Designers & Dictators: Vogue Highlights Fashion Over Freedom

One of the most electrifying outcomes of the recent protests in the Middle East & North Africa has been the shattering of myths about Arabs & Muslims that have for too long been fed to the West: the women are voiceless, passive creatures apathetic to their country’s political processes, and democracy is something we are not only incapable of handling, but do not desire to begin with.

Of course now the truth is out, and the whole world has witnessed the opposite: the deep yearning for democracy actually permeates the Arab world, and women are front and center of the protests. The youth from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Libya have shown us they are willing to die for freedom.

Asma al- Assad's Designer Accessories Only Act As a Cover for Syria's Ruthless Dictatorship. Image Credit: Huffington Post

But Vogue has no interest in that. The iconic fashion publication has made it clear that when is comes to the Middle East they are more interested in the choice of designers of dictators, or more specifically their wives, as the recent profile of Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Assad proves.

The Wall Street Journal points out that the magazine, whose characterization of Asma (aptly titled “The Dictator’s Wife Wears Louboutins”) which concentrates on her couture and Chanel accessories, clearly missed the memo that tyrants are no longer trending in the Middle East:

The Assad family—first Hafez and now his son Bashar—has ruled Syria since 1970. In that time, they’ve killed 20,000 Syrians to put down an uprising in Hama, provoked civil war in Lebanon and then occupied the country to “keep peace,” built a secret nuclear-weapons facility modeled on North Korea’s, and established Damascus as a hub for terrorists from Hezbollah to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. All part of keeping their countrymen under foot for 40 years.

Let's Talk About Dior, Not Democracy: Like Asma, Queen Rania Does a Similar Job for Her Husband. Image Credit: Flickr

Ironically, democracy in Syria does briefly come up in the article when Asma speaks about how in her household, “everything is run on wildly democratic principles. We all vote on what we want and where.”

But as the Journal stipulates, that is not the case for the people of Syria:

Outside their home, the Assads believe in democracy the way Saddam Hussein did. In 2000, Bashar al-Assad won 97% of the vote. Vogue musters the gumption only to call this “startling.” In fact, it’s part of a political climate that’s one of the world’s worst—on par, says the watchdog group Freedom House, with those of North Korea, Burma and Saudi Arabia.

Asma is not the only dictator’s wife whose face and wardrobe are used to project a modern and glamorous face to a ruthless regime. Her more famous counterpart, Queen Rania of Jordan works a similar public relations machine for her husband, King Abdullah.

But what disturbed me most aside from the fact that Vogue would even think about running a piece like this at a time when the rest of the region is literally bleeding to death to break free from the stranglehold of dictators like Syria’s, is that the publication chose to focus on Asma al-Assad’s closet over the story of Tal al-Molouhi.

Tal is a 19yr old high school student and blogger who was arrested in 2009, but sentenced just last month under charges of “espionage”. The New York Times reports that the teenage blogger was “brought into court chained and blindfolded,” and sentenced to five years in jail without any evidence or details on why she was being charged. The Times states that Al–Molouhi wrote articles about how she “yearned for a role in shaping the future of Syria.”

For such a high-profile publication like Vogue to let this story go and choose instead to run a piece on the Syrian First Lady’s designer shoes is, frankly, disturbing.

Who is the publication trying to fool? And more importantly, why when the world is finally seeing the real faces of the Arab world, the real desire for freedom, would Vogue bother running a piece that just promotes a farce?

As blogger Wendy Brandes points out in her piece, Syria may be in Vogue, but a teenage Syrian blogger is in jail.

Clearly, Vogue missed the real story here. And that’s the one people are interested in hearing now when it comes to the Middle East.

*This post of mine was also published on Forbes Woman & Ms. Magazine.

