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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 Jane Meikle
One of the starkest examples of this approach is from ‘Egyblog’ which states: “the first ladies of the Arab and Muslim world are consistently, conspicuosly [sic], and curiously HOT.” However, this surface glamour obscures the complexity of their roles. Each of these women is a public relations official, a social campaigner, and of course, a mother, managing a range of activities and appearances that make that American feminist bugbear, the Superwoman, look like a couch-bound shut-in.
The most prominent example is Queen Rania of Jordan, a household name across most of the West. The prototype of the beautiful, active political spouse, the mother of four has spearheaded an array of social organizations and has launched global campaigns as diverse as AIDS awareness and universal primary school education. In 2008, she became the first royal in the world to use the micro-blogging site Twitter, and she now has more than a million followers. She was also the first to establish her own YouTube channel, designed “to foster values of tolerance and acceptance, and increase cross-cultural dialogue.”
In Syria, London-born and -bred Asma al-Assad, a former investment banker, has become increasingly visible both within Syria, where she has established Firdos, a charitable foundation to fight rural poverty, and internationally, culminating in her 2009 invitation to the Obamas to visit her in Damascus, delivered via British broadcaster Sky News.
Asma has followed Rania’s lead by venturing into social media with her own Facebook page, which is ironic given the social networking site has been banned in Syria since 2007. German political consultant and academic Carsten Wieland calls Asma al-Assad’s image campaign ‘a pre-diplomatic tool.’
“She’s intelligent, she’s good looking, she knows how to appear in Western circles, she’s really from both worlds in some way, and I think she is being cleverly used … to open up to the West, to send a positive image of Syria when Bashar goes abroad … this is her role, and I think she plays it cleverly,” he says.
To outside observers, this layer of first-lady glamour can obscure some of the less attractive aspects of the family regime, such as the scores of arrests of human rights activists in Syria in 2009, or the six people who died in police detention in Jordan this past December, or the self-perpetuation of the repressive Mubarak regime in Egypt.