Asma al-Assad: Rise and fall of the new Syrian woman

In 2001, Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad set out to undertake gender reform

Dr. Halla Diyab

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In 2001, Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad set out to undertake gender reform. Her predecessor Anisa Makhlouf never appeared in national ceremonies, nor accompanied her husband on his diplomatic visits. To many Syrians, Makhlouf played the role of a muted, dutiful wife who stayed at home to support her family and husband.

Assad set out to convince a new generation of a new role for Syrian women, and a new era for the country. Her British upbringing and education helped the public forget or tolerate the fact that she was the first Sunni Syrian to marry an Alawite national figure. Her glamorous public appearances showed the public that she was becoming an iconic figure.

Her fall started with her Vogue interview of 2011, in which she came across as the wife of an Arab dictator who might be in trouble

Dr. Halla Diyab

She set up NGO projects for Syrian youths, and liaised with British projects and experts to implement parallel initiatives in Syria. She involved her husband in some of her NGO projects, out of fear that her public independence could be seen as marginalizing him.

Winning advocates

She pushed for involvement of Syrian women in her youth and NGO projects, and gave them they influential roles. By doing so, she was winning more advocates to her gender-reform cause, but as she focused on the Syrian elite, she alienated women from deprived backgrounds.

However, there was a gradual rise in the number of Syrian women in the workplace, and they started to earn as much as men. Cases of sexual harassment or abuse in the workplace were rare, especially in the public sector . Assad became viewed by Syrian women as a symbol of gender equality.

However, her fall started with her Vogue interview of 2011, in which she came across as the wife of an Arab dictator who might be in trouble. The interview was a propaganda piece about how free, safe and diverse Syria was. Her naive analysis and lack of political expertise read as a lack of sympathy for the angry masses.

Her silence over the Syrian uprising and international criticism of brutality toward protestors affected her popularity. She became like Makhlouf, a dutiful wife supporting her husband. Assad failed the expectations of the Syrian public, which has grown intolerant toward her because she did not turn her back on her dictator husband. Her passivity earned her the description of mass murderer.

However, as she had no ties to the political scene in Syria apart from being the wife of the president, the conviction that she could have influenced politics if she spoke out is not true. The failure of Syrian women, whether supporters or opponents of the regime, to stop the bloodshed in Syria and bring about a political solution has proved the futility of the gender reform initiated in 2001.

The conflict forced Assad to regress into a stay-at-home first lady. She is no longer a woman of confidence and glamour. The war has turned Syrian women from agents for change to victims of displacement, loss, hunger and abuse. They are stuck between the regime and the opposition, and are ready to liaise with both to suppress their female political opponents.


Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. She holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies from the University of Warwick. She has written a number of scripts for TV dramas countering religious extremism and international terrorism resulting in her being awarded Best Syrian Drama Script Award 2010 and the Artists Achievement Award 2011. She is a regular commentator in the Brit-ish and international media and has recently appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, BBC This Week, CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 News, ITV Central, Al Jazeera English, and BBC Radio 4, to name a few. She is a public speaker who spoke at the House of Commons, the Spectator Debate, Uniting for Peace and London’s Frontline Club. She has worked in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria and is an expert on the Middle East and Islamic culture. As a highly successful drama writer, she has been dubbed ‘one of the most influential women in Syria’ in 2011. She also produces documentary films for UK and international channels. She is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter: @drhalladiyab

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