She doesn’t have bruises. She adorns photos and televisions with a near-perfect, pearly-white smile and a haircut fit for a queen. She’s a first lady who’s chic and fashionable. She laughs and jokes with gusto—even stating once that she was the “real” dictator of the family, and not her husband.
But once a friendly face to the West, she’s mostly been in hiding since the start of the Syrian Uprising in March of 2011. Rumor has it that she’s now pregnant with Bashar al-Assad’s fourth child. Media around the world have speculated her silence, questioning why she, a native-born Briton with Syrian roots, continues to stand by a man of sheer tyranny. What’s more, she’s been heavily criticized for her online shopping sprees while EU and other international sanctions prevent her from visiting her favorite boutiques in person. Her brief, public cameo at a charity event supporting children of government soldiers killed in the conflict in March was a source of complete media uproar.
It’s easy to see Asma al-Assad as a self-involved, pretentious woman who cares little for her Syrian people. To some, she may even be even a co-conspirator in her husband’s criminal enterprise. Many first ladies are often seen this way when their husbands involve themselves in bloody uprisings–a great and recent example being Grace Mugabe, the wife of Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe. And perhaps there is nothing more to Asma than complicity in mass murder. But it is also possible that Asma, as well as other, lesser-known ladies like Ri Sol-ju (wife of Kim Jong-Un), are actually the world’s most transparent, and most tragic, victims of domestic violence.
Domestic violence—also called domestic abuse, battering, or intimate partner violence—occurs between people in an intimate relationship. Domestic violence can take many forms, including emotional, sexual and physical abuse and threats of abuse. And although men are sometimes abused by partners, domestic violence is most often directed toward women. For women of Asma’s caliber, tell-tale signs of domestic abuse between herself and Bashar al-Assad won’t be so easily detectable because of her husband’s sheer level of power. Furthermore, Asma represents a country where a quarter of married women reported experiencing some level of physical abuse by their husbands. She is not only politically isolated, but also culturally and perhaps religiously.
Asma may, in fact, be a purloined letter in the eyes of the media, government officials, and also the average person following the Syrian crisis.
It’s no secret that Bashar is no peacekeeper. He is quite the opposite: United Nations investigations into his involvement in the commissions of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide are set for referral to the International Criminal Court—so it is not so far-fetched to consider that such a man would also be less-than-kind to his own wife. In this aptly political affair, Asma faces a different level of abuse. Given the notoriety of her husband and the current state of the Syrian government, much of the mental and psychological abuse would stem from fear of being killed should she align herself anywhere but behind her husband. He may not physically abuse her, but less-obvious types of abuse may be occurring behind closed doors and away from the eyes and ears of the media or state governments.
He is most certainly doing one of more of the following, either intentionally or by virtue of his power: monitoring her movements, preventing or discouraging her from seeing friends of family, controlling how she spends money, and instilling a sense of fear or authority over her simply through his prominent and voluntary involvement in the brutal oppression, torture, and killing of Syrian civilians–including children. He may also be doing any or all of the following behind closed doors: unfairly accusing her of being unfaithful, getting angry with her in a way that is frightening to her, threatening to hurt her or the people she cares about, or threatening to harm himself or herself when he is upset. In fact, shortly before the start of the Uprising, Asma admitted to Vogue that her husband never wears his wedding ring.
Asma’s seemingly cheerful and supportive image is not incompatible with signs of a woman in an abusive relationship. She may believe that an abusive relationship with her husband is normal and continue to support him out of denial. Given her unique situation as a first lady, she also may believe she has no outlets or ways to escape without certain death or injury to herself or her children. Asma is also surrounded by a network of family that is heavily entrenched in the political and social underpinnings of Syrian affairs. It is highly likely, if impossible, that she would not receive any sort of physical or moral support from family if she decided to leave Bashar.
It’s also impossible to know if a woman involved in such an intricate political network will ever have a chance to speak candidly about her relationship with her husband.
For now, we may only have e-mail exchanges between Asma and Bashar to understand their relationship—exchanges filled with fleeting bouts of flirtation and electronic laughter. But before the media jumps to conclusions that a first lady like Asma is nothing but the supportive wife of a tyrant, it is important to take a step back and realize that such a woman can also be a victim of the most abusive of partners.
Maha Kamal is a third year law student at the University of Denver and a Staff Editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.