A Co-Conspirator or a Casualty? A Second Look at Asma, wife of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad

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.

Asma al-Assad

Asma al-Assad: Victim or Villain?

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. 

14 Responses to “A Co-Conspirator or a Casualty? A Second Look at Asma, wife of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad”

  1. Stephen Karganovic says:

    I cannot believe that [a] a responsible and educated young woman would write so unprofessionally, and [b] that a serious publication such as the Denver Journal of International Law & Policy would post it. Obviously, there is no problem with the young lady being critical of the Assad regime. But what has the President’s poor wife done to merit Ms. Kamal’s vicious and speculative criticism ? Is it that Mrs. Assad has access to more perfumes and lingerie than Maha Kamal wishes she had? The really interesting point is that Ms. Kamal is identified at the bottom of her article as an intern at a UN-affiliated Tribunal at the Hague. I wonder which Tribunal that might be. But with staff exhibiting Ms Kamal’s high “professional” standards, woe to the defendants the Prosecution she is affiliated with is persecuting.

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    • Lebanese says:

      For God sake. This woman is of course not victim of domestic violence of any kind. She was brought up in the UK. She is a miss little goody 2 shoes. She knows who she married and how the Assad ruled Syria. So she wanted power and glory. She got it for a while like her husband and his father before him thought that their army would remain in Lebanon for ever. She is of Syrian descendent so she knows and I do not feel sorry for her
      P

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  2. Maha Kamal says:

    Mr. Karganovic,

    Could you clarify where in this article I criticized Bashar’s wife? This is an article highlighting the possibility of domestic violence within the world of diplomacy and international relations. If anything, it’s in her defense. I am also a little taken aback by the level of personal attack in your commentary, as you have failed to identify any sort of relevant critique of the piece.

    I would be curious if you could lay aside the ad hominem attacks and let me know what about this particularly upset you.

    Best,
    Maha

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  3. Steve Torres says:

    I get it. So, because he is an evil tyrant to his people, he is “most certainly” an evil tyrant to his wife.

    This type of groundless speculation is what good lawyer and justice is all about.

    keep up the good work!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Cassandra Kirsch says:

      Not once does the author assert that Asma al-Assad is a victim of domestic violence. Rather, she raises an important point, that while possibly groundless, is one worth inquiring.

      As to your remark on “groundless speculation,” sometimes speculation can be beneficial(especially when absent an assertion. For example, speculation often prompts investigation and research into matters that would otherwise be ignored.

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  4. Maha says:

    Interesting take, Mr. Torres. A bit status quo and without any of your own links to cites, but I appreciate dialogue. Considering this topic is relatively ignored, I find it important to bring it to the table. My speculation is at least in part supported by grounded evidence in domestic violence research. Would you rather table the discussion rather than consider the possibility?

    Lawyering is also about entertaining ideas that are not necessarily traditional. I’m simply offering a different perspective.

    Best,
    Maha

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  5. Steve Torres says:

    Wait, I was totally wrong. You DO have evidence: Bashar doesn’t wear his wedding ring.

    Truly a wife beater.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. Dan St. John says:

    As the Editor in Chief of The View From Above, I am compelled to address Mr. Karganovic’s point about our content. The View From Above was founded to foster discussion of myriad topics in international law and policy. To to that, we encourage a wide array of viewpoints, both popular and unpopular. Naturally, this can lead to controversy. Yet controversy, if back by reasoned discourse and tested against facts, often leads to greater understanding.

    Because of this mission, I do not feel compelled to censor or limit the personal opinions expressed by those staff editors who write for me. If their ideas are flawed, I hope that the marketplace of ideas will challenge and correct the assertions. And that, I hope, will leave all parties richer for the discussion.

    So, by all means, challenge each other’s ideas, dispute logic, and introduce facts. TVFA is a forum to freely discuss unpopular ideas. Let us remember that as we challenge each other’s ideas.

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  7. Jim Oberoi says:

    In response to Mr. St. John, how can you expect the marketplace of ideas to operate when you censor/remove comments? This is hypocrisy. I would like to see what the other commentors have to say.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. Dan St. John says:

    Mr. Oberoi, comments on The View From Above are neither censored nor removed.

    Upon examination, a plugin on this site merely hides the content of a comment that receives a certain number of “down thumbs.” However, readers may still access the substance by clicking the “Click here to see.” link next to the comment.

    Given that we’ve not had so many “down thumbs” on a comment before, I was unaware that this was an active feature. I am in the process of disabling it.

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  9. PWilliams says:

    I do not want to be as dismissive of Ms. Kamal’s sentiment as some of the other commenters. It is a noble issue for which she should be commended. However, this post should be more at home in a journal of family or criminal law. Domestic violence is a serious problem yes, but Assad is responsible for one of the worst genocides of late. He has massacred and mutilated young children in the thousands. It is speculation that he abuses his wife. It is fact that he is a mass murderer. On which of these would you focus? He may also be a child molester or a heroin smuggler, we do not know. This is speculation, but there are things much more horrific to criticise Assad for that are well beyond speculation, not to diminish domestic abuse. It is also to note that very bad leaders can be good domestically like Hitler and Cheney, and very good men can be bad to their wives like Clinton, Kennedy and FDR. The notion that Assad is guilty of genocide does not mean he is bad to his wife as well. He may be but it is still speculation. This post is suitable in a Psychology magazine but does not belong in an academic journal particularly in the Assad and Syria context.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. Maha says:

    Mr. Williams,

    I disagree with the suggestion that this topic should be limited to a criminal law journal (international criminal law is a component of international law and policy), or that it should be published in a psychology journal or magazine. This topic considers an aspect of first ladies and their roles in international law and policy. It is very under-researched, yes, but should that mean it should be categorized and filed elsewhere? Also consider whether the typical and target audience for your suggested alternatives would fully appreciate the political aspects of this topic. It is, if anything, a middle point with no real place of categorization because it is relatively under-studied.

    But it is interesting, however, that it has generated such interest on the website. And I appreciate that – despite the negativity.

    I would really like to discuss more the role of domestic violence in the politically significant field and how that impacts the women’s rights movements in second and third world countries – and also international humanitarian law. Do you see now how this topic can be elaborated upon in ways pertaining to international law and policy?

    How Asma’s treated and how she deals with it impacts women in ways we can’t even imagine. That was my point. If women are ignored at such high levels of authority, how can we possibly think that their rights would be protected (under international humanitarian law) at lower levels of political significance? Keep in mind, tThere is an established link between women’s rights and poverty.

    Something to think about.

    Best,
    Maha

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  11. Maha says:

    And Dan, thank you for your clarification.

    I’d like to note that Dan has been a fantastic addition to the Journal and I appreciate his take on discussion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  12. Georges St. Laurain says:

    I find Ms. Kamal’s conjecture intensely troubling. There is no basis whatsoever in the article, simply conjecture. This is not a quality wanted to be found in a young lawyer, or any lawyer for that matter.

    Bashar al-Assad is tyrant and his wife a kept woman in many ways. Yet, to extend his regime to the bedroom in such a way of make believe is troubling. Ms. Kamal writes in a way that is beguiling, yet upon analysis is hollow and devoid of any credible analysis. She ought to be exempt from any future publications on this website. She shows promise, yet a promise unfortunately undermined by some unknown and weary perversion of introspective thought. There is something more to this post. There is almost a need to find something to write about out of nothing and out of no inspiration. There is also a strange sense of personal lamentation and guilt to her tone.

    This is one of the strangest postings I’ve ever come across in an academic publication.

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