008, the French fashion press gushed over her every ensemble and voted her even more chic than French first lady and former model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

Across the Atlantic, the prominent American political blog ‘The Huffington Post’ has devoted entire photo essays to Arab first ladies’ sartorial displays. Readers are asked to weigh in on pithy issues: “Rania has been ramping up her wardrobe for fall … Which of her looks are in season? And which fall flat? Take a look and let us know.”

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