8 thoughts on “Designers & Dictators: Vogue Highlights Fashion Over Freedom”

  1. Anushay,

    Let me start off by saying that I enjoy reading your blog and have been following it ever since you started blogging. Having said that, I was actually disappointed by your post regarding the Vogue article. It seems to me that you were merely riding the scripted wave of criticism from various Western publications, including the Wall Street Journal. Assma al-Assad is no doubt a dictator’s wife and for Vogue to concentrate on her closet, rather than her husband’s stifling rule of Syria is disturbing, to say the least. But the criticism of Vogue’s article is flagrantly hypocritical given the fact that the Western press has been head over heals over Queen Rania of Jordan for the past decade. It appears that only if the dictator’s wife comes from a country that is not a U.S. ally is criticism warranted. Assma al-Assad is barely a blip on the West’s radar, whereas Queen Rania is a household name. Queen Rania has been featured in nearly every fashion magazine including Vogue, Elle, and was even crowned one of Glamour’s 2010 Women of the Year. Queen Rania is a regular guest on Oprah and is commonly praised in Western press as “progressive”, “modern”, and “enlightening”. No fashion magazine that I have come across has ever dared to refer to Queen Rania as “a dictator’s wife”. Yet in terms of real dictatorial power, the King of Jordan is far more autocratic than the President of Syria can and will ever be. Queen Rania doesn’t just happen to be the wife of a dictator, as is the case with Assma al-Assad, Queen Rania is very much at the center of power in Jordan, being a part of an absolute monarchy in which the slightest criticism of the royal family is not tolerated. Jordan is one of the few countries in the world that still have sedition laws in which offenders face up to 15 years in prison for merely uttering a word against the King or Queen. As one writer noted in the Guardian, “Queen Rania talks eloquently about change and women’s rights on Oprah, yet Jordan’s human rights record under the stewardship of her husband has been poor. Most tragically, Jordan still has the highest incidence of honor killings in the Arab world and, according to Amnesty International’s 2010 report on Jordan, ‘perpetrators of such killings continued to benefit from inappropriately lenient sentences’.”

    Queen Rania is often promoted in the West as a force of empowerment for women, yet the Jordanian monarchy’s power base comes from tribes that are antithetical to women empowerment. Jordan touts its parliament as a sign of political participation, yet it meets at the whim of the King and serves more so as a rubber stamp for the monarchy. More so, by manipulating district lines, the King has ensured that parliament is not proportionally representative of the actual population. The more populous urban educated and secular areas are districted in such a way as to severely diminish their actual representation in parliament, whereas the sparsely populated tribal areas are given a commanding voice far beyond their numbers. This has allowed Jordan’s parliament, with the approval of the King, to push through socially backward tribal laws and affirm lenient sentences for those who murder women that have been suspected of “illicit fornication.”

    What really struck me by your post is you make only a fleeting acknowledgement that Queen Rania is also a dictator’s wife and you only do so begrudgingly, prefacing it with “as much as I hate to say it”. But why do you hate to say it? Rather as a champion of women’s rights, I would expect you to be outraged and highly critical of a world-renowned figure that has usurped the mantle of women empowerment by parading around the world wearing the latest fashions while she and her husband suffocate any political expressions at home. Jordan is one of the poorest countries in the region and sadly, at the very same time, as the LA Times reported, “the cost of living in the Jordanian capital is reportedly the highest in the Arab world.”

    Queen Rania has been referred to as technology-savvy, regularly updating a video blog on Youtube and with nearly 1.5 million followers on Twitter. Yet with all the uprisings calling for freedom throughout the Middle East, she has been dead silent. Only after the fall of Mubarak did she muster a single sentence tweet calling for “security and prosperity” in Egypt. No word on freedom, liberty, and the political and social empowerment of the people of the Middle East.

    1. First off, let me start by thanking you for your comment and for following my blog.

      I agree with every point you’ve made. I think with the recent events in the MidEast, the Western media is looking at the region and its politicians under a very different light than say even a few months ago. So while the criticism on Syria may be harsh, and you are totally right that compared to Rania, Asma is basically an unknown, it has not gone unnoticed that Jordan is amongst the many dictatorships in the region that are allies of the US, just like the Mubarak regime was. It has also been noted that during these uprisings, the normally vocal Rania has been unusually quite. That silence speaks volumes. But it also belongs in a whole other post. I am however guilty as charged for my “hate to admit” comment because I too have been cast under Rania’s spell.

      This post could have delved into comparing the women and the regimes of their husbands more in depth, and their role in cultivating their country’s images. But my aim was to draw attention to the story of the Syrian blogger, and why Vogue did not tell her story. I do think that as the MidEast revolutions continue to spread, looking at how dictator’s wives, not only Rania and Asma, have promoted a modern image of their country, needs to be written and needs to be its own post. I touched upon it here, but you are correct when you point out that much more remains to be said.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and follow my blog! I hope, especially as a fellow Wahoo, that you will continue to do so 🙂

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