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Asma al-Assad, the ambassadors’ wives and the “first lady” media sideshow

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Julie Tomlin
WVoN co-editor

Has the video message imploring Asma al-Assad to use her influence over her husband the President of Syria to stop the bloodshed in her country showed us the limits of internet campaigning or just the limits of the media?

The four-minute clip, which has already been watched by more than 200,000 people, alternates pictures of the 36-year-old with gruesome images of children killed or tortured since the civil uprising began in March 2011.

In it, the wives of British and German ambassadors to the United Nations, saying they represent women from all over the world, urge British-born Asma to “stop being a bystander” and persuade her husband Bashar and his supporters to put an end to the violence that the UN estimates has left 9,000 dead.

The message from Sheila Lyall Grant and Huberta von Voss-Wittig, which was posted on Youtube, addresses her by her first name throughout, and appeals to her as a mother:

“Asma, when you kiss your own children goodnight, another mother will find the place next to her empty. These children could all be your children. They are your children.”

Perhaps there is merit in the argument that those close to him could persuade Bashar al-Assad to halt the violence.

After more than a year of bloodshed, Asma may well see the protection of her children and the future of her family as being dependent on her husband’s success against his opponents.

“What happened to you, Asma?”, the speaker continues. “No one cares about your image. We care about your action” it continues, as images of a very stylish Asma, wearing sunglasses, appear on screen.

But the western media did care a great deal about the image of British-born and educated Asma in recent years – including American Vogue which published a gushing article about the “rose in the desert” before the violence erupted in 2011.

It’s easy to understand that the ambassadors’ wives’ thought a personal appeal could be effective – although reaction to the video on social media has been mixed, with many arguing that trying to appeal to the “good side” of a dictator’s wife was unrealistic.

Commentator Joan Smith wrote that the campaign is “”wrong-headed on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin”.  That’s perhaps no more true than when it comes to trying to unpick the balance of power between leaders and their wives – Asma herself claimed that she was the “real dictator” in the family.

The involvement of the ambassadors’ wives was certainly an extra hook for the western press, which has long been preoccupied with the US “First Lady”.

Fuelled by the appeal of Michelle Obama, it reached new heights in Britain during the 2010 election when the media became fixated with the outfits of the leaders’ wives as their husbands got on with the business of politics.

We don’t know much about Asma al-Assad, her politics nor how she negotiates a role in a family that has a history of massacring its people.

All we have is her public relations-managed image, which the media was happy to tout and more recently the details of her online shopping habits as revealed by leaked emails published by The Guardian.

But is this really the time to get into a discussion about the role of first wives, ambassadors’ wives and whether they should be getting involved in the business of politics?

On Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, the video, Asma and the ambassadors’ wives prompted a discussion about whether  wives of dictators in the Middle East have the clout to influence their decisions.

Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore warned that it was wrong to expect “beautiful people to be good people” and went on to say Asma was much more  Carmela Soprano, the wife of Mafia boss Tony in the TV drama than Empress Theodora.

Perhaps in time there will be leaked emails that show how Asma responded to the video and if the online petition to “Stop the violence” moved her at all.

But can internet campaigns like this really hit the mark?  As with the Kony 2012 campaign, it raises questions about how the response of people to viral video campaigns and online petitions impacts decision making on the world stage.

By playing into the the leaders’ wives sideshow has the campaign simply shown us once more how far off the mark the media’s preoccupations are when it comes to holding the powerful to account?

  1. I’ve been fascinated with this story all week. My first reaction was that surely no one would think this strange campaign would work? For one thing, it’s overly simplistic and appears to be a lesson from Propaganda 101, and as such it’s low brow and badly written.

    The gendered aspect of the appeal is something else I was interested in, as if the only way you can talk to a woman about politics is to offer her a choice between a sense of style and a sense of morality. I think the appeal to her as a mother is naive – the carnage in Syria, I think, implies that those at the top have dehumanised the populations they’re attacking.

    There’s also something darkly hilarious about saying ‘No one cares about your image’ when you’ve just plastered the whole video with pictures of Asma looking stylish. The worst thing I feel about this video is that despite the fact that I think the situation in Syria is appalling, the last thing this campaign made me want to do is sign their petition. That’s an awful failing and I wonder how many other people felt the same.

    I’m a massive fan of viral videos and campaigns, and I think when they’re used in an effective and thought-provoking way, they can not only be political tools but art forms. That’s why this campaign is so disappointing. Great piece on this Julie, thanks.

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