Critical Readability

My critical readings of the best and worst of online media

Will Asma al-Assad take a stand or stand by her man? – CNN.com

I read this article this morning before I went to work and I have been thinking about it all day. “Will Asma al-Assad stand by her man?”

Have you ever heard something so ridiculous?

My initial reaction was anger at the blatant sexism of the statement. My anger turned to outrage and repulsion after reading all of the comments posted hypothesizing that she has run away to France to go shopping, men informing us that they would “tap that ass” or conversely saying “who let the dogs out?” Then I read one comment saying she needs to be “punished” – yes, “punished” in quotation marks. In the context of an article that, like the media is apt to do, cannot discuss a woman without sexualizing her and critiquing her body, one commentator said she should be “punished.” In other words, raped.

My second reaction was confusion. The video clips of interviews with Asma al-Assad do suggest she cares deeply about human rights, so why is she not speaking out against her husband?  Why has she not defected? More generally, why do the wives of dictators not do anything to stop their husbands? How does she live with it? How does he live with it?

And thus began my internal dialogue: How could she speak out against her husband, a violent dictator? What would stop him from killing her and her children? Do the authors of this CNN article realize what happens to people who speak out against a man like Assad? Can you imagine what he would do to a wife that betrayed him if he can torture and kill thousands of men, women, and children? But others are speaking out and fighting against him, risking their lives and those of their children to do so, why can’t she? Has she contemplated leaving him? Has she succumbed to the power? Has she been kept in the dark? Is she an integral part of the regime? Does she believe what he is doing is right? Has she been manipulated and brainwashed?

The fact is, we don’t know and we likely won’t know for quite some time, if ever.

So why are we having this conversation in the first place?

I’m more interested in what prompted CNN to publish this story, and what it says about our culture that people are flocking to it. Do we want her to be a Louboutin and Channel wearing feminist freedom fighter so that we third-wave feminists can say “look what powerful and beautiful women can do!”

Or is it because she is a Western-educated woman and, as a result, we think she is more likely or able or inclined to enact change than her hijab-wearing sisters? Is this really just a small part of the larger white savior industrial complex, in which a British-born Syrian woman who fails to cover her head is seen as more “moral” and “enlightened” and thus must run in and save the people the U.S. media represents as the poor uneducated backward “savages” of the Middle East?

Or is this all part of larger narratives that blame the victim – rape victims or women with abusive husbands who don’t know how to leave? “Why doesn’t she just do something about it! Why doesn’t she leave? Why did she wear that skirt in the first place?”

Or is our understanding of femininity so limited that we simply cannot imagine a woman…not just a woman, a mother, who would knowingly allow such human rights abuses to continue? If that woman exists, why do we automatically assume her justification for doing so comes down to an ideological belief that she must be subservient to her husband and support his decisions?

Perhaps she is conflicted, perhaps she is scared, perhaps she is thrilled with the power, perhaps she is unaware, perhaps she is in love and blind, perhaps she is complicit, perhaps she is the mastermind, perhaps she has been threatened.

In the end, this article tells us nothing about Alma al-Assad and everything about our own cultural constructions of gender in the United States:  Will Asma al-Assad take a stand or stand by her man? – CNN.com.

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